The Fascinating Science Behind Popularity

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As we age, we learn to bury our memories of high school, often becoming less attached to the idea of being popular. But let’s get this straight, being popular does matter, it’s just defined differently throughout the various social structures in life.

Research shows that those who are considered to be popular have a better overall quality of life than those who are not. They are also less likely to develop a chronic illness, such as depression, addiction, obesity, and even cardiovascular disease. If you think about it, this is incredible information. It means that our physical bodies are impacted in big ways by the internalization of our place with the hierarchy.

In other words, we all still think like the pack of apes we transcended from. From word choice, to clothing, to body language, this article is going to break down the science behind popularity. 

First, let’s clear the air.

Now that I’ve talked a big game, I need to begin by defining what popularity is and how it looks in the wild! Let’s start with understanding what popularity isn’t, because there are some distinct differences in the research here. The breed of popularity that’s associated with good outcomes is based on generosity and overall kindness, whereas the breed of popularity that is dedicated to achieving status and power appears to have poor long-term health effects. 

How do these skills build?

Popularity can be seen as having a set of skills. It is not magic, but you truly can master the art of making friends. In fact, it’s critical to get a handle on these tools early because it turns out that social skills are a self-perpetuating process. The more likable you are, the more experiences you will be invited to share with the group which further sharpens and shapes your skills. The less likable you are, the more isolated you will be, which over time dulls your skills and restricts your life experiences.

Attention, everyone!

Now that we know the what and why– let’s get cracking! Let’s focus on the deep stuff first (characteristics of popular people), and then we can cover simple ideas like body language and dress.

Offer high-value help.

The key phrase here is “high value.” Those who provide help to others by exercising their unique skills are of high value, whereas those who perform menial tasks as a means to get others to like them are of low value. The boiled-down distinction here is that high-value helpers maintain their dignity and sense of autonomy, while the low-value helpers are sadly seen as dependent and manipulatable.

Take a hint from our solar system.

What do the planets and popularity have in common? Gravity. In this scenario, you want to act as the sun, as your friends are the planets. Popular people are able to set the mood of a social occasion and invite others to join the party. You can begin to cultivate your gravity by speaking and thinking positively about yourself and others, as well as learning to resist the bottomless search from something “cool.” Hint, “cool” is exactly where you are and what you are doing, all you have to do is make it so.

Take advantage of “Group Think.”

Yes, I know it makes us feel pitiful, so we’d like to pretend that group opinions don’t matter, but they do! Use them wisely. Research shows that we judge what is right and wrong largely by what our peers are doing. If others see you as being social and friendly, they are more likely to believe that you are social and friendly. Think about the kind of person you want to be perceived as, and then be brave enough to act it out. Chances are, it will catch on.

Strengthen your backbone.

Unfortunately, we often merge being nice with being a total pushover. Popular people are genuine and kind, but they still maintain a “don’t mess with me” attitude, because they have sincere self-respect. Now, it can be difficult to assert yourself when your confidence isn’t there yet but work on it with a two-pronged approach. Start asserting yourself, no matter how clumsy it may feel in the beginning, and grow a skill. The former is important because if you aren’t used to standing up to others, you’ll need the practice. The latter is important because we simply can’t be confident if we have nothing to back it up. So, choose a hobby, then stick with it.

Show and tell!

Popular people have a handle on their emotions. They know when to open up to others and when to stay private. It’s true, being generally positive will automatically make others like you more. But this doesn’t mean you have to fake it, it just means that instead of focusing on all that is wrong with your life, you choose to express what’s right. If you aren’t there yet, try starting a gratitude practice. As corny as it may feel, it’s been proven to work and I’d venture to guess that those who are most resistant to the idea of practicing gratitude, are the ones who need it the most.

Listen up, people.

No, listen closer. Research shows that people rate themselves as far better listeners than they truly are. This likely relates to the depth of distraction we experience in everyday life– we can’t correct what we don’t notice. Start looking for moments when you appear to be listening to someone, but you’re actually preparing what you’re going to say next. Or eliminate the use of your phone while in conversation. People will like you more for it and chances are, you will too.

Stop acting “too cool.”

You know that person who is always trashing on the latest TV series, song, trend, or otherwise? Notice how it drains you of your energy? Well, that’s because when someone asserts that something is “wrong,” we automatically get the urge to fix it. But of course, you can’t fix it because it’s an opinion, so you turn your subconscious brain’s wheels until they smoke. To avoid being an energy suck, adopt a rule of thumb: for every negative judgment, mention 5 positive or neutral ones.

Learn to be empowered by confrontation.

I’ll use a case example for this one: One day, I was gearing up for the gym when I heard a disgruntled woman call over an employee. She was upset that the track was closed and insisted that she be allowed to run on the track. It happened that I had an unrelated question to ask the employee, so I lingered nearby, listening. I noticed how the employee seemed at ease with the woman’s complaint, while I was the one feeling offended and uneasy. Then it dawned on me. The employee was controlling the situation. He was listening to her, but he was also calmly holding his ground on the issue. Popular people are strong people, and strength is in part formed by being comfortable with uncomfortable situations.

Ambivalence is the enemy!

Research suggests that there are generally three types of interpersonal relationships: close, ambivalent, and toxic. It also suggests that ambivalent relationships are the ones to watch out for. This is because our brains are good at categorizing items that fall into extreme categories, but they fall short at the area in between. So if you have a fair-weather friend in your life, consider reducing them to a friendly acquaintance because let’s face it, you only have so much energy to give.

Assess your personality.

Experts agree that personality tests are generally hogwash. However, there is one that you can generally trust: The Big 5 Personality Inventory. This test puts you on a scale on 5 different dimensions, including introversion/extroversion, Neuroticism, openness to experience, and agreeableness. Popular people tend to be low in neuroticism and high in extroversion, meaning they are both stable and like interacting with others. Don’t take this to mean that in order to be popular you have to have the same personality as everyone else, but rather just put your personality in perspective when interacting with others.

Change your brain.

Brain imaging studies of popular people show that their brains work subtly different from others. They tend to be more attuned to other’s popularity status. Many other people aren’t as sensitive to comprehending these hierarchical differences– they can’t navigate them as easily. Start by trying to seeing others in a place of hierarchy and learn to attract those popular people, assuming they’re people you actually want to be friends with.

In order to be liked, you need to like others.

The brilliance of this is in its simplicity. Researchers found that when asking participants to make a list of people that they liked, the most popular ones had the longest lists. Sure, this may seem obvious, but to achieve it is easier said than done. We like people who like us, simple as that. So learn to see the good in others and transmit that in your interactions.

Be comfortable with the attention.

As we learn to attract friendships, we may feel a sense of anxiety. This is likely because change represents the unknown, and our brains don’t like the unknown unless we train them to. So, next time someone asks to grab a drink, don’t look for the nearest proverbial exit. Be brave, and say yes!

Explore new possibilities.

Confident people are willing to try new things. They may even crave novelty, which is a subtle indication of confidence and competence. If you’re more of a stickler for routine, there’s nothing wrong with this, it has its benefits. Instead, carve out specific times or occasions that you’re going to venture out and do something different. It may spark a little something in you that you never knew you had!

Switching gears!

Behaviorally speaking, we could go on forever about the intricacies of what makes people popular, so let’s move on to some other key components.

You have to dress the part.

Whether you’re a fashionista or a total sartorial sinner, dressing, and styling yourself to fit the part is important. Now, don’t think you have to go on a binge buying Gucci apparel or getting facials. This is about mastering your personal style. If you like something easy and laid back, then swap out the sweatpants for some flattering wide leg pants. If you want to look unique, enroll in a jewelry making class and create your own accessories. Express yourself! People will notice.

It’s all about self-care.

This one can be as simple as adding in a special spa day at home once a week, or as deep as cultivating a spiritual practice. Take the time to decide how you want to take care of yourself and do it. You may be surprised how much begins to shift in your external environment once you take care of your internal one.

Reduce your stress.

In a similar vein with personal care, ensuring that you have a stress reduction practice is important to your long-term health and oddly, even your popularity. When we’re calm, everything works better. Our brains aren’t in overdrive trying to protect us from some perceived danger, so we’re able to relax and focus on conversation instead. Our cardiovascular system is healthy and dilated, making our breathing more even and our hormones happy. It’s all part of the bigger picture – being popular actually deeply correlates with our life satisfaction.

There’s an art to the way we express ourselves through body language.

There’s plenty of information to reveal in this arena; our body language may indicate more about our intentions and power than our spoken language. The key here is not to overthink it – nothing reads more awkward than someone who appears to be rehearsing “correct” social interaction. Rather, just learn some cues and work them into your routine when they feel right.

The battle of the sexes.

via TED

As much as we promote gender equality, science does show some distinct differences in the body language of popular men and women. If you’re a woman interacting with a group of other women, it can be beneficial to adopt a masculine stance. This means standing straight with your shoulders back and your head tilted ever so slightly up in the air. Why is this effective? On a primal level, it puts you in a physically vulnerable place (chest open, neck exposed). So when you are brave enough to do it, it sends a subtle message to others that you’re not threatened easily. For men interacting among men, the important thing to remember is not to overdo it. Sure, a wide stance and clear voice convey that you’re alpha, but gesturing wildly and bearing down on people with your oh-so-masculine laugh brings unwanted attention that sets off the group B.S. meter.

Flirt like a natural.

The best part about flirting is that it doesn’t have to be difficult! Focus less on the exact flow of conversation and more on the intimacy of your body language. After all, this is not a job interview. If you’re a woman desiring a man, a simple eyebrow raise and a slight part of the lips can send the right message. If you’re a man desiring a woman, try standing directly towards her and subtly gazing in her eyes to convey your interest. Unfortunately, research is less direct on LGBT body language, but chances are you can’t go wrong with a genuine smile and an open stance.

Mirror, mirror on the wall.

Remember when you were in grade school and you’d hear the teacher say, “mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery,” but you still felt angry that your classmate stole your answer? Just me?  Well, as it turns out, your teacher wasn’t entirely wrong. Mimicking others body language, not words, is a very effective way of connecting with others. Just make it subtle, it’s not a game of Simon Says.

Use physical touch to your advantage.

People are tricky beings. We are hard-wired to desire touch and interaction, yet we have an extremely testy personal bubble. The key here is to differentiate a friendly and confident touch from an overbearing and threatening touch. In general, a light and spontaneous touch to the arm fosters a sense of camaraderie, whereas any touch that places excessive force is on the shoulder is aggressive.

There power in a gaze.

Our eyes might be our most revealing organ. When we are too busy looking at the clock or off into space, we send others the message that we don’t really care. Make sure that when you’re in a conversation, you’re looking into their eyes and connecting with them. And if you’re in a conversation you don’t want to be in, exit it rather than dart your eyes around nervously.

Know when to be dominant.

Just as you want to be careful not to monopolize the tone of a conversation, you want to be able to snap into dominant behavior when it’s necessary. For example, no one likes bullies, but few people are willing to stand up to them. If you see someone being overtly or covertly picked on, say something. The best approach? Make it simple and honest. Your goal here is to realign the group harmony, not to spur volatility.

If you make a blunder, move on.

As tempting as it may be to focus on your screw-ups it can be counterproductive to our goals. People are amazingly flexible in their attitudes, and the more you show fear or disgust, the more they will pick up on it. In fact, researchers performed an interesting experiment, asking subjects to sweat in two different scenarios. The first one sampled sweat from their run on a treadmill, while the second sampled sweat just before they jumped out of a plane to skydive. Uninformed sniff testers were actually able to distinguish which sweat pads stemmed from their respective situations, suggesting that we really can smell fear.

Practice patience!

You may read this and want to get out there, hitting the world with your new and improved attitude. Go for it. But just remember the tip above, you will make mistakes and you will put your foot in your mouth. After all, popular people aren’t gods, they’re people. But if you focus on continually making improvements to your social skills and self-care practices, chances are you’ll succeed.