Ep. 81 Popular: Likeability, Status and Success

Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy welcomed Mitch Prinstein 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. Mitch examines how our popularity affects our success, our relationships, and our happiness and why we don’t always want to be the most popular. He is the author of the book Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Cares Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships.

Judith Kelley is the Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy.   The conversation has been edited for readability and clarity.

Conversation Highlights

What was it that interested you in this topic, at such a young age?

It’s hard to say. I do remember, even at the age of around five or six, noticing that there were some kids who seemed to have a special power. A charisma, a way of getting others’ attention, and having the ability to influence others, far more than their peers. And it just fascinated me, where that came from, and why some kids were afforded such a special position in a status hierarchy.

So what is popularity?

Well, popularity is actually two very different things. There’s one form of popularity that we can notice when kids are around age five, or six, or seven, and that’s referred to as likeability. Likeability is a very good thing. We want to be likable, but that’s not the kind of popularity most people think about when they think about the word popular. Most people thing of high school, and mean girls and boys, and the kind of cool that comes with a lot of visibility, power, influence, dominance-  that’s a bad thing.

In your book, you write about research that linked success in the military, with popularity. Can you tell me about that?

It was a study that was done back in the ’60s or early ’70s, I believe, and it was done to try and understand which people would be dishonorably discharged, and who would remain in service, and the way that the research was done was with a follow back design. They were able to look at old school records and data that had been collected to try and get an idea of what, in early childhood, predicts these outcomes a decade or two later.  They controlled for IQ, they controlled for behavior problems, SES, socioeconomic status, and none of those factors played as big a role as how much the kids were well liked. The kids who were the most well liked were the ones most likely to continue to serve honorably. But being disliked, and having a reputation of being rejected by peers, predicted psychopathology and dishonorable discharge decades later.

What is the difference between status and popularity?

Well, there’s something that happens at the transition to adolescence. Actually, neuroscientists have told us that it happens in many mammalian species, where we see this area of the brain become … it matures a bit earlier than the other areas, and it’s the part that makes us crave attention and social rewards. That part of the brain leads to this desire to be visible, and powerful, and dominant, and get access to resources.

Well, that’s what happens in adolescence, and that’s what status is really about. We see status as being positively associated with aggression. The more aggressive you are, the higher your status is over time.

So that’s not the same as likeability.

It’s, in fact, quite the opposite in many ways. Most people who are high in status are not only not likable, but are often very much hated by their peers.

Can achieving status be harmful? 

It can. So some researchers have been looking at what happens to those really cool kids in high school, who had high status, but also looks at those who are high in status as adults; CEOs, and presidents, perhaps. And the results are clear. The higher the status, the greater the risk for depression, anxiety, addictions, relationship problems, and performing more poorly at work. It seems to be because this craving for status leads to a way of interacting with others merely as pawns to increase one’s own status.

There’s this fixation on trying to become more dominant, more visible and powerful, and of course, that’s not a good thing.

Can popularity be inherited?

There is some research on likeability, specifically, as being something that might have a variety of heritable components. Likeability, it seems to be. I should say that status is very strongly associated with physical attractiveness in adolescence, and of course, that’s something that is inherited. Likeability is related to physical attractiveness, as well, but it’s also related to good social problem solving skills, IQ. It’s a little bit related to extraversion, and generally, temperament for being willing to engage with new stimuli. Kind of the opposite of behavioral inhibition.

Those things, we all know, have heritable components.

How does popularity affect kids in the long run?  If we start with kids who are likable, how does that affect their lives?

You know, it’s really fascinating to look at the research. Research, actually, that started right here at Duke University, has been really looking at decades after grade school. What happens to these very likable, and these very rejected, kids? The results are pretty impressive, especially for something we barely talk about in policy circles.

Likable kids, they are healthier, they get better grades, they’re more likely to stay in school, they have a lower risk of psychopathology. They’re even likely to live longer. They’re less likely to suffer from disease, and they have a longer life expectancy. Likeability is an incredibly powerful piece of the puzzle when we’re trying to understand longterm outcomes. We just don’t talk about it very much.

Likable people are able to form good relationships, and the support that those relationships will afford. But there’s another piece, too, and it’s the idea that developmental psychologists call a transactional model, and the idea that likable people create a world in which they’re constantly given new opportunities. Opportunities to learn, to excel in their environment, and with each of those opportunities, they learn new skills or competencies that make them more likable.

It creates this cycle. It’s remarkably powerful in making likable people not simply favorited, but actually, more skilled than their less likable counterparts, because they have had more opportunities to learn and grow. And if you think about that in the converse, so those who are rejected, not only are they not learning extra skills, but they are being deprived of opportunities to learn skills that most other kids would learn through the natural course of development.

With each missed opportunity to learn, they become less competent and less likable.

So being likable is a good thing in the long run. What about having high status? Does that lead to success in life, or how do those kids tend to do in life?

Well, this is a big debate, because it depends on how you define success. It is true that high status might be something that’s related to quicker promotion, let’s say. But if you look at the bigger picture, these folks who get promoted quickly also get demoted soon after, because they don’t necessarily have people who follow them out of loyalty and allegiance. It seems that those who have high status learn that the world is a place where we act aggressively towards others as a way of making ourselves seem higher.

We put others down to make our own positions ascend. They’re aggressive, they’re focused on themselves. They’re focused on standing out from others, rather than forming connections and valuing others. Anyone who’s been in a relationship, any kind of relationship, knows that those are generally not good ways to live one’s life.

You say Donald Trump is a perfect example of somebody that illustrates a difference between likeability and status, but some people might disagree. Some people might like him, very much. So is that your political position on that, or is that a true scientific example, here? 

I may be influenced by politics, but I will say, and I think people on both sides of the aisle would agree, that we’ve never seen somebody so fixated on their position in the hierarchy. You know, to be in one of the highest status positions on our planet, but still be caring about the size of one’s inaugural crowds, or the ratings of the TV show that he vacated to assume his new role. This is an interesting display of status, and desiring more status. The parallels between the tweets that belittle, or use names, to mock adversaries has a very strong parallel with the way that bullies in grade school will increase their own positions of status.

So, in many ways, politics aside, I think his behavior is a very good example. But there are other examples, too, and many in history, and in current times, as well, of people who are very high in status, but not liked very much at all.

 Can you speak a little bit about gender, and likeability, and status, and how it affects one’s life? 

Sure. There’s some research that’s looked at the relationship between likability and status, and they’ve looked at how that changes for boys and for girls as they progress from middle school to high school. Well, the results are interesting, because as boys go from middle school to high school, there’s a distinction between likability and status that grows quite strong, but you can still find quite a lot of boys who are regarded as being highly liked, well liked, and also high in status. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for girls.

As girls go from middle school to high school, you have those who are high in status, and by and large, they are hated by many of their, particularly female, peers. And it’s a very, very unfortunate and damaging message, because it sets up girls in those young ages to believe that you can have status, or you can be likable, but perhaps you can’t have both. And, of course, that’s not true. You can, but our society has unfairly sent the message to girls and young women that those two things come separately.

You say that these experiences can alter our DNA itself. 

It’s specifically the expression of our DNA, but there is a epigenetic component here, and what we do see is that the experience of social rejection, in less than 40 minutes, changes the way in which our genes are expressed. And there is a way in which that gene expression … it’s not likely to be passed on, of course, but it is something that can lead to what researchers call molecular regeneration. Because the way in which our bodies prime us to expect and protect against rejection experiences has a deep psychological affect in the way that we perceive the world around us.

We start to see rejection, even in places where it might not be. And that, of course, triggers a more aggressive proinflamation or DNA expression response, again, to the point where chronic rejection can lead people to have a more system-wide quick response, and assumption of rejection, in a way that makes people, sadly, repeat their high school years for decades and decades to come, without realizing that they’re doing it.

What kind of implications might this have for policymakers who are designing policies?  How should we think about this in practical terms when it comes to policy?

I think it would be fascinating to think about ways that we can teach likability, that we can think about a social curriculum within our public education models. I think it’s important that we think about media literacy to today’s youth, as well, and in particular social media literacy, because unlike a decade or two ago, we now live in a world where status seeking has become the norm, and kids know no other reality than one in which they can mouse click their way to status.

I think, in the educational system in particular, we need to be thinking about how we raise this generation of youth. The first generation to be confused between likability and status in a way that none of us had to deal with. When we were in high school, we grew out of it, and entered a world where we were supposed to form community and connection. That’s not what’s happening to today’s generation, and I think there are important ways that we can think about that within the educational domain in particular.