February 9

The Truth about Popularity and Status

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A talk with Mitch Prinstein on Liability

In this interview, Mitch Prinstein talks about likability, its correlation between popularity and happiness by sharing secrets to boosting your likability through things like understanding what makes people tick; developing empathy for others; making people feel good about themselves; using humor in moderation, and many more ways!

Mitch is board certified in clinical child and adolescent psychology and serves as the John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, and the Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He and his research have been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and much more.

He wrote the book ‘Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status Obsessed World.’ That Susan Cain, New York Times bestselling author of Quiet, quoted “will make you rethink every social interaction you’ve had since high school”

We’re often under the misconception that likability is status, but Mitch explains just how incorrect that statement is, in fact, he states that “about two-thirds of those who have the highest levels of status are actually very, very disliked.”

Throughout this blog, you’ll see how likability predicts our lifespan. The more likable we are the longer we live, controlling for every other possible factor that can be thought of. And exactly why Mitch states that the 15-year-old high schooler that's really unpopular should be caring about the most.

What social group were you a part of in high school and how did that influence the choices you’ve made throughout your life and career?

Well… I’ll give you a few hints: I was under 5 feet tall until 11th grade; I weighed about 80 pounds when I graduated high school, I had bifocal glasses, and wore parachute pants. Obviously, I was the coolest kid in school…No, I was the nerd, but I was kind of proud of it.

I was that kid that was constantly looking around school and wondering why these kids were popular and why I wasn’t. I often thought about what made the popular kids “popular” and whether this would matter after I graduated; I had no idea that there was an entire science about this.

What led you down this current trajectory?

I was always interested in psychology. It wasn’t just about talking to people and listening to their problems, I loved science and the idea that there was one that studies what we think, how we behave, what choices we make, what attitudes we have. For me, it felt like my peers were so incredibly impactful, and as I grew up it fascinated me that a lot of people did not spend time focusing on how our peer interactions are related to our adjustment overall.

So when I was applying to graduate school, I found all these researchers that were working on peer relationships, including popularity. As a predictor of outcomes, it came as a shock when I found out this is a bigger predictor of outcomes. It predicts our life success, our happiness, our risks for disease, mental and physical health; even more so than our IQ, family and economic background does.

And when I stumbled upon this area that is wildly important and not discussed a lot, I knew it was the right path for me.

Did your parents encourage any particular career path?

My parents are Jewish, so growing up I had two choices: a doctor or a lawyer. And that was communicated with me very clearly. So when I said I wanted to be a teacher or an actor, I was told “no.” But I found a loophole.

If I’m a college professor, then I’m a teacher, but they would call me a Doctor… Does that work, because I’ll have a Ph.D. And surprisingly, my parents agreed.

In college, did you transcend your “nerdiness” in college, or was it something that continued? How did your desire to understand affect your college experience?

I went to college at a time where there were no social media, it was a different world really. It was back in the early 1990s and the popularity dynamic still played out a little bit, because there was a greek system. The fraternity houses were clearly at different points in the status hierarchy, and I was in the middle of the road kind of fraternity.

So it changed a little bit for me while I was in college, but I continued to connect with my peers. It was around this time I was introduced to psychology, and realized there was a way to quantify this and study this? That we can actually measure popularity, and look at how it affects kids for decades later?

That fascinated me, by the time I was applying for high school, I was already hooked.

As an educator, why are the things you read about, and teach right now, not taught in school?

This kills me because we have the science to say we’re not going to be successful in the workplace unless we get along well with other people, we’re not going to be happy unless we know relationship skills. Everything we’re hoping for our kids really brings us back to psych-science and in particular understanding the dynamics of what makes people likable, which is not the same thing as being popular.

I say the same thing, “why are we not teaching a social curriculum in school? Why are we spending time teaching things based on a curriculum that was developed in the 1800s? Those are not the skills we need to survive in 2021 and beyond. We need to teach people relationships, as well as a variety of other fields too.”

It’s one of the reasons why we sent our kids to their current schools because they have an explicit social curriculum and we believe that is a critical skill for their future.

When you hear about today’s schools, the shootings, the kids who are depressed about school, and that suicides are at an all-time high; as somebody who studies this, doesn’t that really trouble you?

TW: Suicide

Very much so.

Before we entered the era we are in now, where status is a big deal (we see that in social media), we already were missing the boat on a huge crisis. Suicide is the number 2 leading causes of death, for people between the ages of 10 and 24. And if you ask young people why they attempted suicide, an overwhelming response is something related to their social lives that are giving them stress.

So why are we not sinking every possible resource into really understanding that, and teaching kids how to succeed?

It just doesn’t make any sense to me.

What do you think has to happen for that to change?

“The real people who have the power to change things are the parents” ~ Seth Godin

I think that’s partially true, the parents are incredibly powerful and really demanding on what happens in schools. But of course, with Common Core now (and this is not an area that I’m an expert in) there are too many schools that are trying to teach the test to really ensure federal funding because they’re able to demonstrate competence in areas that are based on antiquated values of what we should be teaching kids in school.

Personally, I think that psychological and emotional wellness, particularly succeeding with relationships needs to be taught. And we can’t just ask parents to do that job; it has to be brought into the schools as well.

How do you see the expectation of college being different than high school playing out in the lives of your own students?

You see them (students) scarred by this the day they walk into class. You see it affecting the way they go through college, and it’s really painful. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why I actually wrote my book. It’s so important that we stop the cycle of high school over and over again.

But unless we’re aware and talking about what happened to us in high school, while thinking about the ways psychology and science show us how it influences what we perceive, how we behave, how we emotionally respond to every social interaction in the decades that follow; we tend to repeat ourselves.

You see these college students come, they get their hopes up, and are really excited to reset their social lives, only to be in the same social position as before within the first semester. Because no one has taught them, no one has talked about how you can change things.

As seen in the movie Van Wilder, that would be the ideal way to go through college. But when you have these large public schools, they’re incredibly diverse yet ethnocentric. What are your thoughts on that?

It isn't easy, especially in large public schools. I went to school at Emory, for my undergrad, so I had the opportunity to meet tons of people that were, by definition, different from me because I’m part of a minority; I come from a predominantly Jewish, white caucasian, middle-class community. So the whole experience was a bit different for me.

When I was reading the research, the parts that I was shocked by were our non-verbal signals. In some ways, we are replicating our prior experiences, not just by what we volitionally choose to go and do, but it’s in the signals that we give almost subtly. We kind of create these self-fulfilling prophecies every time we walk into a room. So I was shocked at just how much our non-verbal signals override anything we were actually saying, doing or choosing, because they already are communicating and leading to contagion, mood and reactions.

That, to me, was a huge tragedy. That there are kids that leave high school, who need a mirror, a coach, and a little bit of time thinking about how they interact socially to really be able to change things around.

Let’s talk about your book, as you open the book you say two things about Popularity and Society’s fixation on status, what do you think is driving this obsession?

I think that social media is a symptom, not really the cause. I don’t think it's helping anything but I think there is a bigger issue that started. By that I mean popularity comes in 2 flavors, you've got likability – people you want to spend time with, they make you feel happy and good about yourself. And then you’ve got status (something we all remember from high school) – whose was the most powerful, influential, visible, and dominant.

In America, especially, status is a big currency for power, voice, and influence, we kind of have the market for that, probably more than any other country. We are interested in individuating from others and being better, higher, and having more rather than being community-focused.

Interestingly, in China, they don't even have a word for ‘popularity,’ at least none that matches our definition of the word. The more that we have been able to work independently, and the more we have not needed to rely on others combined with a change in society that has led to more showcasing of fame, celebrity, wealth, and money; that's when our society, for the first time, made an abrupt shift in the 1980s. We went from being a species that works together, to a species (at least in the States) that is interested in becoming more powerful than one another.

Do you think there is a way to get back from this? Because it seems like we’ve pushed self-interest to the point of diminishing returns like our government is the literal embodiment of it.

I think government peace absolutely exemplifies all that's bad with status right now, to an extreme, tragic way. I do have hope though. I believe that we were starting to reach the part on the pendulum swing that comes back. We're going to start seeing what happens when we let status run amuck; what happens when we let people who are only interested in themselves, their Twitter followers and the ability to make as much money as possible, assume an unreasonable amount of power; and how it destroys the fabric of community and contentment.

Maybe we’ve already gone too far. The pandemic has said, “okay, you all want to be individuals? I'm going to lock you in your houses.” Now you can’t have any social interaction in groups anymore. I hope these forces are making us crave community and connection, to recognize the value and importance of simple kindness. I wrote the book before knowing about a pandemic, and in some ways, it's more relevant now than I had ever anticipated; because it’s shown us that we have a choice to make: we can take that natural biological instinct towards caring about what others' opinion thinks about us or be mindful about how we spend our social energy, to do things that going to bring us together more.

I’ve always said, “you can’t judge someone just by the perception of how large their following is on social media.” What are your thoughts on that?

Likability is so important, and it’s not status, in fact, about two-thirds of those who have the highest levels of status are actually very, very disliked. Now if you had both that’s great, but (statistically) odds are status might come at some expense of likability or at least it’s hard to manage both at the same time. But likability is powerful. It doesn't matter how many Twitter followers you have. It doesn't matter your wealth or your power or your visibility. It matters when you connect with somebody and help them feel validated and included. To help them know that you’re on their side and to make the interaction enjoyable.

Likability predicts our lifespan. The more likable we are the longer we live, controlling for every other possible factor that can be thought of. The more likable we are the less likely we are to have diseases, or more likely (ironically) to have a partnership that we are happy with, for our children to become more likable. We’re going to go further in our jobs, we actually do end up making more money.

Likability is what we should be caring, teaching, and thinking about. And it's what that 15-year-old in high school, that’s really unpopular should be caring about the most. Because that’s going to be the factor that's going to carry them all through life in a really positive way. Status doesn’t matter.

At the beginning of your book, you said, “popularity dynamics affect our careers, our success in meeting our goals, our personal and professional relationships, and ultimately our happiness.” What about the high school quarterback that peaks in high school?

The key to the sentence depends on what type of popularity you’re talking about. Because likability is what predicts all those great things; status actually predicts increased risks for depression, anxiety, and substance use. High-status people are likely to get hired but are also more likely to get demoted or fired.

What’s interesting is that we really focus on status and believe it’s the only kind of popularity that matters, but the research suggests that the people that peak in high school, tend to get so positively rewarded at a time our brain craves them, that they often live the rest of their lives still working from the same playbook. Usually, after you graduate high school, that doesn't work, that’s why they peaked in high school. By being aggressive towards others, or focusing on status, research shows that the romantic partners of those prior high school quarterbacks say they’re dissatisfied with their relationships, and their friends say they don’t have close friendships.

Let’s talk about the Sociometric groups – the accepted, controversial, neglected, and rejected. Can you expand on what those are and how they play a role?

If we just look at likability, forgetting status, these are the different groupings of how the researchers have categorized people that are highly likable or not. And what’s really interesting about this is, whatever group you’re in if you walk to a school across town, or go to a new meeting or workplace as an adult, the research says that within 3 hours you end up in the same group you were in prior. Therefore, it’s really stable, and we can change it, but because we never talk about it, people usually repeat the same habits and go back to the way they were.

The Accepted is super likable. The Rejected are not. The Neglected are the ones that don't get nominated by their peers as either being liked most or liked least, and usually get concerned about these folks but they’re actually okay; if they’re neglected because they are socially anxious, that, of course, is a concern, but a lot of people are neglected because they don't feel the need to get a lot of attention and that’s perfectly fine. The last group, other than the average folks (about two-thirds of us) is a group called Controversial, they are simultaneously loved and hated within their peer group. These kids are like the ‘class clowns’, there are not too many of them but everyone can tell you who they are; they’re actually the ones that tend to grow up fixated on status.

Something I’ve always wondered… Does the hottest girl in school know she's the hottest and is that the way she sees herself?

One of the strongest predictors of status is physical attractiveness, and because there’s so much focus on that association people usually know. But what’s really interesting is the ‘high school reunion’ effect; when everyone comes back 10-15 years later and recognizes, “wait a minute, you mean the entire time, you all thought of it differently than I did?”

That’s a real effect, there are a couple of different ways that people have said that in research. So there are really self-critical, somewhat depressive, hot people, that actually never recognize that they had that level of status.

Interestingly, on the flip side, you get these kids that are really low in status, sometimes even aggressively so, and they didn’t even know they were that low. In fact, they think that they were one of the most popular kids in school. So you see it in both ways.

What impact does moving around a lot or traveling have on popularity or likability?

People that move around a lot are either more likely to be accepted or neglected and the reason why is because it offers the practice of an opportunity to start over. A lot of times those people try to adopt a new identity or try to experiment with how they act and behave; usually, they find that it just takes a very little change to make a dramatic difference in how people interact with one another, and it tends to work out.

Other times, people end up in the neglected group, just talking about ability levels here. Honestly, since they're moving from place to place consistently they don’t want to invest in the next place. They instead decide to make a few friends and then they’ll be gone in a couple of years, therefore they’re only really interested in small close connections. Research does say that people who are that versatile and nimble, tend to do well as adults because they had the practice of reintroducing and starting reputation anew.

Could you go over the 7 Stages of Status mentioned in your book, and how we can not fall victim to them?

In a nutshell, when people get a certain level of status there is something that is genuinely addictive about it. What I mean by that is there is a part of our brain that is very sensitive to our ability to get power and dominance. If you think back to thousands of years ago, our species had to be on a dominance hierarchy to have food and mating, etc. This part of the brain is supercharged with dopamine, and oxytocin receptors to make us really crave status. It sits adjacent to the other areas of our brain that make us outside of conscious awareness, so we don’t think about it, but it makes us crave more of it.

Therefore these regions are implicated in addiction, and we tend to get a taste of some status, so it’s perfectly normal for someone to have a reaction to that and maybe even pursue more opportunities to get more status. It never feels like enough.

What seems to happen commonly, with people who get high status, is that over time they start to recognize their interaction plays a large part in feeding that status. So they’re having more and more interactions with people that make them feel good, but it’s really based on feeding that addiction. That sense of I wants people smiling at me, nodding and agreeing along, and wanting to be like me. They soon start to develop a sense of mistrust, that people only like them for their reputation – maybe they like me for my status rather than just me. And soon start to get scared to show their real self, in fear of losing that status.

So people with high status will often become more sheltered to the point where they don't feel like the status is based on who they really are and they feel quite lonely. No one really knows who they really are, and if someone tried to get to know them, they might trust its genuine motive. Ironically, what these high-status people want more than anything, its likability. They want people to genuinely connect with them, and enjoy spending time with them for who they really are.

It’s all an ironic twist, we’re all wanting status, they’re wanting likability. People are attracted to status, in part because they want status themself, and just being adjacent to status affects the same addictive part of the brain. There’s a remarkable force that is making us very socially aware, that’s guided by our social experience; so it’s all the more reason why we have to know what's going on and work around it or with it before it controls us.

You say the basis of our high school popularity is a reference foundation of how we act in the future, along with two concepts – rejection sensitivity bias and hostile attribution bias; can you elaborate more on that?

During all our social interaction we tend to think our brain is spending a lot of time processing what's happening in the here and now. That it is taking in every stimulus, to respond and act. Surprisingly that’s not all that's happening, the brain actually taps into old autobiographical memories. In other words, we’re holding up the present against a filter created by our past, therefore we’re not seeing the world as it is but, through our own personal lenses.

Now, these processes are developed when your brain starts becoming a mature brain, and that’s during high school. So while you’re walking around the halls feeling popular or not, you’re developing your own filters for the world, and out of all the different types, rejection sensitivity bias and hostile attribution bias, are two particularly common.

Hostile attribution bias is when something happens that most people don't perceive as particularly aggressive, hostile, or mean; but some people see them through those “mean” filters, and see most accidental interactions like bumping into someone as hostile or intimidating. Now there may be situations where that may be the case, but with the bias, the case is against a vast majority that sees its innocence. What’s really interesting is, it doesn't only affect the way we think but in psychology, we have evidence to say that interpretation of a situation can affect your response and behavior. This is how we recreate our high school over and over again.

So if someone were to bump into you now, you are filtering that through the times you were pushed up against the locker in 9th grade, and you respond as someone was really aggressive. Once that happens, the person who bumped into you ends up really rejecting you since you responded so dramatically.

Rejection sensitivity bias is not about hostility, but more the expectation that you will be rejected. Let's say, for example, you send a text, and you don't get an immediate response; an hour passes by and you start to believe they are blowing you off; you reread the message, show it to other people, and slowly start to believe they’ve rejected you. Now in some scenarios, this may be true, but a pattern reflects the way you look at the world through a depressed filter.

How do we override this?

We only talked about 2 filters, but I want to make it clear that we all have filters. In fact, people that were popular in high school have a filter of overestimated positivity and success at times when they should recognize they’ve hurt some feelings. We all have a filter, it might have served us well at some point because that kid that was rejected and pushed up against the locker, really benefits from that filter because the next time someone looks like they’re about to push him, he knows to watch out and get out of the way. These filters are adaptive most of the time.

That being said, some can become nonadaptive, because we use them too much. So the first step to override it is to figure out what is your filter; when you’re about to go for a social event what are the first, immediate thoughts that you have? Once you recognize them you have to manually override, what that means is you have to see past the filter. Now that can be done in a variety of ways:

  1. Livestream reactions with the person you’re with – Ask about the signals you’re focusing on
  2. Find counter-evidence – we are missing things that are happening right in front of us, find data about the opposite signals you’re receiving.
  3. Try new behaviors – try something new, change your patterns.

These small steps are life-changing. People literally can recognize the filter and move from it to find their own niche, to feel better about the situation. However, we don’t talk about this stuff, so people tend to go to every social event and relationship with the same mindset and filters, doomed to repeat history again.

You said, “For most of us social media is used to feel a small boost every now and then, that is not so bad if we leverage our use of social media in ways that make us likable, at least as often as we seek recognition.” Could you guide us through this?

We’re playing with fire when we go online because those oxytocin and dopamine receptors are lighting up a lot when we are on social media. If you’ve seen ‘The Social Dilemma’ you’ll know that this is not an accident; when you long on the first thing you see is how many notifications your post has got. Those are not hard to find on the apps, it’s created to have that addictive quality and people (especially teens) are physically having a problem putting it away.

I think when we talk about anything addictive we talk about moderation, and that same thing applies to social media. If you’re going to go online, when you know it’s activating circuits that are addictive, you have to be careful.

Have mindful social media use, so just before you pick up that phone to look at your notifications think – Why am I going on? What is my goal? – then start to develop new habits. If you want to just see how many people like your post that’s alright, but put a timer on it. Whatever the reason for going online is, stay faithful to that goal; when all the alerts pop up to make you stay longer, resist them. Recognize that you’re being manipulated, don't go down that rabbit hole.

Whereas with things like dating apps, they’re actually forcing you to have one on one conversations, to meet people in person. Unlike, other social apps that force you to broaden your spectrum, dating apps narrow it down.

Let's talk about parenting, you said, “status-seeking is only advisable if you want that child to ultimately be at greater risk for over-dependence on others, risky behavior, relationship problems, and unhappiness.”

When the book came out, I was suddenly all over the country talking about it with schools, parents, and corporations. Of course, some communities said they never wanted their kids to have status, and they push them towards that but instead push them towards grades and responsible community engagement. But some groups, you wouldn’t believe how aggressively they are pushing their children to be the Prom Queen, or to get more followers. This kind of parenting is happening on a way larger scale than I expected because some people are confused between likability and status, they want their kids to be the extreme on everything else, and think why not push to make them on this extreme as well.

But as the quote indicates, that's a horrible idea; that’s pushing your kid into a risk factor. We would never hand our kids the tools needed for risk or cancer, or depression; but when we push them to have status or even subtly reward them for popularity, we are communicating that we (as parents) value status, and pushing our children to care about it more than we should.

My wife does a better job than I do, but I really appreciate that almost every single day the conversation (with our children who are 8 and 10 years old)) always comes around to – What did you do to make other people feel included today? What are ways you made other kids feel like their opinions are important?

I believe that’s fantastic and what we should be communicating – You will please your parents, by demonstrating ways in which you helped others feel connected, included, and valued. We are trying to fight against all the forces that tell children their self worth is measured in follower counts.

As somebody with your background, are you immune to all the bullsh*t that other parents have to deal with, just because you have this knowledge?

No, it’s just the opposite. I think to some extent, maybe; we can weed out what's advice worth listening to and not, and when to get worried or not.

But as a Clinical Child Psychologist, during my years of working with patients, I’ve seen the most difficult circumstances, I’ve seen kids suffering the most. So I tend to get over-concerned whenever I see anything that looks like it might be heading my kids down the wrong path. Because I know what this can lead to 20 years from now, and imagine them in the worst of distress.

Sometimes I wish I had never seen that because now I know what I’m scared of most. So it’s both a blessing and a curse.

I wonder, do you see this playing out in older generations, where parents are their own status is basically something they are trying to elevate through their children? And how do we deal with that?

I think the older generation now, cares about status a little bit less than we do now but it was there for sure. I proposed to my wife right after the Jewish High Holidays, and when I told my mom, “If you did it a couple of weeks earlier, she could have shown the ring to everyone at temple during the holidays.” And I thought about why that matters and why do people say that.

It really speaks to her, what’s important is that once you're engaged it’s a marker of status, and you need to show the ring to everybody in your community. It kind of dawned on me, that she's interested in status too and getting that moment of being the center of attention. It’s natural human behavior, some people exhibit interesting symptoms where they feel particularly disconnected from the social world. But for the mass majority of us, we are biologically and evolutionarily programmed to care about what other people think of us, and we’re going to seek status once in a while.

What I hope that people can recognize is that it can go out of check, especially today. Unless we know what's happening and take control of it. What I’m hoping people get from this is that – you don't have to be a status seeker and you can make another choice. You can use that instinct; use it for relationships rather than to puff yourself up and seem better than everyone else.

What do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable?

I think somebody who is living life according to their one values; somebody who is consistent on what they care about and how they spend their time, energy, and focus is unmistakable.

I think that if we don't get swept up in so many of the things that are trying to capture our attention, to get us excited and motivated towards things that we actually don’t care about; but we instead get up with a pretty clear goal of what's important to us we can look back at the end of the day and say, “that's where I dedicated my energy.”

I think that will help us live lives that we can be proud of like that day was worth living. I think that is what will make us feel unmistakable.

Connect with Mitch:

Website – mitchprinstein.com


Human Behavior

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