Do you remember when you were a kid and it was recess time? Everyone ran out onto the playground, and whether you realized it at the time or not, there were serious social dynamics at play. There were the dominant leaders of the pack, the supportive group followers, and of course, the wallflowers. Fast-forward in time to adulthood, as much as we’d like to leave it at “the popular kids peaked in high school,” those social dynamics continue to have an impact on all of our personalities today.
According to Mitch Prinstein, author of Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Cares Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships, it is during the rough years of puberty and adolescence that our brains start developing dramatically. “It is in these newly maturing brains that popularity moments and encounters will be encoded and that all subsequent experiences will be compared to and built upon,” he writes. (Think about it. How many of us remember the cool kids’ names over our ninth grade math teacher’s?)
In a process called “social information processing,” we create biases in what we think, do and see based upon those adolescent memories. This aptly named “social database” colors the world we see. In other words, our eyes and ears only focus on social cues that align with our own experiences.
Here’s how it works: If you’ve ever felt slighted or left out as a kid then you may freak out when a friend or date hasn’t responded to a text or call. Basically, you assume that you’re being rejected again. This “rejection sensitivity” is a vicious cycle, and can make us feel depressed, burned out at work, and lonely.
For those unpopular kids who are afraid of reliving their awkward middle school days for the rest of their lives, don’t worry, it’s not only bad news. While your more popular counterparts might read a potential business client’s smile during a pitch meeting as a good thing, you might notice that the client broke eye contact during the slide about profit margins. Your awkward past might have made you more attune to signals indicating which ideas fell flat and which were well-received with the client. Called “depressive realism,” you may actually have a more objective, clearer view of social information, undistorted by a positive bias. Essentially, being unpopular as a kid may make you more empathetic and sensitive in social situations as an adult.
If that’s the case, then why is being popular, even as an adult, such a big deal? Ultimately, feeling accepted by and connected to others provides us with a better emotional well-being and helps us score more life opportunities, like at work. After all, humans are social creatures who thrive on the love hormone oxytocin.
Feelings of unpopularity can also affect more than just us. As many would guess, our childhood popularity also affects how we parent. In a study, researchers found that mothers who recalled their own peer experiences as positive had children who were also considered above average in popularity. Mothers with memories of hostile childhood experiences had unpopular kids. That all seems to make sense, but unexpectedly, women with anxious or lonely childhood memories had children of average popularity or higher. The researchers found that compared with moms with hostile memories, the mothers with anxious and positive social frames cared deeply about how their children interacted with their peers, and also reported having stronger intentions to help their kids be more likable. So does this mean that popularity can’t be inherited? It’s nurture, not nature?
Well, not exactly. While popularity isn’t a gene that can be passed on, there are groups of genes that can give kids a lifelong edge or disadvantage, like being more socially uninhibited. And even then, our genes do not control our destiny; we do. As adults, once we are aware of the social cues we take in, we can override our social instincts. And just as it was when were kids, there are hundreds of opportunities in a day to reshape our behavior and feel more at ease with moving through the world. The best part is that you never have to stop being true to yourself, even if you are an introvert.
We can achieve this by focusing ourselves—and our kids—on being more “likable” rather than having status (i.e., the classic cheerleader and jock trope). Show interest in others, cultivate relationships over social media “likes” and make the choice to include others whenever you have the chance. Harness your positive energy, especially when others need it most, by being friendly in group situations and calm in stressful situations. As with human nature, people will want to emulate and be around you.
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