Here’s a terrifying paragraph.
“The greatest predictor of an early death is not obesity, physical inactivity or binge drinking. It’s whether you are popular. In fact the only worse thing for your health than being a loner is being a smoker.”
Anyone with access behind the Times paywall may have stumbled across this shocking news today in a feature about a new book by Mitch Prinstein, an American “Professor of Popularity” at the University of North Carolina.
His book – “Popular” – is about the science behind the insatiable human urge to be just that.
Proof of just how tasty the topic is to people came in the attendance figures for his lectures. Even in the biggest lecture hall on the UNC campus, students queued to get in to hear Prinstein shed light on this most agonising of phenomena.
His thesis (reduced to idiotic simplicity) is that there are two types of popularity, yet only one of them is good for you; that during the massively important teenage years, our sense of popularity has a profound and disproportionate effect on our development, and that the effects of exposure to the two types of popularity can persist into adulthood, sometimes with catastrophic results.
The two different types are likeability and status. Likeability is self-explanatory. Status is “awareness”, or how visible one is to classmates. Presumably being good at football, or leader of a clique or having access to a valuable commodity would be examples.
(I remember a friend once telling me about a lonely kid at his school who had offered him a cricket ball if he’d be his friend. That is presumably an example of a tragic attempt to purchase a little status.)
Likeability though, is the good type, because as Professor Prinstein explains in an interview here, “Kids who are likeable get invited into more social opportunities, where they learn new social skills and different competencies, which leads to more opportunities to learn and negotiate complex personal relationships.”
As a result they are so much further along the road when it comes to dealing successfully with life’s greatest challenge: other people.
However, status is the variety of popularity that kids tend to aim for. The 24/7 blast furnace of social media, with its likes, retweets and “check me out” ethos, is proof of that.
“It turns out that that (status) type of popularity,” says the Professor, “is the one most of us remember when we grow up. Sometimes we are still shooting for it even as adults, but that is not the type of popularity you want.”
One of the reasons it’s not the type you want is because it doesn’t provide a solution to the suspicion felt by many that they would be so much happier if they were more popular. The status variety of popularity in its adult form, eg the acquisition of wealth and position, doesn’t help in that field at all.
One of the others is that a failure to learn to be likeable can have serious consequences for your health, physical as well as mental.
Prinstein cites a study from Brigham Young University that tracked 308,000 people over a period of several years. They discovered that the likeables had a 91 per cent higher chance of survival at the end of the study.
“Our brains are actually developed to care more about social connection than so many other aspects of what we engage in,” he says. “In fact there’s recent research that when we’re at the risk of being isolated, it activates pain centres in our brain, telling us this is one of the worst things we can do for our survival, lose out on social connections.”
If you’re curious to find out where you ranked as a teenager on Professor Prinstein’s likeability vs status chart, you can take his popularity quiz here. If you’d like to contribute to his global popularity survey, then that’s here at Projectpopularity.org.
And if you’d like to know what you can do about your shocking lack of popularity, then you’re just going to have to buy the book.