So often in American high school movies, there’s a certain format when you think about the students, especially in those older films. The cliques, and the clichés, usually involve some alpha male who’s a bit of a jock. He’s handsome and tough, but usually gets his comeuppance.
If there’s an alpha female, the school’s hottest chick, well, she often turns out to be mean and insecure. Then there’s the bespectacled nerd, or the likable and clumsy stoner, and the wholesome churchgoing kid who really pines for wild excitement. Is there any truth to these stereotypes?
Probably, yes, but only you can be the judge of that. A better question is, why do some kids always seem to attract a following?
This popularity game isn’t just a phenomenon in high school.
If you watch young kids interact in primary school, or even pre-school, you’ll often see a child that seems to spend a lot of time by him or herself, ignored and sometimes looking slightly sad.
Then you look over to the other end of the playground and there’s a little tyrant shouting orders and taking charge of pretty much everything. This is often the popular child, at least as far as the eye can see.
One Researcher named Patricia Hawley calls these types of children “bistrategic controllers”. There’s another name for this that you might know: Frenemie. They dominate, and they could be what we call alpha kids. Hawley says they will also take stuff from their friends and threaten other children.
Now, while that doesn’t sound like it could lead to popularity, she also says they have great social skills and can be very cooperative. Still, why are they so popular? Well, that’s partly because they are usually quite charming and act in a positive way. It draws kids to them. This confidence of theirs attracts friends and that makes them happy, and this happiness is also said to be magnetizing.
Psychology Today goes further, explaining that by the time the kids are around the age of eleven, they are already in some kind of clique. But there’s one clique more popular than the others, and about one-third of young students will be in that clique.
“This group engages in a lot of nasty political maneuvering to maintain or enhance social status,” the researcher said, stating that about one-tenth of students will be trying to get into this clique – the hangers-on – and another one-tenth will be natural-born loners.
About half of the students in one school year won’t care much about popularity and have their own small group of friends, without much politics, and they are generally loyal and caring to one another. They might only be popular with their group, but it seems they might also be more content.
Besides being dominant, what else can make popular kids popular?
Psychologists say that when children approach their teens, just being good-looking will make them popular, as will athleticism, wealth, strength and sometimes the fear they impose, or the fashionable clothes they wear.
While manipulative and aggressive kids may win other kids over in the younger years, researcher Antonius Cillessen says that these cool kids will often lose their attraction in high school.
But there is always nuance when it comes to the human mind. An Australian study taken in 2015 said one of the best assets a kid can have if he or she wants to be popular is actually, “mind-reading.” They were talking about young kids, though, ages 2-10.
They looked at 2,096 children from Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America and found that those that got on best and were popular knew what the other kids wanted, thought and felt. They were empathetic.
You don’t have to be a Mean Girl to be liked, but you may have to if you want to constantly be the belle of the ball. The British Journal of Developmental Psychology said a similar thing, in that kids that know what others are thinking tend to be popular, and they added that sometimes this could be used for kind acts but at other times manipulation. It’s no wonder school is sometimes called a Battleground.
The same study said jock popularity was indeed a real thing, stating older high schoolers will be drawn to strong, good-looking, athletic and smartly dressed kids. But in actuality, said the study, we might just perceive them being more popular…they might also be secretly envied or hated by their peers. Who needs that?
The study said the same about tough guys. While they might be surrounded by minions, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are popular. Humans are not primates, and we don’t have the same dominance hierarchy because we have more developed and complex minds. In fact, what really makes popular kids more popular is when they have great impulse control.
They might get angry, but only when it is called for. Most studies state that those dominant kids who may seem popular but are distrusted, disloyal, or too aggressive, are actually not as popular as we might think. Psychologists state that these kids are often unhappy on the inside as we all get fulfillment from true love and sincere friendships.
But why trust the experts? What do high school kids think about what makes others popular?
This was asked on a forum and here are some of the answers. One high school senior said social skills was one thing, but also having some particular skill you are very good at. You must have both. The sociability might be an important factor here, as sometimes great minds tend to be less sociable.
We might call these young adults nerds, or geeks. The genius Elon Musk said he was always a bit different, and for that he said he was continually bullied in school, enough to traumatize him. Musk’s first wife once said, “I don’t think people understand how tough he had it growing up. He was a really lonely kid.” Michael Phelps said he was also bullied a lot, but said he channeled his anger into his training regimen.
Most people on the forum agreed, being good at socializing and having some kind of talent was key to high school popularity. Another person was maybe more cynical, and even had her own equation for popularity.
This combined looks, friends, number of enemies, rejections, and who is following you on Instagram. She believed mathematically you could work out your popularity, but it’s likely she was joking.
What if you are popular, or were popular, what does this mean for later life?
One study led by Joseph P. Allen, Hugh P. Kelly, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, looked at 184 U.S. teens and followed them for ten years from age 13 to 23. According to that study, being popular comes back to bite you in the butt.
They said the popular kids in high school were more likely to have problems with drugs, alcohol and even have more chance of becoming involved in crime. The study also followed those cool kids in school who showed “pseudomature behaviors.” These are the reckless kids, the kids that first smoke, sneak into movie theaters, damage property or tell you how they reached second base when you haven’t even been near the field.
Not surprisingly, these kids, as the Hollywood movies often portray, became more delinquent until it started to make them less popular and more reckless. The study said they would take part in riskier and more criminal acts to gain popularity with older peers, but it was a dead-end street.
As for the kids that were only popular for their looks or bravado, the study said in later life this became a problem. “These previously cool teens appeared less competent — socially and otherwise — than their less cool peers by the time they reached young adulthood,” said the researchers. Because their early relationships weren’t grounded in empathy and love, in adult life they struggled to form lasting relationships.