As unfair as it seems, it’s one of those facts of life – popular teenagers achieve greater academic success, make more money and have stronger relationships when they’re older. Those lower down the pecking order grow up to be at much greater risk of substance abuse, obesity, anxiety, depression, problems at work, criminal behaviour, injury, illness and suicide
Our teenage popularity plays a greater role in our future than we realise. Our teenage popularity changes the wiring in our brains in ways that affect our social perceptions, our emotions and even how our bodies respond to stress.
Mr Prinstein’s book, Popular: The Power of Likeability in a Status-Obsessed World throws light on something we already suspected to be true – ‘even as adults we all remember exactly where we stood in the high school social hierarchy, and the powerful emotions associated with our status persist decades later.’
‘In many ways – some even beyond our conscious awareness – those old dynamics of our youth continue to play out in every business meeting, every social gathering, in our personal relationships, and even how we raise our children… Our popularity even affects our DNA, our health, and our mortality in fascinating ways we never previously realised.’
It is during our teenage years that we stop thinking like children and start to form our awareness of what other people think of us. The memories we form can – and do – ‘prejudice’ what we do later on in life and how we see and think. Psychologists call this ‘social information processing.’ The theory is that our reactions to social situations are automatic decisions that happen immediately within seconds of an interaction.
Studies show that a key part of the brain, the ventral striatum – a hub in our brain’s reward centre that plays a major role in making us feel good and one of the first parts of the brain to change at puberty – is activated during social interaction. Starting in adolescence, the ventral striatum becomes especially activated when we experience rewards that are social in nature. One of its chief functions is to make us care about status.
This is the reason we apologise when someone bumps into us, even though it may not be our fault.
It’s a student’s rank in the school pecking order that determines whether a person may always apologise or may turn around and tell the other person to watch where they’re going. That automatic, hard-wired reaction is a direct result of the experiences of our teenage years.
However, according to Prinstein, we are also genetically predisposed to be more submissive or dominant. But even if we didn’t have the most positive social experiences at school, we still have the ability as adults to regain control or start again – it’s not always the conventionally popular people who fare the best.
There is more than one type of popularity, and many of us still long for the wrong one. Decades of research have established that the relentless pursuit of status puts us at risk of a wide range of serious life problems, including addiction, loneliness and depression.
The efforts required in obtaining status – behaviours such as aggression, disregarding the feelings of others, and selfishness – should not be what we want for ourselves or for our society.
Popular: The Power of Likeability in a Status-Obsessed World by Mitch Prinstein.
Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.