Doomed to relive high school? Science that says who we were at 16 still defines us

Salon talks to a clinical psychologist about status, likability and Donald Trump's "desperate quest to be popular"

Published June 4, 2017 1:00PM (EDT)


If painful memories of what cafeteria table we ate lunch at can potentially stick with us well into adulthood, what does that say about our culture's relationship to this thing called "popularity"? That's the question all over the syllabus of Mitch Prinstein's first book, "Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World," a study of how we, all the way down to our DNA, want to be viewed positively by our peers but how we go about it -- through being liked, needed, amusing or feared -- affects our own health and happiness and that of the society we model from it.

Prinstein has been studying the relationship between peer dynamics and mental health for more than two decades and is currently the John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and the Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Salon spoke to Prinstein by phone about adolescent pecking orders, the popularity of and ire toward our 45th president and why we don't all need to go to finishing school as grown-ups.

Early on in "Popular" you had this great mini-history lesson about the word itself and how it entered at least Western linguistics meaning "of the people," like "popular opinion," or "vox populi," i.e., the will of the many. In the present, it's become a reflection of the status or elevation of the few, i.e., "the popular kids." When did this transition happen and why?

I would say certainly in the last 100 years there has been more the differentiation between using it to refer to something more like "of the populace" than now using it to mean "a celebrity." More of a preference or someone’s favorite. Which is sometimes the same thing and sometimes not. That differentiation has happened perhaps more in the last 30 years than in any other time in human history.

When we use "popular" and have larger sample set, say the phrase "popular culture," we’re generally using the word as a term of inclusion. Whereas if we use it with a smaller sample set like our high school classmates, we’re using it to refer to something exclusionary.

I wonder if there’s a difference across cultures in the way that we see with some Eastern cultures about the distinction between being of the people and reflecting the awareness of the populace in general -- the feeling of having to be the best within that overall group. Because one use of the word, as you say, simply reflects that it’s shared by the many and that concept is still held within some cultures; there’s not really as much of an emphasis to rise above or be different or the favorite of that population. Whereas in our culture most certainly there does seem to be more an increasing emphasis on needing to stand out from among that group. It’s not as important to be of the people as it is to be the most well-known and the most admired of those people.

This seems to lead us back to the wedge of your argument in "Popular," which is that likability (i.e., your peers' positive opinion of you) and status (i.e., your power and influence amongst your peers) are two things that get piled under this heading of "popularity" but are very different things, and our blurring of them is perhaps at the heart of our culture's dangerous relationship with this thing called popularity.

The first thing that I’d say is that there is in fact reason to believe that our search for popularity is biologically determined. We need to feel included; it’s part of our human nature, literally. As adults we have an area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, that develops and allows us to inhibit a bit, so we’re not as obvious and, well, most of us are not as 100 percent desperate in our demonstration of wanting popularity.

The second thing that I think plays a very, very big role, and I talk about in one of the chapters, is that remarkably we’re learning more and more that we tend to be guided a whole lot by who we were when we were 16, more than we are by who we are today. I think many people have said this for a long time about body image. People walk around feeling that their appearance is based more on who they were when they were 16 than it is their current objective physical appearance now.

That’s true for self-esteem and that’s true for our relationships. We now know that each interaction and every single relationship we have, whether it’s a fleeting experience with a passerby or a deep enduring relationship, every single social interaction is being filtered through our memories and experiences when we were in adolescence. It’s those experiences that decide how we respond internally and inadvertently in every social interaction we have. I think that gives popularity tremendous power.

How do we then not get ourselves into a dangerous place with this? Meaning the research indicating that we never actually grow up?

There’s nothing fatalistic or determined that takes away our ability to have control and free will. If we don’t realize how much these past experiences are guiding us, they will continue to guide us from behind the scenes. If we do realize it, if we recognize, “Gee, I’m responding to this as if I’m still in my high school and I’m 16, rather than giving all the information in front of me today in my 40s,” then that becomes the problem.

Simply being aware of it, challenging our perceptions, challenging our reactions. Being more rational and objective about the decisions that we make can easily override those experiences. The problem is most people don’t even think that this is going on in the first place, which makes it all too easy to relive high school forever.

I was particularly interested in what you had to say with regards to likability as a far more important determinant of adult mental health and happiness than status and a far more attainable one as well. Somewhere in the book, I wrote in the margins "Does everybody just need to go to finishing school and read Dale Carnegie?" But your book does not give a prescription of how to become more likable.

In psychology we know that the best behavior change comes from people being able to process information and decide how to fit it into their lives. I was in fact purposefully resisting prescriptive advice. I think that was more not the message that I was hoping the book would communicate, [but rather] more of an opportunity to look back on our lives and look back on what happened when we were growing up and confront it and realize it and talk about it and own it.

What people choose to do with that I think will be different for every person. I don’t know that everyone needs to go out and be equally likable and that we should all become a Stepford society engaging in the utmost examples of etiquette.

I do think it would be good for us to also have a realization that we might be guided by our teenage memories more than any of us care to be. Beyond that, no I don’t want to be prescriptive and I don’t think that everyone has to be as likable as possible. I hope that people are freed from the chains of their envy or disappointment that they might be still carrying around from their teenage years.

How do we become advocates for this thing called likability without suggesting that everybody should be filed down so they have no rough edges anymore?

I think you’re exactly right, and I think that the risk of people confusing likability with submissiveness or conformity is also a really understandable concern. What I find is how interesting it is to watch leaders who are extremely likable. They are not submissive, they’re leaders — they in fact guide the group to exactly where they hope the group will go to. The way that they do it is fascinating, it’s Socratic, it is based on making other people feel that their input is valuable.

It’s even like the little kids who want to get the group interested in playing with a new game. Rather than charging in and saying, “You’re all a bunch of losers let’s play this other game,” it gradually builds upon what the group is already doing until it morphs into the game or the activity that they want to engage in. It’s very, very similar among adults. It’s patience and it’s selflessness or an ego-free way of interacting that is really quite remarkable. Because not only do they get what they want or do they get the group where they want to go but they ultimately have people feeling more supportive and more invested in the outcome than if someone forced it upon them.

You've been doing this research for a lot longer than you were working on this book. Tell me where your interest in the research began and how, much later, it segues into the creation of this book?

My interest in popularity and peer relations has come from my longstanding interest in child mental health and understanding the factors that could lead to kids growing up in a healthy adaptive well-adjusted way or not.

I think that morphed into the project for the book as I kept on teaching and recognized that everything that we were talking about in class did not only apply in the way the kids experience their lives when they grew up. It was reflected in every context that adults experienced all over again. We just don’t always use the same words or the same concepts. In fact, sometimes we go to great lengths to make it sound like we’re not being a bunch of adolescents or high schoolers in the way we talk about it. Actually the research suggests that it’s almost exactly the same thing.

Popularity is something everybody has experienced and everybody probably has an opinion and a story about. I’m wondering when you get together with other psychologists do they ever give you a hard time about studying something that seems like such a slam dunk?

World events of late have made it increasingly important for a few reasons. First, our popularity is the very basis for our experiences as victims, bullies or bystanders. This has become a national health priority, not just in our country but it’s a global concern right now. I’d say, second, some of the most exciting findings to happen in medicine right now are demonstrating how powerful our social experiences are on our health and on the expression of our DNA.

Third, one only needs to pick up the paper today or any day since November to realize that our whole country has been hijacked by one person’s insatiable and desperate quest to feel popular.

We see desperate quests played out every day on social media, which as we well know has completely shifted the conversation and, I'm assuming your field's research around bullying, social dynamics amongst young people, the very idea of popularity itself.

At this point I realize that the majority of kids’ experiences with each other right now are not happening face to face or voice to voice anymore. This is a real brave new world that we in the field are all trying to play catch-up with. We are developing a new generation of kids who will have peer relations experiences in their youth that none of us can even relate to.

Some things have not changed. I show movie clips in my class and the concept of popularity from "The Breakfast Club," going back to "Grease" and James Dean movies, that has existed for as long as we have recorded history at least in cinema. The definition of "cool," in other words. How it is that those popular groups and the unpopular groups break out and form and are symbolized within schools. They changed only on the surface level — which bands are the cool bands, let's say. Those dynamics are fairly universal.

The ways that we express our popularity have absolutely changed. Because back in our day . . . we got a very consistent message from the world around us that none of that would be as important as forming genuine relationships or perhaps being likable when we grew up. That’s not true anymore. Kids are in fact seeing explicit messages that they should really, really care about the number of their followers and their profiles and fame and celebrity long after they have become adults.

That’s a huge change and that really has only happened in the last couple of decades.

In your research, the past experiences of your subjects are deeply relevant, but it can also be quite traumatic for your subjects to talk about this kind of thing. Do you find that influences not only the process of doing research but the outcome as well potentially?

Yes, and this is why in the vast majority of research by myself and my colleagues we don’t ask people to tell us about their popularity. We get that information from peers. That turns out to be a far more valid and potent indicator of your future than your own self-reported perceptions of your popularity.

Where do you see this research taking you next?

Right now we’re looking at how kids respond to social stress might help us predict who will go on and become depressed and suicidal and who will not. We’re stressing kids out in a safe experiment within our lab and we’re collecting their DNA before and after we do so to look at that right now.

We’ve just started to look at a construct called "digital shadow seeking": the ability to try and purposely generate more activity on your social media profiles simply and explicitly as a way of increasing your popularity. We’re finding that even apart from what you do offline that is predictive of a variety of negative outcomes as adolescents mature.

You’ve put your finger on an area of popularity you don’t speak of in your book, but it’s hard to ignore in our contemporary moment. Take your television pundit or even our current president as examples of people who say things that are deliberately hateful or provocative then think, “Well, someone will agree with it. The sum total of them is a measurement of my popularity.”

These are the controversials. These are the people who are more interested in attention and visibility. That does overlap a little bit with . . . certainly with status that they’re willing to engage in whatever behaviors they have to simply to be noticed and to get that very primate rush that we get in our brains from having people look at us, truly look at us and notice us. They’re very smart socially and they also are very aggressive. Because both ways will get you exactly as you just described. It doesn’t matter whether it’s positive or negative attention, it’s just attention.

By Kevin Smokler

Kevin Smokler is the author of "Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to '80s Teen Movies." He's a writer and documentary filmmaker based in San Francisco. He's currently working on a book of conversations with women filmmakers.

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