September 15, 2017

The penguin in the center is definitely the popular one. Credit: David Goehring / Creative Commons

When can you tell if someone is going to be popular? Elementary school? Middle school? Actually, the origins of what we think of as popularity start to crop up early. Very early. A while back, Mitch Prinstein, author of the book Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World, reconstructed a famous experiment, asking a few classrooms of three year-olds who the most and least popular kids in the class were. Then, Prinstein got the kids to play in entirely new groups. In about half an hour, the kids whose classrooms labeled them as popular emerged as popular, and the exact same thing happened for the unpopular kids.

Prinstein, who’s a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells us how popularity develops, why it matters, and what makes someone popular or unpopular.

Three Takeaways 

  • Parents have an enormous influence on how popular their kids are, according to Prinstein. If you want to raise popular kids, Prinstein’s advice is to bring them up in an environment where there isn’t a ton of aggression, and use playtime as an opportunity to teach good values, like how to share, and how to solve conflicts.
  • Prinstein says there are two types of popularity: status and likability. Likability is based on whether people actually like you, while status is based on your perceived place in the social hierarchy. Likeability starts from around age three, whereas status becomes important in adolescence.
  • Popularity takes different forms in other cultures. Aggressive behavior can actually raise your status popularity in the West, while in China, the exact opposite is true.

More reading 

Mitch Prinstein, Popularity, innovation hub, Kara Miller, WGBH, pri

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