Being Popular: Why it Consumes Teens and Continues to Affect Adults

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When one thinks of the high school experience, images of cliques and social hierarchy often come to mind. For many teens, being popular is the goal. But what does it really mean to be popular? And why is it so important to teens? Popularity is often seen as a measure of success and worth, which can have damaging effects on both teenagers and adults.

Popularity is a measure of how widely liked or respected someone is. While being popular may have its perks, it can also be a source of stress and anxiety for teens who feel pressure to conform to what their peers consider cool or trendy. The pursuit of popularity can be harmful to both teens and adults if it leads to comparison, envy, and resentment. It’s important to remember that everyone has their own unique path to follow and that there’s no one right way to live life.

Being Popular: Why it Consumes Teens and Continues to Affect Adults

author: Deborah Farmer Kris
Popularity is a loaded word. For many adults, it evokes powerful memories of jockeying for position in high school cafeterias and hallways.

These memories are salient for a reason, said Mitch Prinstein, a professor of psychology and author of “Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World.” The urge to be popular among our peers reaches its zenith in adolescence, “at just the same time we are developing a stable personality,” said Prinstein. “So the messages you get at age 14 about who you are and how the world works will affect how you behave when you are 40.”

But popularity has paradoxes. Sometimes the most popular students are also widely disliked by their peers — even when those same peers seek to emulate them.  And although we are hardwired to seek popularity, it isn’t always healthy for us, said Prinstein. In fact, one form of popularity puts teens at risk for long-term consequences.

To make sense of these biological impulses and their social implications, Prinstein’s research focuses on two distinct types of popularity: likability and status.

The type of popularity that brings back memories of the middle school pecking order is related to status. Status, said Prinstein, “is not a measure of how well a person is liked.” Rather, it reflects a person’s visibility, dominance and influence on the group.

But there is another type of popularity that reflects a person’s likability. This is the first form of popularity that kids experience. “At the age of 3, you can go in and ask kids who they like most and least. The popular kids are the ones everyone likes the most,” said Prinstein. Again and again, children are drawn to peers who treat others with respect, who know how to share and cooperate, and who make other members of the group feel good about themselves.

But as children enter middle school, the equation changes. “In adolescence, something happens in our brains –  the neurochemical cocktail of oxytocin and dopamine,” said Prinstein. Oxytocin (sometimes called the “love hormone”) promotes a need to connect and bond with others; dopamine activates the brain’s pleasure center and is commonly associated with the high people feel from drugs. As a result, said Prinstein, teens “become almost addicted to any type of attention from peers.”

Unfortunately, one of the fastest ways to get attention from peers is to exercise “dominance, aggression, and power, and that is where the second form of popularity — status — is formed.” 

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