So, you may wonder why someone else is popular, but you aren’t. What do popular people have that you lack? Well, science may just have an answer.
A study carried out at Columbia University by Dr. Kevin Ochsner suggests that what makes popular people popular is that they are highly attuned to (and emotionally invested in) the social status and likability of others, and then they adjust their behavioral strategies accordingly to become more likable themselves.
So, why popular people are the way they are isn’t too profound: popular people care about being popular.
According to Ochsner:
…the more popular someone is within a group, the more strongly these [emotional reward] brain systems react to the sight of another popular person. This finding suggests that popular people are “exquisitely sensitive to how likable other individuals are and that they can then tailor their behavior appropriately.”
Let me provide a few real world examples of how this may play out.
If a popular high school guy walks down the hall and sees a funny guy surrounded by three smiling girls, he’ll notice that. He’ll realize how good that must feel for that guy, and think about becoming funnier himself, likely by modeling the funny guy. He will also notice interactions that go badly, like when an awkward kid violates a girl’s personal space and she gives a disgusted look while leaning away. So, the popular guy will be aware of his personal space, and of any disgusted looks he might get, so in the future he knows what not to do.
An unpopular guy in the same high school likely may not have even been observing any social interactions that day. If he did see the three smiling girls around the funny guy, he likely didn’t think about the guy’s likability. If he did, he probably didn’t make the connection that he could change his own behavior to be more like the funny guy, because despite his unpopularity, he does want to be admired by girls like that. When he gets to class, he talks to a girl, standing too close, not picking up that she is leaning away with a mildly disgusted look on her face. And, he’ll repeat the same ritual again the next day without any social changes.
See the difference?
When I originally wrote this article around Christmas time of last year, I saw two forty-year old guys snatching up new Star Wars toys at a local department store. They seemed hyper-focused on getting all the right items possible. I was more concerned about how they came across – bad hair, beer guts, ill-fitting clothes, etc.
My brain was attuned to the social nature of the interaction; their brains were attuned to the Star Wars toys. While I’m not saying there was anything wrong with them or wrong with collecting Star Wars figures, I can gauge that caring about social interactions wasn’t high on their list of priorities, at least not at that point.
In the press release related to the study, the authors explain:
The work not only addresses the basic science question of how we track social popularity in the brain but also could eventually inform research on autism and other disorders that impair people’s ability to judge social status. “You could also ask questions about how can you bring people from the periphery, the not-liked part of a group, into the liked part of a group,” Ochsner says. And, he says, the work has enormous implications in the business world where the effectiveness of a hierarchical structure often comes down to who is most liked.
In other words, it may be possible to teach people how to observe likability in others to then change individual behaviors based on what is observed.
So, if those guys in the clothing store suddenly decided they were lonely, dateless, and wanted friends (and since I don’t know them, I have no idea if they are lonely or need social interaction) there could be ways to make them more popular, such as becoming aware of what popular people do, and then modeling their behavior after that.
That sounds familiar, because that is exactly why my brother and I established this website and consulting business a few years ago.
I should note that some people reading this may object that changing behaviors to be popular may be inauthentic. This is why our philosophy is that you should always strive to be your best self aligned with your values, rather than changing your values. However, part of being your best self likely involves having the skills to make new friends, get dates, and communicate well with others, and that is where learning social skills can play a key positive role in being your best self.