Post No.: 0296
How popular a person is/was as an adolescent (which would come down to many factors, including how their parents socialised with them and/or allowed them to go to parties to socialise with their peers, or if they belonged to an ethnic minority group or other niche group) can have a bearing on them for the rest of their life. Popularity brings many advantages in life – it’s related to making healthy social connections, new relationships and being admired, as well as related to power, influence and opportunities. It affects our happiness and success. It affects us subconsciously and materially on a near daily basis.
So our popularity when young can somewhat predict our life outcomes when we become adults – life and human development is path dependent (yesterday affected today, which will affect tomorrow, etc.), and habits or lessons learnt when young tend to carry forward and even reinforce in self-reinforcing loops of behaviour and consequences. Feeling popular can therefore affect one’s own parenting style (i.e. behaving more socially in turn towards one’s own children). And chronic rejection can even affect us epigenetically (gene expression). A person’s popularity status seldom changes dramatically, even when entering a new context (e.g. going to a new school), except maybe temporarily or if some major event happens that suddenly boosts or damages their status. As a broad generalisation (as all of this is really), girls tend to interact in dyads, whilst boys tend to interact in groups.
Even the most cynical person will be at least a little bit interested in what’s most popular or what other people are doing because we want to fit in, be informed and not be left out. Humans are social animals and are safer together and generally more efficient when they coordinate with others. Even though it’s not always so – ‘herding’ behaviour was and still is largely beneficial from an evolutionary perspective for the species. The opposite – being ostracised or shunned from one’s group – in ancestral times at least, was tantamount to a death sentence.
If a group of people are seen photographing a person, what tends to happen is that other people will start photographing this person too – even when they don’t know who this person is or what’s going on(!) People gravitate towards popular people/celebrities and revere popularity/the status of celebrity, even if sometimes blindly so, which is another example of how our instincts work fine most of the time but are fallible or exploitable at other times – being popular, and what that’s supposed to imply about a person, is a heuristic, and as such is not a perfect or foolproof way to judge a person. People unconsciously substitute the question of ‘is this person trustworthy?’ with the very different question that is ‘is this person popular?’ and use the answer they give for the latter to answer the former without realising it. There are evidently numerous high-profile cases of popular figures or organisations we shouldn’t have really trusted so easily.
Being popular is, of course, not the only thing that’ll predict our life outcomes (e.g. there exist people who are vastly popular yet who still suffer from depression or anxiety, and there are people who prefer to be in less company yet are very happy and satisfied with their lives). So being single-minded about being the most popular person in the world isn’t the real goal per se but developing the confidence and social skills one needs for life. These skills and habits will affect all kinds of relationships, from personal to career to being able to ask for help or share a problem when one needs to. Woof!
Note that being ‘liked’ and being ‘popular’ are two different things, especially in adolescence and adulthood. Someone can be popular merely because of his/her perceived reputation, dominance, visibility and access to resources rather than being someone one would really wish to hang out with on the weekends. People can be ‘popular’, ‘rejected’ or ‘average’, and some people can be liked by many and disliked by many (controversial), whilst others may not have that much impact on others at all in terms of being liked or disliked (neglected).
I think most adults eventually learn to understand that it’s not so much about the quantity of friends or ‘friends’ one has but the qualities of those relationships, hence one could have a lot of followers on social media, for instance, yet still feel lonely, or have not that many yet still feel meaningfully connected. (Being alone and lonely are different things.) This lesson is one that a lot of young adolescents have yet to grasp or at least truly embrace as they consciously care about how their numbers stack up against their peers, which can negatively affect their mental health if they perceive that it’s not as they’d desire. (This is one reason why some social media experts suggest removing ‘follower’ and ‘like’ counts. Some followers are trolls anyway, or bots. Popularity does not imply verity or perspicacity either.)
Liked and popular people read the room well and understand the social norms of the group quickly in order to fit in, and they do not antagonise and are never aggressive i.e. they understand what the group wants to do more than what they individually want to do. If they want to shift the room into doing what they want to do, they’ll first fit in and then patiently and gradually shift the group towards their own ideas if they can. They’re naturally nice, happy, kind, funny, polite, in tune with others, trustworthy and want to mingle and cooperate with others rather than be alone or withdrawn. They don’t show off a lot, aren’t too bossy, don’t get hurt easily, don’t put others down and aren’t shy or anxious (or at least they disguise their anxiety well). Other behavioural determinants include athletic ability (for adolescents in school), leadership and the skill to create positive social interactions. They on the whole actually initiate interactions sparingly but are welcoming to all who approach them. They’re not afraid to speak and to speak first but in a sensitive and not impulsive way, and again they considerately think about others more than themselves.
Popularity (or the feeling of being popular and liked) will obviously affect our self-esteem and how we feel, and so can affect our behaviours, and in turn our outcomes. The externalising symptoms of an insecure sense of popularity are, for instance, aggression, delinquency, truancy and illegal behaviours, whilst the internalising symptoms are, for instance, depression, anxiety, loneliness or low self-esteem (things that cannot be easily externally seen but are felt inside). Feeling popular can make us reach out to others and feel more positively towards others. Feeling rejected can conversely lead to aggression and/or loneliness.
A ‘transactional model’ is where interactions in two directions are considered together (e.g. from one person to another and back), and where feedback affects feedback in a reciprocal cycle between a person and his/her environment – for example, treating others nicely, which results in one getting treated nicely by others in return, which will mean one will likely continue to treat others nicely (or vice-versa). Another example is getting a new haircut, which results in other people complimenting one on one’s new fluffy look, which will mean one will more likely feel more confident, talkative and friendly. One more example is being liked in the first place, which means one will get invited to more parties, which will likely mean one will have more chances to develop one’s social skills even more.
So popularity creates a kind of snowball effect, where popular people tend to find it easier to get even more popular, and therefore more likely to have a higher peer status, be more socially confident and behave in more socially desirable ways – including in other social contexts later in life too because of the adaptive social skills personally and previously learnt so far, such as in future romantic relationships (for better, or potentially worse i.e. players) or in the workplace. An opposite, maladaptive cycle occurs if one starts off not being liked or is not allowed to socialise with one’s peers, and rejection and/or being withdrawn becomes reified instead.
Initial beginnings can therefore have long-range effects – but if things aren’t going as desired, we can choose a new beginning. You could start ‘a new you’ who is less withdrawn with a bit of practice! However, people who (overtly) try too hard to be liked can seem uncool because it is associated with insecurity, narcissism and pretence. So you still need to be yourself, and instead of trying to attract friends where you don’t naturally fit in – reconsider who your real friends are and concentrate on them. What’s in fashion one day tends not to be in fashion another day too. And it’s usually the quirky or goofy who tend to become the trailblazers!
Woof. So popularity matters, especially for adolescents, but we must distinguish between narrow-mindedly chasing it and being truly liked as a person, and this means being kind and considerate rather than self-centred or attention-seeking. And it’s not the only thing that matters to one’s success, happiness or other life outcomes.