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I Want To Be 'Popular': Psychologist Examines Our Lingering Teenage Selves


Most of us remember our status in high school. You were either in the, like, theater nerd, yearbook editor, band camp, or you were more in the world of cheerleaders and prom queens and quarterbacks. And we like to think that none of that matters after we grow up. But it turns out it kind of does. That is what psychology professor Mitch Prinstein says in his new book "Popular." He has been studying the science of popularity for over 20 years, and he's with us now from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Welcome.

MITCH PRINSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: OK, so in high school I was definitely not getting invited to all the parties, but...


MCEVERS: ...I did do a lot of stuff like speech team and theater and music and sports. Does any of that stuff really still matter?

PRINSTEIN: Yeah, believe it or not, it does. But there's good news. It's not the kind of popularity that you might be thinking of that ends up being the most important because the people who were those cheerleaders and the prom kings and the queens, they actually end up not doing so well in the long term. So it's good news if you were a little bit of a nerd or a theater geek. We're the ones that turn out the best in the long run.

MCEVERS: OK, so when we tell our kids, like, honey, it doesn't matter, we're actually right?

PRINSTEIN: Well, you know, there's two different kinds of popularity. We use the word popular to refer to who we like very much, but we also use the word popular, perhaps even more so, to think about who has the most status. Those are two different forms of what we call popularity.


PRINSTEIN: And they lead to completely different outcomes.

MCEVERS: So go further. So the status popularity versus likeability - what are those outcomes?

PRINSTEIN: Those who were the most likable, studies have found that even 40 years later they are happier. They have better marriages. They do better at work, higher salaries. They're even physically healthier. But research also shows those who were the highest status, as a lot of people might remember from their high school reunions, they actually are at greater risk for relationship problems and anxiety, depression and addictions.

MCEVERS: Were you popular in high school?



PRINSTEIN: Not in that cool way.

MCEVERS: Were you likeable?

PRINSTEIN: Yeah, I think I - I think that along the way I was able to be likeable. And, you know, that has been interesting in just the way the research says once you're likeable, people give you the benefit of the doubt. They open doors for you. They invite you to get extra resources and information and opportunities that people who are not likeable don't get. And it creates this remarkable kind of cycle where either you spiral up and you continue to do well or you're constantly deprived of opportunities and you continue to suffer.

MCEVERS: If you could go back to your, like, 15-year-old self, what would you say? Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give?

PRINSTEIN: I would say, thank God you are uncool and nerdy because it's much more important that you focus on knowing how to interact with others in a way that helps them to feel valued. And I think that's a really important message not just for ourselves when we were 16, but, you know, also for today's teenagers because this has become a world where people care about that status form of popularity....

MCEVERS: Likes...

PRINSTEIN: ...Way too much.

MCEVERS: ...Followers.

PRINSTEIN: Totally. Kids are getting the message that their value can be measured in the number of their retweets or Instagram followers. And that's a really dangerous message because this is exactly what we know will make kids suffer in the long run. So I hope we can really change the way we think about popularity.

MCEVERS: Psychology professor Mitch Prinstein. His new book is called "Popular: The Power Of Likability In A Status-Obsessed World." Thank you so much.

PRINSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.