Status Check: What Does It Mean to Be Popular?

“What does it mean to be popular?” In 2015 The Atlantic posed that question to a group of middle schoolers in its “Ask a Tween” video series.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re liked by a lot of people, it just means that everyone knows who you are,” suggests one boy.

Another girl reflects, “In this day and age, you have a lot of friends, you have Jordans, or the popular kind of shoes.”

When talking about social media, a boy explains, “I would say the average amount of followers you get from school is about like 200, but then you get a lot that are family, and friends from like camp or something, so popularity at school is like different than overall or on Instagram.”

Being well-known but not necessarily well-liked, sporting the latest fashion, and building an online persona. These tweens picked up on some of the key factors of popularity—or at least one version of it.

In his recent book, Popular: The Power of Likeability in a Status-Obsessed World, psychology professor Mitch Prinstein unpacks the science behind popularity. I recently spoke to Prinstein about what it means to be popular, the difference between likability and status, and how popularity can be channeled for good.

Dave Nussbaum: Let’s start simply. One of your basic claims is that there are two types of popularity. Can you tell me about each of those and how they differ?

Mitch Prinstein: Most people, when they think of popularity, think of the cheerleaders and the football players in high school. They might think of the movie “Mean Girls” and folks who are aggressive but nevertheless influential and powerful. That is one of the kinds of popularity that describes what we would call status. But it is not the only kind of popularity.

In fact, if you ask kids who are younger than pre-adolescence to talk about what popularity is, they’ll tell you about the kids they like the most. And likability can be differentiated from status popularity starting around adolescence and for the rest of our lives. We learn about popularity as we are growing up, and we have this choice to make about which type of popularity we want to seek for the rest of our lives.

DN: The two forms of popularity, status and likeability, seem to be laid out in opposition to each other. You choose one or you choose the other. Do they have to be in conflict?

MP: You can have both. In fact, about 30 percent of those who are high-in-status are also really, really likeable. In some ways that might be the best of all worlds; to try and be one of those people who can successfully master both forms. But the reason why is that it’s so hard and that percentage is so low is that one of the key ways to get status is to be aggressive. And that is the number one predictor of being disliked. Many people get their status by stepping on others and making themselves seem more powerful or important or worthy of attention than others. In doing so, they actually make themselves quite dislikable.

DN: Do people earn because they’re aggressive in this way? Or is aggression just the way they get the other things that give status?

MP: I don’t think that people want to reward aggressive behavior. But much like we would see in other animal species, the more that you make yourself seem like you are better than, more worthy than, stronger and more powerful than others, people do tend to see you that way. I don’t think they are saying we like that that person is aggressive and we wish to give them more status. But effectively seeming more powerful than others, displaying your dominance, actually does have the effect of seeming more dominant.

DN: Not only humans, but other primate species do this sort of thing too. Why is it that we have such a strong need for popularity, in the status sense of the word?

MP: It used to be the case in our species, like in many other animal species, that your place in the status hierarchy ensured your survival. If you were at the top of the hierarchy, you were the first to get food, you were the first to get mating partners, and you were the one that others would protect. It’s thousands of years of evolution that have made it so that our bodies respond quite dramatically at the sign that we might not have that status because it was a survival mechanism. If you were ostracized or if you were pretty low on that hierarchy then it would mean the end of your genepool or an imminent threat of harm. It was a really important part of who we were. It’s not relevant to the society most humans live in today, but it’s hard to erase those tens of thousands of years of evolution.

DN: Fast forward to our modern era. Status obviously helps you accomplish your goals. Are there ways to pursue status pragmatically without getting caught up in some of the more negative aspects of it?

MP: The big difference is the difference between having status versus being a status seeker. People who are status-seeking tend to focus too much on their own status and really do only things that will maintain or augment their position. I think that’s the key: the difference of having status and being able to act from that position in a way that is useful, efficacious, and benevolent versus constantly being a status-seeker and being too self-focused and too concerned with maintaining one’s own position. That’s the difference between people who are able to use the pragmatic aspects of status and thrive versus those who tend to fail.

People who are status-seeking tend to focus too much on their own status and really do only things that will maintain or augment their position.

DN: Recently behavioral interventions in the “nudge” vein often try to get people to do a behavior because it’s popular, because other people are doing it. For example, Robert Cialdini famously researched reusing towels at a hotel. Telling a guest that most other guests choose to reuse their towels makes them more likely to do it themselves. What does your work on popularity tell us about better or worse ways to signal, “this is a good thing to do because other people are doing it”?

MP: There is an allure about the majority. If you believe that many other people are doing something, it makes you think that it’s of higher value and it makes you more likely to do it. It’s key that that group that you are referring people to is a reference group that people want to strive to be more like. And it has to seem like what they are doing is of value.

If a hotel advertises that everyone is doing this because they are a good person and they are saving the earth, you say, “Well I want to be a good person; I want to feel like I am saving the earth.” It makes you more likely to do it. If they hung the same sign and said, “Most people put their towels up because it saves them a nickel on their room rate,” then people would say, “Ugh! Well I don’t want to seem cheap, so I don’t care.” It’s got to be people that you look up to and to be to help you align with a value that you are care about.

DN: How does context guide popularity or status seeking in different ways? Are there contexts that bring out healthier versus more corrosive types of popularity?

MP: Whatever is the cultural value and seems to be rewarded in a very macro way, that seems to be something that people will use as a marker for status. For instance, one of the things that gets you status is physical attractiveness. It’s very strongly correlated with status. A climate that continues to emphasize attractiveness is only going to make it even more important for gaining popularity.

DN: Is there anything contextual that steer people towards the type of popularity that you call likeability—where status seeking is frowned upon and there is a low threshold for behaviors aimed at climbing the social hierarchy?

MP: The question is, in what way do you shine the spotlight on somebody? Is it shining on them when they did something that promoted likeability and community? Or is it on something that made them stand out to seem different and better than everyone else? Most of our society is built on making people stand out as unique, so there are ways someone might be rewarded as having created a good environment, but more often promotions and raises are about having grabbed the headlines. Ways that people are rewarded as a group rather than rewarded individually are some of the important directions for helping to value community rather than valuing one person’s singular achievement. Those are the kind of things that can move us more towards how to function well as a group. Within the group, we’re already programmed to have dynamics to try to make that group harmonious. We would be able to stay focused on that kind of popularity if there [weren’t constant] messages saying that ultimately one person would be singled out more than others.

DN: So we are kind of up against it in this culture sometimes.

MP: I think we are. You look back a hundred year ago—we were different about that. We didn’t have reality TV. We didn’t have social media. The only way people could succeed was if the entire community worked together to succeed. Our whole Western society used to value likeability a lot more than it does now. You can never leave your house and pretty much work, live, and do everything without even having to go outside or work with others collaboratively. Now that that is the world that we all live in, it makes it harder for people to care about likeability.

This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.

Disclosure: Dave Nussbaum worked as Mitch Prinstein’s research assistant 20 years ago, when he was an undergrad at Yale University.