Ever wonder just what makes someone likable?
That is the question Dr. Mitch Prinstein has spent his career studying. He’s a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For over 20 years, he’s conducted research on popularity, peer relations, and bullying at his Peer Relations Lab.
Below, listen to the conversation or read the transcript, and hear Dr. Mitch Prinstein’s thoughts on:
- What is popularity and the two types of popularity (2:05)
- Characteristics of a popular person (3:20)
- What makes someone popular or unpopular (4:36)
- How to become popular (6:25)
- If popularity is important in life after high school (8:29)
- The impact of social media on popularity (9:56)
- How the pursuit of fame or status impacts happiness (11:31)
- Why bullying has been increasing and what to do about it (13:14)
- What to do if you see someone being bullied (17:00)
Want to hear more from Dr. Mitch Prinstien?
Coursera: From Coursera, this is Emma Fitzpatrick, and today, I’m talking with Mitch Prinstein, a professor of psychology and neuroscience and the director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Mitch has been studying and conducting research on popularity and peer relations for almost 20 years, so he is a bonafide expert in knowing what popularity is, what makes someone popular, and how it affects us our entire lives—not just in high school. He also understands how these things play out in the world of bullying.
Without further ado, let’s go ahead and dive in.
[00:00:39] Well, I’ve got to know: What got you interested in popularity to start out with?
[00:00:44] Dr. Mitch Prinstein: I always wonder about that. I think that growing up I was definitely not popular in one of the two ways that we think about popularity.
But, really, when I got to graduate school, I just couldn’t believe there was actually a science that was dedicated to understanding popularity. But, people do study what makes you popular; what’s the effect of popularity?
I was really interested in it. I had my own little system for thinking about how popular everyone was, as I think a lot of adolescents do, right? Like, who sits at what table, and what does that mean, and who can date whom?
But I guess I just didn’t think of it as science, and when I started reading articles about it in graduate school—and started doing some research and learning about what had been done and running my own studies—I just couldn’t believe how powerful it is.
[00:01:32] If you think about all the things that people talk about trying to help folks with—intellectual ability and socioeconomic status—you think “Well, popularity is not going to be something really important in the long term in that same way.”
I was just shocked. It is. In fact, it’s more important than half of those other things, so that’s what really got me hooked. That those things we all obsessed about in high school actually mattered decades later.
What Is Popularity?
[00:01:56] Coursera: Before we dive a bit deeper into that, when you think of popularity and when you talk about it, what does that mean to you? How do you define it?
[00:02:05] Dr. Mitch Prinstein: There’s actually two very different types of popularity. Most people think of only one of them—those kids in high school who are cool.
We would talk about them in research as having high levels of visibility. They’re really influential. They’re powerful in dominance, even aggressive. Those most popular kids have what we would call status. Status is not a great form of popularity. It actually leads to a lifetime of problems down the road.
[00:02:30] But that’s not the only kind of popularity. So, when people study this scientifically, the kind of popularity that we first experienced in life is probably best defined as likability. And that’s the kids who you feel happy when you’re around them. They make you feel included. They make you feel valued.
[00:02:47]Most people who are popular in that high school way—being cool—we don’t necessarily like them. We just look up to them.
So, these really are two very different types of popularity, and unlike that high school status, which leads to bad outcomes, being really likable, even at the age of three years old, is a predictor of so many positive outcomes decades later—including our workplace outcomes, our happiness, our marriage, our children’s wellbeing, and even our own mortality, believe it or not.
How to Be Popular (Characteristics of a Popular Person)
[00:03:20] Coursera: When you talk about likability and popularity, what are the characteristics that make someone popular in that way?
[00:03:30] Dr. Mitch Prinstein: So, when it comes to likeability, one of the biggest factors is someone that acts in prosocial ways.
So another way of saying that is not acting aggressively. Aggressive behavior makes you disliked very quickly. Research shows that in a matter of three hours of meeting brand new people, you tend to be as liked by those strangers as you are by people that have known you for a long time.
[00:03:53] Coursera: When you talk about prosocial behavior and traits, what does that look like in actuality?
[00:03:59] Dr. Mitch Prinstein: Well, they generally tend to be things that show that you are connected to others. You care about their opinions, and you’re wanting to join with them on those opinions.
So, if you’re five years old, we’re talking about sharing. We’re talking about saying please and thank you. If you think about that, 30 years later, if you’re sitting in a boardroom or something, we’re talking about not being the first to raise your hand and offer your opinion, making other people know that their opinion was valued. And you heard it, and you’re building upon it and making sure that other people understand that you value what they bring as a human being.
You’re interested in all the diverse perspectives that they bring, and you’re not going to judge them.
What Makes Someone Popular or Unpopular?
[00:04:36 ]Coursera: It sounds like what defines our own popularity is primarily comprised of how we treat others and how we make others feel—and less about our own actions. It’s about the impact of those actions, right?
[00:04:50] Dr. Mitch Prinstein: That’s right. I mean, there are a number of factors that people have looked at—physical attractiveness and intelligence and problem-solving skills—all kinds of factors that play a role.
But really, the reason why those factors play a role is because they often change the way that we interact with others or the ways that others interact with us.
And that’s one of the tricky pieces here. Psychologists call this a transactional model, and that basically means is that the way that people treat us elicits and brings out different behaviors from us towards them and vice versa.
[00:05:22] So, by definition, our likability is very tied into the relationships that we create
There was a really interesting study that looked at the initial interactions with people when they were just meeting each other in a big crowd and then followed up later to see who became close friends with whom. And then they said what happened in those first five minutes of meeting each other that might have predicted who became really close friends so much later.
And asking questions was a big part of it—people looking for that common ground. They were interested in asking someone else about their own interests, not merely to keep the focus off of them, but to find a point of shared values and interests and experiences—and then to really focus the conversation on what they shared. And that immediately created a feeling of affiliation or connection. And that’s what we want in a relationship. We want to feel connected.
[00:06:11] The aggressive person or the overly self-focused person, they’re listening to other people, but just to wait until it’s their turn to talk. And then, they’re really talking about themselves and waiting for everyone to kind of gravitate to what they’re saying and shift the conversation to what they want to talk about
[00:06:25] Coursera: Asking questions, finding shared values—are there other things that if you’re actively working on becoming more likable or more popular, that you should keep on your to-do list?
[00:06:37] Dr. Mitch Prinstein: There are things that are really explicit, like widening your conversation circle when someone walks up to make sure that they know that they’re invited to be included, inviting folks to lunch, that kind of thing.
[00:06:48] But some of it’s very implicit. The use of humor is really interesting because it kind of shows that you understand enough about what the other person is thinking. I know that’s weird. But it’s kind of a way of saying, “We’re in the same mindset right now,” that is so powerful because it shows them like I totally get you. I am repeating it back in my own way to show you that our minds are working in sync.
And those kinds of subtle ways of reflective listening or using humor or otherwise makes people feel included. We are genetically built to want to be included.
[00:07:21] Coursera: Do you think that someone can teach themselves to be more likable and popular in this way, or is it something that is ingrained from the beginning?
[00:07:29] Dr. Mitch Prinstein: Well, it is true for some people it’s ingrained from the beginning. There are some biological and some kind of parent socialization things that can make that really possible when you’re young.
[00:07:39] But for people that don’t have that come as naturally or easily, I think it absolutely can be taught.
Sometimes it’s hard, but it requires getting feedback or finding a videotape of your own behavior and interactions and taking that non-defensive critical look at it to see. Are you nodding and smiling and kind of making eye contact in a way that shows connection?
That’s a big part of it for people who didn’t have likability come naturally, is to realize, ‘Am I wearing a filter or am I seeing things in a slightly biased way where I’m ignoring opportunities where I could have been more close?’
[00:08:11] If you kind of read into and say, ‘Yeah, I’m probably going to get ignored in that situation, or no one will want to talk to me.’ Literally, studies show you actually miss out on real cues that were there.
Does Popularity Matter After High School? Is Popularity Important in Life?
[00:08:21] Coursera: Could you talk to me a little bit more about the real impact of being more likable at school, at work, in your life?
[00:08:29] Dr. Mitch Prinstein: I kind of feel like it is the secret that can make all of us live happier and more successful lives that no one’s talking about because we spend most of our time thinking about other factors that could play a role. And we kind of just dismiss stuff about social relationships and popularity as being like a teenage preoccupation.
But it’s not. It’s really something that’s super powerful. Research shows that more likable kids compared to those who are disliked, they get better grades. They get more involved in extracurriculars. They tend to do better in terms of their friendships and romantic relationships. They report more satisfaction. They’re more likely to get hired. All things being equal, you take the candidate you like over the ones that don’t. More likely to get promoted. They make more money. They have fewer physical illnesses. They live longer. And in fact, being rejected and having few social relationships makes you twice as likely to die prematurely.
And that effect of being kind of rejected is stronger than the effect of 20 or more cigarettes a day on your premature death.
[00:09:31] Coursera: It sounds like one of the big reasons it’s not talked about more is because when we hear the word popularity, we associate it, like you said, with status and not with likability.
Especially with social media now, it seems like when you hear popular, you think,’How many likes are you getting?’ Superficial vanity metrics rather than that true likeability.
Is that how you look at social media and popularity?
[00:09:56] Dr. Mitch Prinstein: Social media can be used to promote your likability, but it’s not really what they’re built for.
I mean, when you log in, it gives you just a number to tell you how many retweets or likes or new followers. It really takes away the actual identity of the people that are liking you and following you.
It really is emphasizing more of that status orientation, that visibility, and that influence.
And here’s why that’s a problem. People who have high status and those who are trying to get high status, if you look at them decades later, they have higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance use. They are likely to get hired. They get some initial attention, but they’re more likely to get fired. And they also tend to have really unsatisfying romantic and platonic social relationships as well.
It’s so interesting. People say that those are folks that are so fixated on status that people in relationships with them feel like they’re just being used to get more status.
And you can never have enough status, right? There’s never a point where you say, ‘I’m done. I have as much status as I need.’ People tend to get very addicted, and they want more and more and more.
[00:10:59] When we chase external validation and reward in general—and status is definitely a prime example of that—then we end up much unhappier than chasing something that’s intrinsically rewarding, like our own sense of self-esteem or our own pride in our work.
We used to be a society that graduated high school, and we cared about community and connection and likability, but that’s not the world we live in anymore
[00:11:24] Coursera: What do you think accounts for how we used to look at things versus how we look at them now in that way?
[00:11:31] Dr. Mitch Prinstein: Well, there’s so many theories. Some have talked about how we have become so autonomous. We don’t have to go into work around people at all to go to work. So many people can do that at home, and we don’t rely on one another as much.
Interestingly, though, there’s been some theories that say that the media really changed the way we think about status. A few people used to have status, and the rest of us knew we would never have it. And we kind of lived in a world where we got our social reinforcement for good, close relationships.
But as the media changed and started creating new outlets where everyone got their 15 minutes, and people were able to decide on who was a celebrity or not from their own living room—or even themselves become a celebrity through the computer—it kinda changed our relationship. And everyone wanted that moment and that piece of status because suddenly it seemed attainable to anyone. And a lot of people credit that as one of the factors that’s really changed our relationship with status.
[00:12:25] Some say social media is not the problem, but it really is a symptom of this broader change that’s been happening since maybe the 80s.
It also scares me as a parent because I want my kids to care about community still, but I think we have to all fight against the tide on that these days. They’re bombarded by messages that are telling them that status is what’s important, and they should spend their every waking hour pursuing it.
So, it’s really up to us parents, teachers, and others to try and remind our kids that that’s not where happiness lies.
[00:12:56] Coursera: Like you said, it’s in those little actions that we take every day in our interactions with others, especially kids.
Because, as you look at some of the stats about bullying, they’re just so scary. It seems like each year, there are more kids being bullied than there was the year before. Is that how you look at it too?
[00:13:14] Dr. Mitch Prinstein: We have had bullying for many, many decades, but I think that this is where the internet has made it possible for people to be a little more nefarious in how they bully, where they do it, and what the long-lasting consequences could be.
[00:13:26] Coursera: People aren’t just getting bullied at school. They’re getting cyberbullied and bullied online. What can we do to prevent that from happening?
[00:13:35] Dr. Mitch Prinstein: I think we need to understand a little bit more about bullies.
We talk about bullies as if they’re one giant group, but they’re not. Science clearly shows these are two groups, so scientists have found that what we usually call bullying behavior actually happens in two different ways.
In one way, you get these kids who, in fact, are really trying to engage in kind of cold-blooded, more aggression. They are strategically and thoughtfully thinking about how to put someone else down, probably to make themselves seem somehow higher or better. And they’re doing it in a way that really deserves immediate attention and reprimand.
And there’s research that shows that these are folks who have grown up in environments where they have witnessed kind of power, assertive dynamics. So, in other words, putting others down, being aggressive, kind of strategically calculated, using aggression as a way of getting ahead in the world.
[00:14:26] There is that second group that gets in trouble for doing a lot of bullying.
But they’re what researchers call reactive aggressors. So, in other words, they’re kids who actually have been teased or somehow upset themselves. And when they bully, they’re not doing it ’cause they’re trying to hurt other people as much as they don’t know the way to deal with their negative emotions. And they kind of react in a way that ends up being harmful to others.
[00:14:50] So, there are treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavior therapy that can even be administered in groups to really help people to understand the connections between our thoughts and our feelings and our behavior and how to engage in emotion regulation strategies that are effective and require some practice but can really work and turn people’s lives around.
It’s so hard to kind of get folks to get the services they need. We have treatments that can make a substantial difference in six to eight weeks, but we just don’t have enough people in the world to deliver those kinds of treatments.
And schools will very often have not nearly enough school psychologists or trained mental health providers within the school staff to help all the kids that need it. Schools are facing enough with how much is on their plate and how little money they have to do all they want to do.
[00:15:36] Coursera: Do you think if, in the education system, we spent more time on what are healthy communication ways we could overcome some of these unhealthy patterns kids have learned at home?
[00:15:47 ] Dr. Mitch Prinstein: I would love for there to be a social curriculum in every single school, starting in elementary school. I think it’s absolutely essential that we teach kids how to value one another on whatever dimension helps them appreciate and recognize diversity.
There’s research that shows that schools that create more of an egalitarian context where everyone needs to rely on everyone else for something. Some kids are better than others in some dimensions, but everyone’s good at something.
And when we can appreciate that and help kids value that, it does lead to a big reduction in bullying, and interestingly, an increase in grades for everyone.
[00:16:24] Coursera: I just saw a survey that shocked me that said 94% of people who work say that they’ve been bullied on the job. Could those treatments work at any age, even later in life, like in a workplace scenario?
[00:16:37] Dr. Mitch Prinstein: Absolutely. And they should. They should be something that’s instituted within the workplace—or referrals can be made as well. There was some really interesting research that showed that some of these exact same dynamics really ended up affecting the bottom line as well.
Because in companies where you have people who are bullying or people who feel that they’ve been rejected, that’s related to higher rates of turnover, lower productivity.
[00:17:00] Coursera: Now, let’s talk about what could you personally do if you see someone being bullied?
[00:17:06] Dr. Mitch Prinstein: So, what we know seems to work the best right now is that we need for bystanders to kind of stand up and stop it. Because the bully is really getting the reinforcement of feeling like their own status is increasing by making someone else feel somehow less.
If those very people that are standing around—the people that the bully is hoping will have an increased reputation among—kind of penalize that and say that that’s not okay and it’s not accepted, and people stand together in support of the victim. It’s a really, really fast way to change behavior.
But, I don’t want to underestimate how courageous and difficult that can be. So, a lot of times people feel, I don’t want to get caught in the middle of this, or I’ll become the next victim. So, it’s often good if that’s done with a partner or two in place so that way it’s not one person standing up.
But saying, the three of us together want to stand up for this victim because immediately you can kind of create the numbers game that makes it a little bit less likely that the bully is going to turn their aggression towards that bystander.
[00:18:04] If people want to learn more about the science of popularity, how it’s affecting kids today, how it’s changing over the decades, and how we can use it to have happier and more successful lives, then definitely check out the Coursera class called Psychology of Popularity.
[00:18:21] Coursera: To enroll in Mitch’s course, The Psychology of Popularity, go to Coursera.org.
And as always, thanks for listening and happy learning.