In 2001, when Yale psychology professor Mitch Prinstein introduced a new class on the meaning and impact of popularity, one tenth of the undergraduate student body showed up to take it. The crowd was so massive that the class had to be switched to a larger lecture hall.
That's not just a reflection of Ivy League nerds trying to belatedly figure out the mysteries of high school social success, Prinstein told the Atlantic's Megan Garber. The truth is we're all obsessed with popularity -- and for good reason. Research shows popularity predicts mental and physical health even decades later with surprising accuracy.
But just because popularity really is important, doesn't mean Americans are sensible in how they pursue it.
In another fascinating interview with Scientific American, Prinstein -- who has now moved on to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and authored a book titled Popular -- argues that many of us radically misunderstand the concept. This leads us to chase a type of popularity that will probably end up making us miserable.
The two types of popularity
According to science there are actually two distinct types of popularity -- likability and status. The first is important in childhood, and just as you'd guess from the name, reflects how much other people like us. In grade school, "the most popular kids are those who lead quietly, help others, and cooperate," Prinstein notes.
The second type of popularity is the type you remember from high school and Mean Girls. It's about establishing yourself in a pecking order by flaunting your visibility, influence, and power. It becomes important in adolescence when a flood of hormones changes the reward centers in the brain and causes lording it over others to suddenly become much more pleasurable.
Why you should think like a 4th grader not a high school sophomore
The trouble arises, according to Prinstein, when we choose to chase the high school definition of popularity deep into adulthood instead of reverting to the earlier and more beneficial definition of the concept. He explains:
Throughout adulthood, we have a choice to pursue greater likability or greater status - a decision made so much more difficult by the growing number of platforms (reality TV, social media, etc.) designed to help us gain status. In fact, our focus on easily-obtained status now is perhaps stronger than at any other point in human history. That's a problem, however. Because unlike the positive outcomes associated with high likability, research findings indicate that having high status leads to later aggression, addiction, hatred, and despair.
Adult Americans, according to Prinstein, are increasingly acting like high school sophomores, trying to show each other up by flaunting their possessions and power. That might give them an instant hit of satisfaction from feeling superior, but over time this status game (which is ultimately unwinnable anyway) severs us from meaningful connections with other people.
And if psychology is sure about one thing, it's that humans desperately need close relationships to thrive and be happy.
As the massive turnout for Prinstein's class at Yale demonstrates, human beings appear hardwired to chase popularity. But whether that's good or bad for your well-being very much depends on how you define the term.
So ask yourself: am I chasing status or am I chasing likability? If your answer is the former, you might just be setting yourself up for loneliness, illness, and misery.