How your popularity at school impacts your life today, according to a psychologist

Why are some people naturally popular and others not?

Throughout life one sees people who seem to effortlessly become popular wherever they go and then there are people who fall on the outskirts, always looking in.

From early childhood, we all know exactly where we fall and this knowledge affects us throughout our lives, says social psychologist Mitch Prinstein in his new book Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World.

This book is for anyone who wants to understand why they weren’t cool as a kid and why they are still not cool today.

In our digital society where youngsters obsessively update their status on social media platforms, the responses of peers are equivalent to a popularity contest that some always win and others are perpetual losers at. This book, with its insightful take on the difference between popularity and likability couldn’t have come at a better time.

“Most of us landed somewhere in the middle, and on some playground somewhere in our past, our relationship with popularity was born. Either we knew we were admired and began to worry about maintaining our special influence over others, or we recognized that others were more popular than us and began to yearn for more attention and positive regard from our peers,” says Prinstein.

Why being popular at school impacts your life today

Were you popular at school? At varsity? Should it matter to you now?

Are you popular at work, in your present social circle? Should it matter to you?

The answer is yes: it did matter then, and it matters now. It may surprise you to learn just how much we should still care about popularity, says Prinstein.

Our popularity affects us throughout our lives, often in ways we don’t realize. No matter where you find yourself today, work wise, or relationship wise, we instinctively know that some part of who we are today — our self-esteem, our insecurities, and career successes or failures, and perhaps even our happiness — is still linked to how popular we were back then.

Whether we like to admit it or not, most of us never overcame our desire to become more popular, observes Prinstein.


The paradox of popularity

Popularity as a topic has been extensively researched by social scientists.

Researchers have found that popularity is something of a paradox: it is fundamental to human nature to desire to be more popular, but that doesn’t mean that being popular is always good for us.

In the 1950s through 1970s a large number of veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam needed psychological treatment, so the US government created the National Institute of Mental Health and rigorous psychological science was began.

Some of the research looked at why some soldiers served honorably while others were dishonorably discharged. Scrutinizing subjects’ combat experience, their IQs, school achievement, socioeconomic status, parent-child relationship, psychological symptoms, and history with aggression yielded a completely unexpected result: one of the strongest predictors of soldiers’ functioning in the military was how popular they were in primary school.

Soon a slew of studies confirmed the power of popularity.

More than childhood intellect, family background, prior psychological symptoms, and maternal relationships, popularity best predicts how happy we grow up to be.

Do you enjoy or dread leaving for work each morning? Are you in relationships that are fulfilling or conflicted? Do you regard parenting as a burden or a pleasure? Do you feel that you are a valued member of society? The answers to these questions can all be traced back to the playgrounds of our youth, says Prinstein.

Those of us who have memories of being popular as children are more likely to experience happy marriages and success in our careers. People who recall not being popular are likely to experience the opposite, but even worse – they are at much greater risk for substance abuse, obesity, anxiety, depression, problems at work, criminal behavior, injury, illness, and even suicide.

The two types of popularity: status and likability

Really. Think a minute, is this true for you?

Is popularity a sure road to success and happiness in later life? No, we all know that’s not true. We have all seen those jocks and cheerleaders who faded later in life.

Why is that so?

Isn’t it true that some of the most popular people back at school were also some of the most hated?

Prinstein says there is no contradiction in this, it has to do with two different kinds of popularity.

“The first type of popularity is a reflection of status — whether someone is well known, widely emulated, and is able to bend others to his or her will. In adolescence, we called these kids cool,” says Prinstein.

The other type of popularity is likeability. This is the more enduring and meaningful kind. It has to do with people we feel close to and trust, and make us happy when we spend time with them.

The bottom line: learn to distinguish between these two very different types of popularity, don’t spend your life running after status; rather work on your likability.

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