Mitch Prinstein is a psychology professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Clinical Program and the instructor for the new course, Psychology of Popularity, on Coursera. His research uses a developmental psychopathology framework to understand how adolescents’ interpersonal experiences are associated with depression, self-injury, and health risk behaviors. His new popularity course presents research on the impact of early life experiences with popularity; how those experiences influence adult lives; and how an understanding of popularity can promote increased success at work, better parenting skills, and greater fulfillment in life.
Why is popularity valuable to study on a psychological level?
Our brains are programmed to care deeply about our social standing and our relationships. Popularity even changes our DNA! Not surprisingly, what happens with our social relationships in childhood and adolescence predicts a wide range of lifetime outcomes.
Many people think of popularity in terms of high school, but it goes beyond adolescence. How is the study of popularity helpful for both kids and adults?
We don’t always realize it, but our popularity in childhood has programmed our adult brain in ways that affect us every single day. We did not leave popularity behind in high school – it has affected who we are deeply, which is probably why so many contexts now still echo the same popularity dynamics. Whether it has to do with our personal relationships, office politics, our obsession with celebrities, or even how we are raising our children, popularity is still a factor we deal with today as adults.
What do you hope students will get out of your new Psychology of Popularity MOOC?
I hope adults can see their childhoods in a new light. I hope parents learn how to help their children grow up in a new world where popularity reigns more strongly than ever. And I hope that as adults, we can recognize patterns related to popularity dynamics at home, at work, and in our communities that can be changed so we don’t keep reliving our adolescence all over again.