There are two kinds of popularity, and we are choosing the wrong one

Saturday, August 5th, 2017

There are two kinds of popularity, and we are choosing the wrong one:

Some people are popular because they are likable — their peers like them, trust them, and want to be with them. Others are popular because they somehow gain a certain status, and use that power to wield influence over others (ie, high school).

Which kind of popularity you pursue matters, says Mitch Prinstein, a professor and director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina. He recently published Popular: The Power of Likability In A Status-Obsessed World.

Prinstein delves into reams of research about what popularity is, and what effects it has on us. He shows that people who seek to be likable tend to end up healthier, in better relationships, with more fulfilling work, and even live longer. Status-seekers, on the other hand, often end up anxious, depressed, and with addiction problems.

In the age of Instagram, it’s no shock that most of us are gravitating to the wrong kind.


“The world has become a perpetual high school,” Prinstein says. “We can live in that adolescent mindset for the rest of our lives if we are not careful.”


For boys, there is some correlation between likability and status; it is possible to be high-status and liked. For girls, there is no correlation. Thus, the high-status girl in high school who is socially shrewd, beautiful, and effortlessly popular — ie, the stereotypical “mean girl” — becomes the paragon of what popularity looks like. Girls use “relational aggression” to maintain their power over others. Building status is not about developing relationships but dominating others, which ultimately makes many popular but unlikeable.


  1. Jim says:

    But humans obviously strongly strive for status. Such behavior wouldn’t be so common unless it had been selected for in the past. Biological success isn’t about being happy. The interesting question about status strivers of either sex is not whether they are well-liked or happy. It’s whether or not they are reproductively more successful.

    If they are less biologically successful their personality type will become less common in the future. But if the reverse is true it won’t matter if they are more depressed, anxious and live shorter lives.

    It might turn out that celibates live longer lives. But evolution is not going to select for celibacy.

  2. Graham says:


    Once again I alone suffice to confound some pop pseudo social scientific airport book’s half-baked theories.

    That’s twice in just a few weeks on this site alone.

    I’m like a walking antidote to half-assed social science. Maybe even whole-ass.

  3. Aaron says:

    The warmth-versus-competence trade-off is well known for a while. This guy’s argument makes zero sense and is a waste of time.

    He argues for warmth. Great. In theory, you can be perceived to have both. In practice, we trade off.

  4. John Nathan says:

    The question I have is this: can we always distinguish between these two kinds of popularity? Often, especially in business where money and power trade-offs are perpetually at play, we speak of trust and likeability as factors that contribute to the charisma essential to leadership. Yet this positive likeability is often then used as a means to attain and seek status, usually by exercising popularity as a form of power for asserting superiority in skill-set, competence, or work status.

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