Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Cares Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships

Psychologist Mitch Prinstein writes in 2017: …one of the strongest predictors of soldiers’ functioning in the military was how popular they were in primary school. In fact, childhood popularity predicted soldiers’ behavior even after accounting for every other factor that investigators considered. Within a decade or two, a number of other studies in nonmilitary populations yielded similar results about the power of popularity. More than childhood intellect, family background, prior psychological symptoms, and maternal relationships, popularity predicts how happy we grow up to be. Do we enjoy or dread leaving for work each morning? Are we in relationships that are fulfilling or conflicted? Do we regard parenting as a burden or a pleasure? Are we making important contributions in our lives? Do we feel as if we’re valued members of society? The answers to these questions can all be traced back to the playgrounds of our youth.

A worldwide study conducted in my own research lab revealed that adults who have memories of being popular in childhood are the most likely to report that their marriages are happier, their work relationships are stronger, and they believe they are flourishing as members of society. People who recall unpopular childhood experiences report just the opposite. Popular children grow up to have greater academic success and stronger interpersonal relationships, and to make more money in their jobs years later, while those who were not popular are at much greater risk for substance abuse, obesity, anxiety, depression, problems at work, criminal behavior, injury, illness, and even suicide. We now also understand that popularity changes the wiring of our brains in ways that affect our social perceptions, our emotions, and how our bodies respond to stress. As discussed in this book, our experiences with popularity can even alter our DNA.

* The first type of popularity is a reflection of status—whether someone is well known, widely emulated, and able to bend others to his or her will. In adolescence, we called these kids “cool,” but research suggests that they may be at high risk for a number of problems later in life. The other type of popularity is likability. It captures those we feel close to and trust, and the people who make us happy when we spend time with them.

* How often do we make decisions that we feel will help us gain power and influence without realizing that we are inadvertently undermining our own true chances for happiness? How much energy do we waste investing in image management because of our misperceptions about how best to achieve social approval? How much is our lingering desire to be popular affecting our behavior without our even realizing it?

* Wikipedia:

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1 July 1818 – 13 August 1865) was a Hungarian physician and scientist, now known as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures. Described as the “saviour of mothers”,[2] Semmelweis discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever (also known as “childbed fever”) could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics. Puerperal fever was common in mid-19th-century hospitals and often fatal. Semmelweis proposed the practice of washing hands with chlorinated lime solutions in 1847 while working in Vienna General Hospital’s First Obstetrical Clinic, where doctors’ wards had three times the mortality of midwives’ wards.[3] He published a book of his findings in Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever.

Despite various publications of results where hand washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings, and some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands and mocked him for it. In 1865, the increasingly outspoken Semmelweis supposedly suffered a nervous breakdown and was treacherously committed to an asylum by his colleague. He died a mere 14 days later, at the age of 47, after being beaten by the guards, from a gangrenous wound on his right hand which might have been caused by the beating. Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory, and Joseph Lister, acting on the French microbiologist’s research, practised and operated using hygienic methods, with great success.

* Dr. Semmelweis had high status and influence. He was well respected, revered, and powerful. He was popular. But he was also a bully, and thus loathed by many of his peers.

* Like many Accepted people, Billy is likable because he has the ability to read the room—any room. His ideas aren’t always better than others’, but he knows exactly when in a meeting to offer them, and he often gets the credit. Just slightly faster than his colleagues, he recognizes when there is an emerging consensus or conflict. He’s good at tuning in to the emotional underpinnings of his coworkers’ statements. But perhaps most important, Billy is adept at using his social skills to help others feel connected to him. He does so in a number of ways. First, Billy is great at asking astute questions. Studies show that people who ask many questions of each other when they first meet—a highly effective way of scanning for an emotional connection—are more likely to have high-quality relationships even months later. When you first meet Billy, his questions clearly communicate that he wants to know more about you, and he finds most everything you say to be interesting, important, and relatable. Billy’s social behavior signals that he cares about the herd. People want to talk to him because they believe that Billy wants to talk to them. That makes him likable. Second, Billy has a terrific sense of humor. This trait also is a function of reading the room well, because a good joke requires understanding the current mood or sentiment, and exaggerating or twisting it for comic effect. More fundamentally, fundamentally, humor offers biological benefits. Laughter is associated with the release of dopamine and endorphins that promote euphoria and improved immune response—and people like others who help them feel good. Third, just like the Accepted children in Coie’s studies, Billy is described by others as someone who is trusted, has many friends, seems fair, happy, polite, patient, and knows how to share. And as research on Accepted children would predict, Billy generally has had a very successful life. Studies show that when Accepted children become adults, they have higher self-esteem, make more money, and have better-quality relationships with friends and romantic partners. They even grow up to be physically healthier than their less accepted peers. The power of likability persists above and beyond the effects of all kinds of factors that we usually think are most important, like intelligence, socioeconomic status, and healthy behavior.

* In childhood, the Neglecteds watch their peers play from afar, remaining behind a fence poking a worm with a stick, rather than joining the others. Or worse, they attempt to take part in a game of hide-and-seek, but no one tries to find them. Some Neglecteds are anxious—desperately eager to be a part of a group but rarely confident enough to initiate interactions with others. Studies show that as adults, Neglected people are a bit slower to begin dating or establish secure, committed relationships, and they usually choose professions that do not rely heavily on interactions with others. They are unlikely to become public speakers, salespeople, or recruiters.

* Research findings tell us that being rejected is one of the most consistent risk factors for a whole range of later psychological symptoms—depression, anxiety, substance use, even criminal behavior. Of course, not every Rejected individual experiences mental illness. But many such children do continue to feel shut out even as adults. Somewhere—at work, in their communities—there is a group that they try to avoid or feel uncomfortable being around. They may opt out of dinner parties or social events, for instance, if there’s a risk of being made to feel inferior again. Like Dan, they may find a spouse and have a few close friends, but they perpetually fear being marginalized. Alternatively, many find a vocation or a workplace populated by others who themselves were Rejected or Neglected. Some become so skilled at engineering their contacts with others that they report no longer feeling very rejected at all. But old feelings of insecurity continue to haunt them when they are thrust outside their comfort zone. Rejecteds also may feel innately unworthy, anxious, or angry. These feelings can manifest themselves subtly, through a continual need for reassurance from loved ones, a sensitivity to signals that they’re being teased or excluded, or fear when meeting people who remind them of their childhood tormentors. It’s common for Rejecteds to develop a push-pull relationship with the world around them, often judging others as a way to feel superior, yet all the while dependent on positive feedback to gird their own fragile self-esteem.

Frank, the social-climbing assistant who manages up so persistently, is a Controversial. In childhood, the Controversials are often the class clowns—everyone’s favorite peer when part of a large group, if not necessarily someone whom people are eager to invite into their circle of close friends. These individuals can be very adroit socially but are also quite aggressive. Many describe them as Machiavellian—strategically using their social skills when it serves them, but also willing to knock others down to get what they want. We don’t know a great deal about how Controversials fare over time. They are relatively difficult to find and as such are often excluded in research studies. But available evidence suggests that although they achieve short-term gain, they do not do well in the long term.

* Substantial evidence suggests that it is our likability that can predict our fate in so many domains of life. Likable people continue to have advantages, and dislikable people will almost always suffer.

* Findings reveal that only about 35 percent of those who are high in status are also highly likable. Many of the rest are Controversial.

* We typically look down on people who openly crave high status. Seeking this type of popularity is the kind of pursuit we associate with preteens and boy bands. We even use derogatory names for adults who seem to brazenly pursue status, like “status-seekers,” “wannabes,” or “fame-mongers.” But is it wrong to desire high status? It’s certainly more socially advantageous to have this type of popularity than not. Imagine attending a party where everyone is excited to talk with you, amused by what you say, and impressed by how great you look. Consider how gratifying it would feel if, at every work meeting, your ideas were heralded as the most inspired and influential. Think how special you would feel if people were excited just to meet you and talked favorably about you afterward. Who wouldn’t want to be venerated by all their peers?

* research shows that when we read about high-status people, talk about them, or even just look at them, those actions are sufficient to activate the social reward centers in our brains. In fact, we tend to gaze at high-status peers (of the same or opposite gender) much longer than we look at others around us. In other words, without our even realizing it, our brains habitually orient us toward status all day long. We also experience social rewards when we believe that someone we admire likes us in return. Anyone who has ever fantasized about meeting a celebrity and then becoming best friends can relate…

* Research also shows that when we are tempted by social rewards, we are particularly likely to act impulsively. This may explain why so many of us have done regrettable things when we are in the presence of high-status peers.

* …not only are we biologically primed to enjoy feeling that others agree with us but those of us who have the most dramatic social reward response are especially likely to conform to the views of others. This all takes place outside of our conscious awareness.

* In adolescence, our self-concept is not merely informed by how our peers treat us but is fully dictated by such experiences. Reflected appraisal continues into adulthood, too, but for some more than others. Many people’s sense of identity seems to be overly influenced by the last bit of positive or negative feedback they received. Hearing that someone likes them makes them feel like a good person, while exclusion turns them into total failures. Some are so invested in having high status (whether fame, beauty, power, or wealth) that it seems as if their entire identity is dependent on it.

* when we crave social rewards, we don’t feel casually about it but view it as the basis of our self-worth.

* Do you still long for status? Do you desire motivational magnets—things that you associate with high standing, like beauty or great wealth? How often is your behavior driven by a yearning for extrinsic reward, and to what degree do you allow your inner experience of happiness and self-worth to be influenced by your popularity among peers?

* POPULARITY PROBLEM #1: How Far Will We Go for Status?

Jane Goodall: Status therefore offers chimpanzees a survival advantage: the more they are attuned to status and driven toward the social rewards it offers, the better chance they have at meeting their basic needs.

* anthropology professor Don Merten was observing a group of cheerleaders in an American high school. In this school, the cheerleaders ruled. Others looked up to them, they had first access to the most popular boys, and they set the trends that many other girls followed. When an unpopular girl decided to join the cheerleading squad, Merten reports, the other girls reflexively behaved aggressively toward her. They teased her. They ostracized her. They made sure that her reputation was besmirched across the entire grade. The cheerleaders knew their treatment of her was mean, and even recognized that it would earn them reputations as stuck-up snobs. It didn’t matter. Merten’s research suggests that the function of aggression is to protect the exclusivity that defines status itself. It is a necessary evil to maintain dominance. The cheerleaders explained to Merten that allowing a lower-status girl to join their group would come with a cost—a decline in the squad’s status. His work subsequently demonstrated that each time a high-status teen acted aggressively in school, whether toward someone in his group or even someone similarly high in status, it was to preserve the social hierarchy. A punch in the face or the start of a nasty rumor was an act of dominance, letting victims and onlookers alike know the boundaries that defined status in that school. Threats to the social order are sanctioned by publically forcing submissiveness.

* Unlike other uses of aggression that are hot-blooded, impulsive, and uncontrolled reactions to anger or frustration—also known as “reactive aggression”—proactive aggression is cold-blooded, calculating, and targeted precisely toward those who threaten the perpetrators’ dominance. Proactive aggression is goal oriented, and the goal is to obtain or defend status. Bullying is the best-known expression of proactive aggression.

* POPULARITY PROBLEM #2: Have We Granted Some of Our Peers Too Much Status?

* Several years later, television star Jenny McCarthy began appearing on talk shows to discuss her new book, in which she claimed that a vast medical conspiracy was covering up a link between vaccines and her son’s autism. To be fair, a parent’s coping strategies and search for meaning in the face of a child’s devastating diagnosis is perfectly understandable. McCarthy never claimed to be a scientist and freely admitted that the evidence supporting her beliefs came only from her “mommy instincts.” Just as we cannot blame Tom Cruise for offering his strongly held opinions about postpartum depression, we cannot fault Jenny McCarthy for trying to help parents as earnestly as she knew how. But the fact that she was a celebrity did have an impact on the power of her opinions. In his book The Panic Virus, Seth Mnookin reports that Jenny McCarthy’s theories on autism “singlehandedly push[ed] vaccine skeptics into the mainstream.” She appeared on television for weeks—not on entertainment programs but on news shows. She sat on panels alongside physicians from the American Academy of Pediatrics, and journalists discussed her ideas as seriously as they did reports on scientific studies and a statement disputing the vaccine theory issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The public not only listened but even changed its opinions. The more McCarthy talked about her distrust of the medical community, the more parents began adopting the same skepticism, eventually making decisions against their own pediatricians’ advice. Mnookin reported that following McCarthy’s televised appearances, the number of parents declining vaccines for their children skyrocketed. It’s one thing to enjoy watching celebrities when they entertain us. It’s another entirely when our fascination with these high-status figures begins to affect our own behavior, even irrationally.

* POPULARITY PROBLEM #3: Is Our Desire for Status Excessive?

Fame is in. Power, influence, and prestige are hot. Character, kindness, and community? Not so much.

* there is no Mandarin word for “popularity” that has the same meaning among adolescents in Western nations

* In the United States, status and likability were very distinct attributes—there was only modest overlap between those teenagers high in one quality and those high in the other. But in China, adolescents who had high status were often also those who were judged to be the most likable. In fact, in the United States, our results revealed that high status was associated with those who were highly aggressive. But in China, we found exactly the opposite—highly aggressive teens were low in status. In a culture that values community, status may not be all that important.

* our increased desire for status reached a turning point in the 1980s, when the media became a peer that never slept. A society accustomed to interacting with a single daily newspaper and a few dozen radio and television programs suddenly found itself presented with thousands of options to receive content twenty-four hours a day. As the media’s power increased exponentially, it started to use every angle it could to make sure that its audience remained motivated to keep tuning in.

* POPULARITY PROBLEM #4: We Think Status Will Make Us Happy

Today we live in a Warholian world, where we all bid for our brief moment of highly visible status. In the United States alone, over $11 billion a year is spent on plastic surgery. Books about how to earn excessive wealth and prestige regularly appear on bestseller lists. Even in our private lives, in moments when we should be working or connecting with loved ones, we post and tweet, with the not-so-subtle hope that we will garner status. The mid-2010s saw the emergence of consulting firms whose sole purpose is to help individuals increase the number of their social media followers. Will all this time, energy, and expense dedicated to raising our status actually pay off? Will high status actually make us happier? The answer is no…

* No matter what their background, those with the highest status in our society all tell a very similar story, one that plays out in a series of stages. Stage 1: Elation. The attainment of high status is accompanied by a whirlwind of attention and adoration. “The first thing that happens is that everything and everybody around you changes . . . And you can feel it filter down to whatever your inner circle of friends is,” explained one subject. The attention also comes with perks: “The access is unbelievable.” “Suddenly, you’re worth something. You’re important.” “When you reach a stage financially when you don’t need freebies, that’s when freebies are thrown to you.”

The experience is variously described as a “guilty pleasure,” a “high,” and a “rush.” Stage 2: Overwhelmed. Most people find their sudden rise in popularity becomes almost too much to deal with. As another subject warned, “Fame 101 is needed to teach people what’s coming: the swell of people, the requests, the letters, the emails, the greetings on the street, the people in cars, the honking of the horns, the screaming of your name. A whole world comes to you that you have no idea is there. It just comes from nowhere. And it starts to build and build like a small tornado, and it’s coming at you, and coming at you, and by the time it gets to you, it’s huge and can sweep you off your feet and take you away.” Not surprisingly, this quickly leads to . . .

Stage 3: Resentment. The attention becomes irritating. “You are an animal in a cage,” the movie star said. “If you’re sitting at a sporting event in a seat and you’re on the aisle . . . all of a sudden you have someone on your left arm kneeling in the aisle [wanting to talk to you]. I want to push them down the stairs.”

Stage 4: Addiction. The ambivalence regarding popularity becomes almost too much to bear. If you’ve ever watched E! True Hollywood Story, you’ll recognize this stage as the moral of each episode. “I’ve been addicted to almost every substance known to man at one point or another, and the most addicting of them all is fame,” said one celebrity. As is true of any addiction, a number of people become dependent on their next hit, hating themselves for wanting it but desperate to have it anyway. Some high-status individuals never get beyond this phase, and their lives become an endless chase for an ever-greater high.

Stage 5: Splitting. The high-status individual realizes that his popularity is not based on his or her actual character at all. “You find out there are millions of people who like you for what you do. They couldn’t care less who you are,” acknowledges one well-known figure, while another says, “It’s not really me . . . it’s this working part of me, or the celebrity part of me . . . So, I am a toy in a shop window.” Some report that they are forced to form split personas to retain any real sense of a genuine self-concept—a version of themselves that is for the public, and a version they can maintain with family and friends, while their true self remains somewhere trapped in between. Over time it becomes harder and harder for them to even remember which is real. One subject reports he has “two different dialogues—the one that I’m thinking and the one I’m saying . . . [I can’t be] as authentic as I’d like to be . . . to show my true self.”

Stage 6: Loneliness and Depression. At this stage, there is no one who really knows the high-status individual at all. As one respondent explains, “I’ve lost friends . . . just by all this adoration that comes whenever you’re in public, [my friends] feel less. They feel inferior . . . You’re special and they aren’t. You’re extraordinary and they’re ordinary . . . and the next thing you know, they’d really rather not have anything to do with you. And you understand them. You have to.”

Stage 7: Wishing for Something Else. Celebrities have everything that many other people wish for, but lack the one thing they desire most.

In response, these high-status individuals decide to invest in something that feels authentic. For some, it’s humanitarian work or charity; for others, it’s stumping for a cause.

* What they discovered was that the pseudo-mature participants who seemed to have it all at thirteen were no longer doing as well. In fact, they seemed to be experiencing many more difficulties than their formerly low-status peers. Allen found that by their twenties, the high-status kids were significantly more likely to abuse alcohol and marijuana, and to have higher likelihoods of serious substance-related problems, like DUIs and drug-related arrests. Even after considering their socioeconomic status and adolescent use of alcohol and marijuana as possible predictors, it was their focus on high status as teens that was significantly related to these adult outcomes. Having high status at age thirteen also predicted poorer-quality friendships later in life.

* High-status teens also were less likely to be involved in satisfying romantic relationships as adults. When those relationships broke up, they were more likely to believe that it was because their partners did not find them to be “popular enough” or “part of the right crowd.” Caring about status at age thirteen seemed to be related to a lifetime of seeking more popularity. Similar results have been found in longitudinal studies of adults. In their studies on extrinsic goals—the kinds of wishes that focus on being well regarded by others—psychologists Richard Ryan and Tim Kasser found a curious link with life satisfaction and well-being.

* those who wish for intrinsic rewards, like those that come from close and caring relationships, personal growth, and helping others, report far greater happiness, vitality, self-esteem, and even physical health. But wishing for extrinsic goals—fame, power, excessive wealth, and beauty—is associated with discontent, anxiety, and depression. When Ryan and Kasser likewise followed their research participants over time, it was those who wished most strongly for status who were the most likely to be faring worse later in their lives.

* our ancient brain wiring has us yearning for status nevertheless, and over time we have created new and sophisticated ways to help satisfy those cravings every day. Society has fostered the illusion that by spending enough time, money, and energy, anyone can attain high status. But that’s not the kind of popularity that will make us happy. Perhaps it’s time for us to realize that status is no longer worth wishing for.

* despite all reason, we remain naturally tuned in to popularity. Yet this instinct doesn’t always help us. Sometimes our tendency to follow the herd can have serious consequences.

* What we found was that simply knowing that their popular peers would be likely to drink alcohol, smoke pot, or have unprotected sex was sufficient to change adolescents’ answers—and dramatically so. Suddenly our participants were far more apt to say they would engage in all these behaviors than they had been when they began our study. Even when they had logged off and were told that none of their peers were watching, our subjects continued to state that they would pursue those risky actions.

* The results revealed that being unpopular—isolated, disconnected, lonely—actually predicts mortality rates. But perhaps even more surprising is just how powerful these effects can be. People in the study who had larger networks of friends had a 50 percent increased chance of survival by the end of the study.

* One of the most common risk factors for suicide attempts is feeling lonely, like a burden to others, or like one doesn’t belong.

* Among adolescents in particular, ostracism from a peer group is an especially strong predictor of suicidal behavior.

* Have you ever noticed that when people talk about feeling lonely, rejected, or unpopular, they tend to use words typically associated with physical illness? Terms like “heartbreak” or “homesick,” emotional “scars,” and “hurt” feelings are common to many languages. Are these just expressions, or is there something about unpopularity that can actually do us physical harm?

* at least some regions of our brain experience unpopularity in the same way that they respond to physical distress—a phenomenon that she refers to as “social pain.” Subsequent research found that these same regions are activated during a whole host of social rejection experiences. As soon as we fear that we might get rejected from the group, our brain sends the most powerful signal at its disposal to warn us and motivate us back into the fold. Worrying about a breakup, seeing pictures of someone being teased, remembering a lost friend or loved one, or even just thinking about being negatively judged by others in the future all seem to implicate the same brain regions.

* research has found that those who have a low tolerance for physical pain also seem to be more sensitive to interpersonal interpersonal rejection, and vice versa. In one experiment, Eisenberger even found that taking a Tylenol can actually reduce the sensation of social pain. Our brains try to ease the pain of headaches and heartbreaks in the exact same way. Unpopularity also is felt in millions of other places in our bodies simultaneously and just as quickly: within our cells.

* At the first sign that we may be banished from the group, our DNA unravels and reorients. In fact, social rejection experiences activate a surprisingly large number of genes, while also deactivating many others. UCLA psychologists George Slavich and Steve Cole, experts in the field of human social genomics, have described DNA as being “exquisitely sensitive to social rejection.” They studied what happens immediately after we’ve been dumped by a romantic partner, excluded from a social event, rejected by a stranger, or even simply told that we may be socially evaluated by others we care about. Within forty minutes, they found, a wide array of changes in our DNA can be detected in the blood. Only a few dozen out of at least twenty thousand genes turn on or off in these moments, but even that small number seem to play a very significant role. According to Slavich and Cole, these activated genes have a radical effect on the immune system. Some are linked to the body’s inflammation response, which comes in handy when we need to heal wounds or fight off bacterial infections. Slavich and Cole suggest that this response to rejection may be nature’s mechanism to help those who were unpopular. Millennia ago individuals who had no peers to protect them faced a high risk of an untimely death due to injury or attack. Those whose bodies preemptively activated a “pro-inflammatory” response that would be ready to heal them from any impending wounds were the most likely to survive. Ultimately, evolution favored bodies that were quickest to respond, and thus most sensitive to rejection.

* despite all of our attempts to create ways to feel more connected than ever, we have never been more apart. Today, we are more likely to live alone, get married later in life, and move our families farther from our loved ones than ever before. In just the past twenty years, the number of people reporting that they feel they have no close confidant has tripled.

* there is one factor that has remarkable power to predict life trajectories. It predicts which children thrive. It predicts which employees succeed. It even predicts who enjoys more rewarding romantic relationships and better physical health. It was the one factor that Jeff had but Steve did not. That factor is likability.

* Likable people are not just perceived to be better at their jobs, more satisfied, happier, and more fulfilled. They actually are all those things. The reason is that likable people live in a different world from the one inhabited by their unlikable peers. It is a world of their own making, and it produces a chain reaction of experiences that molds their lives in dramatic ways.

* But the power of likability is not only evident among children—Accepteds can be identified at any age. Peer relationship dynamics are remarkably similar across the life span, from four-year-olds in preschool to senior citizens in retirement communities. Accepteds also can be found in any context—the classroom, the office, the softball team, places of worship, the PTA. All include some people who seem effortlessly, immensely likable.

* compared to the Rejecteds, Accepted children grew up far less likely to drop out of school, commit crimes, or experience mental illness as adults.

* The children initially picked as most likable by their peers grew up to be most likely to be employed and to have gotten promotions. The likable kids also had better odds of being in long-term, satisfying friendships and romantic partnerships.

* The most likable people are those who cooperate with others, are helpful, share, and follow the rules. Likable people are generally well adjusted. They are smart (but not too smart!). They are often in a good mood. They can hold up their end of a conversation. But they make sure to give others a turn to speak, too. They are creative, especially at solving awkward social dilemmas. And perhaps most important: they don’t disrupt the group.

* Researchers measured each subject’s IQ, aggressive and disruptive behavior, history of physical and mental illness, parents’ level of education and income, and even the child’s future goals. After accounting for all of these possible influences on adult outcomes, it was likability that predicted happiness, employment, and income decades later.

* Likable children even grew up less prone than others to be diagnosed with diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure.

* Students invariably write that they are shocked by how much their own behavior changed on T-shirt day. They are even more surprised to see how those changes created a cascade effect—their behaviors caused others to respond in unexpected ways, which prompted their own uncommon reactions, and so on, in an endless feedback loop. Shy students, for example, approached people they had hoped to talk to for weeks. During these conversations they felt more confident, happy, and optimistic. They were surprised to discover that their peers laughed at their jokes, seemed interested in what they had to say, and even invited them to hang out again. Angry students, who didn’t usually feel very connected with others on campus, couldn’t believe how often they smiled on the day they wore the T-shirt. To their surprise, others smiled back, and suddenly they didn’t feel as angry or lonely. Some reported that it was the first time in weeks that they had chosen to leave their dorms and go out to mingle with others on Franklin Street, Chapel Hill’s famous strip. Students who typically stared down at their phones as they walked across campus looked up on that day and offered friendly nods to others as they walked by. Their peers nodded back, and my students reported that they felt an increased sense of community, so much so that they were even more likely to raise their hands in other courses. Overall, the consensus of the members of the class each year is that when the world treated them differently, even just for a day, it changed their behavior and their feelings in surprising ways. One student wrote, “If I wore that T-shirt every day in my childhood, so to speak, I would be a different human being now.”

This experiment offers an opportunity to learn how much our own behavior and mood can be affected by altering how we approach the world even for just one day. It also helps explain the power of likability, because being likable changes not only how people treat us, but ultimately how we grow and develop over the course of our own lives. Stated simply, likable people are treated very well. And not just for a single day, but every day.

* Research demonstrates that likable children indeed develop advanced social skills faster than their peers. Among nine- to ten-year-olds, for instance, likable kids are the first to form emotionally intimate friendships while others are still engaged in juvenile play. When they are a few years older, likable youth are among the first to participate in monogamous romantic partnerships, while their peers are still experimenting with fleeting teen crushes. Of course, developing refined social skills makes these adolescents that much more likable, thus advancing the cycle even further. The same transactional model explains why being disliked can result in a lifetime of thwarted opportunities and disadvantage. Research reveals that there are many behaviors that lead to being disliked. We can alienate others by acting aggressively, breaking social norms egregiously and unapologetically, unapologetically, acting selfishly, or “oversharing” our own problems in a manner that places self-interest over the needs of the group. But as much as these behaviors can affect a disagreeable person in the moment, it is their impact on other people—the transactions they initiate—that are responsible for the enduring problems experienced by dislikable people.

* While likable people live in a world in which they are treated well, unlikable people are avoided, ridiculed, or victimized. In early childhood, Rejecteds are less likely to be invited to playdates and birthday parties, or even to take part in games. Each time this occurs, it represents a missed opportunity to learn new social skills. Of course, lacking social skills only makes them that much more unlikable, perpetuating a sad and damaging cycle. Not surprisingly, by middle school, Rejected children are less adept at following group rules, negotiating conflicts with friends, or knowing how to take turns in large conversations. By adolescence, they are among the last to begin dating and often have limited their friends only to others who were similarly rejected in childhood.

* social mimicry can also unconsciously affect our emotions, which helps explain why we prefer to spend time with likable people and avoid those who are awkward, mean, or sad. We’ve all had the experience of meeting a negative mood magnet—someone who radiates despair and pessimism wherever he or she goes. Even after they depart, we find ourselves feeling down, too, maybe wondering why we’re in a bad mood. After just a few moments interacting with sad, socially awkward confederates in experiments, participants commonly report feeling the same way themselves.

* after dates with an awkward, sad individual, participants themselves reported a decrease in their own happiness and energy, as well as far less interest in meeting for a second date. Results like these suggest that for gloomy, unlikable people, the world itself is truly quite dreary. Every interaction they have is a bit sadder than it has to be, without them realizing how their own behavior affected others’ moods and made it more likely they would be rejected again. Meanwhile, happy, likable people seem to be perpetually surrounded by positivity, cheerfulness, and acceptance. Their upbeat nature is so infectious that we feel they bring out the best in us, and we seek out opportunities to be in their presence—all the while unaware that their mysterious “positive energy” is simply the work of social mimicry. Even their laughter is contagious, which accounts for why TV shows have laugh tracks. Hearing others laugh makes us more likely to do so.

* the more likably I behaved, the kinder the agent was in return. When I was more socially aversive, however, the agent was equally curt. My behavior didn’t only affect how each agent acted toward me but also the quality of his support. In each instance when I acted in a dislikable manner, agents listened less intently and were more error-prone. When the agents liked me, I received more helpful suggestions. But there were also some results I did not expect. Being likable didn’t only affect the behavior of the agents I spoke with; ultimately, the transactions had a surprising impact on me as well.

* Being likable didn’t just change how others felt about me, it changed my happiness and success as well. Once I noticed this, it was amazing to witness how easily I could affect so many outcomes—at work or home, among strangers or friends—simply by acting in the ways that make people likable. In each instance, the snowball effects were remarkable. Every compliment bolstered my mood…

* “Excessive reassurance-seeking.” It often takes place in the context of a romantic relationship but can also occur in friendships or even between employee and supervisor. Experts in excessive reassurance-seeking, like Jim Coyne and Thomas Joiner, have proposed that this behavior sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. The constant questioning and doubting of a reassurance-seeker can make an individual from whom reassurance is sought feel distrusted, stressed, and ineffective, wondering, “Why can’t I help this person that I care so much about? Why doesn’t he or she believe me?” Eventually, the pressure to continually reassure causes them to withdraw. They become slow to return messages, less convincing in their declarations of love. They become less comforting, and of course, this is exactly what the reassurance-seeker is hypervigilant to detect.

* who we were as teenagers may influence our lives even more than who we are today.

* “depressive realism,” suggests that vigilance toward negative cues actually can lead to a more objective and clearer view of social information, undistorted by a positive bias. For this reason, some research has shown that previously unpopular people are perceived by others as more empathetic and more sensitive in social situations.

* those high in status had a poorer ability to consider others’ perspective. Participants high in social status also score more poorly than those low in status on tests of emotional intelligence, empathy, the ability to detect sarcasm, and correctly noticing a variety of emotional expressions.

* “rejection sensitivity” bias, a tendency to expect and emotionally react to rejection that creates a cycle of lifelong unpopularity: we wish to be popular, assume we are not, and then in turn yearn for it all the more. Not surprisingly, this type of bias also predicts a host of related negative outcomes throughout our lives, including body dissatisfaction, burnout at work, depression, and loneliness. Adults with high levels of rejection sensitivity are even more likely to contract infectious illnesses and to develop heart disease.

* Prior social standing and resulting biases may cause changes in brain wiring that take some effort to override.

* A second common interpretation bias may also seem familiar: the tendency to assume that others are being hostile in an emotionally equivocal situation. Remember your tardy friend at the coffee shop? A person with a hostile attribution bias might feel intentionally stood up because their friend was being cruel. This type of bias is common among those who were unpopular adolescents… When they mature, children with hostile attribution bias turn into our paranoid neighbors and cynical coworkers, people who are at greater risk for problems at home and work.

* those who were popular chose to behave in ways that would allow them to mend relationships and even build friendships with the bully. In contrast, those who were unpopular were more interested in revenge, in appearing dominant, or in avoiding the situation entirely. In other words, unpopular children’s impulses were to be aggressive, rude, or passive.

* We have thousands of social interactions every day. For each event, we encode information from the world around us and interpret it. Finally, if the situation calls for a response, we act. While psychologists understand this reaction as a series of social information processing steps, we experience it in less than a millisecond, without contemplation or deliberation. Those milliseconds combine to fill our days, influence our relationships, define our identities, and ultimately determine our lives—who we are. These automatic reactions can make us seem as if we have terrific instincts or can get us into trouble. And the basis for what we see, how we act, and what we do all day every day is in large part a function of our high school popularity.

* the more we value status, the more our ability to distinguish between good and bad may be compromised. Popularity can become the only value that matters…

* One of the factors that most strongly predicts who will be popular and who will be rejected is whether they are raised in an aggressive social environment…

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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