You’re an adult now, you may think, and the number of parties you were or were not invited to when you were 16 is meaningless.
But you’d be wrong, according to Dr. Mitch Prinstein, one of the world’s foremost researchers on the psychology of popularity.
“I believe that what we know is that people’s status may change; their internal experience does not,” Prinstein told Business Insider. “The research shows that the ways that our brains are built and developed, we really pull on those old adolescent memories far more often than we realise. Even when we’re processing things in current day.”
Bear in mind that there are two types of popularity: social reputation (status) and social preference (likability). You can have one without the other, but you’re better served by having both — and your level of each influences your life far beyond high school.
Check out how your place in the high school ecosystem is likely affecting you today.
You were part of a cool clique, and the rest of the school admired or feared you more than they liked you.
• High status
• Low likability
The idea of “peaking in high school” feels intuitive when we go to high school reunions and find that the years haven’t been kind to some, but there’s research that suggests it’s a real phenomenon for those who had high status but low likability.
“There is some evidence to suggest that 10 years later, 20 years later, they are having some more difficulties with relationships, those that were high in status in adolescence,” Prinstein said. “They are having more difficulties with addictions — not in every case, obviously, but far more so than those who may not have been as popular.”
For example, those that fit into the popular jock and “mean girl” archetypes of American culture tend to demonstrate aggression and displays of dominance on their peers, and when they leave the context of high school, they struggle to create meaningful, fulfilling relationships, which then leads to lowered self-worth.
You were a geek, but a charming one.
• Low status
• High likability
High intelligence in adolescence does not, of course, guarantee low status, but the kids who outwardly express their fascination with academics and niche subjects tend to be labelled nerds, and usually aren’t spotted at the lunch tables among high-status athletes.
But, if these low-status teenagers happen to have some degree of interpersonal skills that allows them to build relationships, they shouldn’t worry.
In fact, Prinstein told us, these charming geeks have a good chance of achieving success as adults, because the same high intelligence that got them shunned as adolescents becomes rewarded in a collegiate and then professional setting, and their likability makes people want to help them.
You could hang out with anybody, and everyone liked you.
• High status
• High likability
If a teenager is lucky enough to achieve both high status and high likability, then they have a solid foundation for their adult life.
Prinstein noted that likability is far more important than status when it comes to potential for success and happiness. Pursuing status at the expense of likability is typically harmful, but that doesn’t mean high status or the pursuit of it are inherently a bad things.
You were a reject, and school was rough.
• Low status
• Low likability
The kids who had the toughest time in school unfortunately tend to have the toughest time as adults, too.
As noted above, those who were low in status but had the capacity to build relationships can do quite well in life, but the teenagers who are total social outcasts enter adulthood with a shaky foundation.
Those whose professional and personal well-being suffer the most are what Prinstein calls the Rejected-Aggressives, the kids who were not only rejected but reacted to this by engaging in fights or even becoming bullies themselves. It creates a vicious cycle of increasingly lowered status and likability that can be difficult to escape.
Even if an adult thinks they outgrew their problematic behaviour in high school and now have a great job and a family, they are usually still hindered by their experience as a teenager. “The thing that’s interesting is that if you speak with those who have those impressive résumés who may not have been so likable and may have had some difficulties with their popularity as kids, they still feel insecure, no matter how many achievements they accrue professionally,” Prinstein said. “They still feel a sense of inferiority, a concern about being rejected by others, a hyperfocus on potential rejection signals.”
Your fate is not set in stone.
Prinstein clarified that one’s status as a teenager, for better or worse, is a strong indicator of how their adult life will unfold, but it doesn’t have to be permanent.
He said that he wants people who read his book to think about their own experience with popularity as an adolescent and instead of writing it off, to understand it. When you can come to terms with who you were, you are then able to focus on who you are today.
He also recommends that everyone focus on improving their likability — in a genuine way.
We should make “efforts to try and do things that are attentive to others’ needs and to show people that we genuinely want to interact with them, not use them for our purposes,” he said. “Because the more likable you are, the more advantage you have in every sphere. I mean, it’s amazing how much we give the benefit of the doubt to likable people, and how much we are willing to do for them and how much we just naturally think good things about them.
Prinstein said likability is one of “the most valuable social commodities” in all aspects of society. “We should be investing in it as much as we invest in anything else that we hope will help our lives,” he said.
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