What Does Popularity Really Mean? A UNC Psychologist Explains

What Does Popularity Really Mean? A UNC Psychologist Explains

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When you talk about enjoying popularity and hanging with the “in-crowd,” you probably have nightmares of high-school or college days when you were trying to fit in. No matter your age, the desire to fit into society never goes away. Whether it’s the workplace or within your community, folks want to belong and be among the top ranking.

Mitch Prinstein has been addressing this issue lately. As a psychologist with accolades from years of directing the University of North Carolina’s psychology department, he puts a different spin on a familiar concept.

Many folks are geared towards getting the popularity card, but instead, they should opt to be more likable. Sadly, being popular and liked is not always the same thing. How many popular kids did you loathe in high school because they had the “it” factor that you didn’t?

Additionally, those who are a part of the “in crowd” often look down on others and bully kids. They feel like they’re superior, and many have an aura of nastiness about them as they feel untouchable.

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Now the likable person was different. People wanted to be around them regardless of their social affiliation because they made others feel good. They were jolly or told the best stories, and they made you feel comfortable. Why is it that adults still struggle with being popular when it doesn’t matter as much?

Your Desire for Popularity Comes from Childhood

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Incredibly, so many individuals want to be popular as they feel it secures their place in life, and most of these desires all stem back to your childhood. Both popularity and likability typically begin in elementary school.

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The likable individual does whatever they can to help others, and they reach across social classifications and see the true person. They desire to create harmony and offer fellow peers their leadership and an example to do the right thing.

As a child ages and grows into the pre-teen years, things start to change. The brain has a reward center that craves things like attention and visibility. It seems that when a person hits puberty, these things become more critical than before.

Shockingly, those who have a higher middle and high school status are more prone to get into trouble and take risks. According to research Mitch Prinstein explains that relationship difficulties are commonplace because they do whatever to fill the long to fit in.

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The Gains of Likability

The likable person has a lot of support. While it seems to be so important in childhood, it’s even more critical when they’re job hunting or wants to choose a love interest. If you were an employer looking for a new employee, do you care if they were popular in high school?

Sure, it might look good on the resume that a person was in the Honor’s Society or played football, but those things don’t mean much in the real world. However, if an individual comes to the interview with a smile and has a sweet and caring nature about them, it’s something that strikes a chord with employers.

Another thing to consider is that those who are likable tend to live longer than the popular crowd. Your brain is programmed to fixate on popularity. It began at the dawn of time, though the concept was a bit different. When a person separated themselves from their herd, it was more dangerous as it could lead to injury.

Your body still has this mindset and programming that’s been passed down throughout the generations. You automatically fear that being in the unpopular crowd might cause you some harm, and it’s hard to break those social norms when your body and brain are working on overdrive.

How to Stop the Excessive Desire for Social Status

How can you redirect the brain to stop seeking popularity and turn its attention on being more likable? Certain parts of the brain respond to being noticed. Oddly enough, the same brain area stimulated by being popular is also stimulated when it’s helping others.

When you go out of your way to help someone in need, the reward centers in the brain are aroused, and it makes you feel good. You could say that both being popular and liked will “scratch the same internal itch.” If teachers and parents could help direct children towards being more likable rather than popular, it could change their lives.

Four essential things go through a child’s mind daily, and these are the things that those who mold the next generation must focus on.

1. Acceptance

Children have insecurities about themselves because they’re still trying to find out who they are. You don’t get it all figured out until you’re an adult and have matured. However, the safest way to feel the acceptance they need is by choosing the right crowd to join.

The “in crowd” is where everyone wants to be. It’s the person who never has a lack of prom dates, and they are always picked for all the great things in school. These feelings are entirely normal, and all humans strive to fit in.

However, a child must be taught that they can fit in without running with the cool kids. It’s often the cool kids who get in trouble and do risky and even dangerous things. There’s nothing wrong with being likable and not getting into any trouble.

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2. Attention

One of the reasons that kids like to be cool is because it gets them noticed. Childhood comes with plenty of insecurities, and when you’re with the in-crowd, it helps validate your position. You can feel better about yourself based on your associations.

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There must be lessons on self-worth taught at a young age. Children don’t need external sources to give them good esteem. There’s no reason to run around wanting people to look at you. Attention-seeking behaviors are only there to make you feel excepted.

How many times have you heard a teen obsess about how many friends or “likes” they have on social media? The more friends they have on these social media platforms, the better they feel about themselves. Is this why some girls dress provocatively because they need validation and attention?

3. Separation

When you think about being cool, you remember when you were a rebel and felt terrific about this streak. Have you ever seen a teen who dyes their hair pink, purple, blue, or some other color? They obviously are trying to find where they fit in, and they want to be noticed.

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It’s only normal that wearing a particular article of clothing or listening to a specific type of music can influence their social position.

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4. The Ego

The need for attention, acceptance, and popularity is part of the construction of the ego. The ego is formed during the teen years, and it helps to forge an identity. This little desire inside every individual’s brain wants to be cool because it makes them feel accepted.

Who doesn’t want to feel like they belong? It certainly doesn’t feel right to be the outcast. This sense of self-worth helps to establish power and ego, and in these times, a person will discover their true self.

What About the Unpopular Crowd?

The unpopular crowd often fear that they will have issues for life. They fear that they won’t fit into social norms, and they’ll feel like an outcast.

Remember, they don’t have popularity or likability on their side because people don’t give them a chance.

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However, the child who suffers from finding their place in life doesn’t mean that they will always be unhappy.

Some of the things you went through as a teen will give you a psychological advantage when you reach adulthood.

Though the social outcast may feel off and long for some popularity, they learn many lessons that will suit them well. First, they learn sensitivity and how it feels to be left out. As adults, they can work hard to make sure that those around them never feel that way.

How many times have people went back to high school reunions and seen that the sports jock was no longer the same person from back in the day? Better still, the chess player who got picked on so much suddenly owns a multi-million-dollar corporation. The likeability factor has everything to do with making money as an adult.

No one wants to buy something from someone who was popular but doesn’t have any people skills. It’s the likable sales professional that could sell anyone anything, as they have a way with folks.

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Final Thoughts on Being Likability Versus Popularity

It’s only normal for a person to strive to be popular. No one wants to go through life feeling like an outcast who has few friends. However, rather than focusing on popularity, it’s essential to concentrate on the likability factor.

There are many benefits to being likable, and it’s hard to ignore them. You can get a job easier when your personality and demeanor is friendly. Second, you can use your charm to gain more friends. Who doesn’t want a friend that is kind, caring, sharing, and goes out of their way to be likable?

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