Two sides of popularity

Last Updated : 21 November 2019, 00:30 IST
Last Updated : 21 November 2019, 00:30 IST

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Heads turned every time Mahika walked into the college canteen. Besides being on the college basketball team, she was also a part-time model. Spiffily dressed, her outfits were both admired and dissected. While everyone on campus knew Mahika, she was very selective and spoke only to peers in her cosseted circle. The chosen few of this clique also exuded an uppity air, but Mahika was undoubtedly the one who set the bar for “coolness.”  

Unlike Mahika, Surya had a large cohort of friends, and also spoke to people he didn’t know. An average student, he played the drums and could regale an audience with his mimicry. Amiable Surya and standoffish Mahi were both ‘popular’, albeit in different ways, on campus.


According to psychologist Mitch Prinstein our “popularity affects us throughout our lives” even though we may not realise its impact on our actions and decisions. At a very basic human level, almost everyone craves to be recognised and appreciated by peers. A global study by Prinstein showed that adults who remembered being popular as kids were more likely to have happier and stable lives while the unpopular ones were at greater risk for psychological problems as adults. Yet, popularity is double-edged. The most popular ones don’t always have rosy outcomes. 

As Prinstein explains, this is because popularity is of two types. The first is based on status, while the second reflects a person’s likeability.  According to an online dictionary from Oxford, ‘popular’ refers to people who are “liked or admired by many people.”  Thus, a person can be popular if he or she commands power or influence over others or has many friends. While being admired and liked are not necessarily mutually exclusive, the two dimensions don’t always overlap.

The pursuit of status

During our scholastic years, class toppers, high achievers in various domains and all-rounders tend to be highly regarded. In adulthood, job titles, salaries and fame become signifiers of prestige. Even as people hanker for these markers of influence, status-enhancing tokens are often ephemeral and not necessarily within our control. Prinstein asserts that the “relentless pursuit of status” can put people “at-risk” for a variety of “serious life problems, including addiction, loneliness, and depression.” 

Yet, that doesn’t imply that we shouldn’t aspire to be popular. Instead of hankering after status, we may garner popularity by being affable. Rather than merely focusing on resume-building, we may cultivate authentic relationships with people based on warmth, trust and love.  

Unfortunately, in today’s virtual world, the number of ‘Friends’ we have on social networks is another public measure of popularity. But these ‘Friends’ or ‘Likes’ do not reflect genuine connections based on a history of sharing and caring. Our virtual popularity index is again a status marker that does not necessarily stem from how likeable we are as people. Thus, contrary to what you may see on social media profiles, the most popular icons are not necessarily the happiest or most well-adjusted.

Youngsters today are under pressure to expend time and energy on enhancing their “visibility, prominence” and reach on virtual platforms. However, Prinstein cautions us that we would do better if we invest more of ourselves in making ourselves likeable as our agreeableness is linked with more positive life outcomes. Likeable folks are “more satisfied, happier, and more fulfilled” than their peers.  

While there are definitely individual differences, likeable people are generally cooperative, helpful and abide by social rules. Further, congeniality is self-perpetuating. So, how we behave towards others impacts how they treat us, which, in turn, influences how we respond.

If you feel that most people don’t seem to like you, then perhaps, you need to observe your behaviour and introspect to see what you can do differently to be more agreeable to others. Examine what cognitive behaviour therapists call your “core beliefs” regarding yourself and your relationships. Instead of viewing people through a frame of grouses and grudges, try to see them as human, just like you.  

Cliched as it may sound, start by finding the good in others. This can be hard especially if you have had a history of being excluded, taunted or bullied. But you can make a fresh start by changing how you approach and respond to others. Start off by making connections with more cordial people who haven’t overtly rejected or humiliated you. Also, remember that you don’t have to be liked by everyone all the time. Like most things in life, relationships also wax and wane. But as long as you feel secure in your ability to connect with others, you will feel better about yourself.  

Further, you may need to observe and make changes to your own behaviour if it is impeding your ability to forge genuine ties with people. Are you a good listener? Do you tend to go along with the group’s wishes or do you impose your own views most often? Do you dominate discussions? Or, are you too quiet that nobody takes notice of you? Do you always put your needs over and above those of others? Both extremes, excessive submissiveness or dominance, are not conducive for healthy relationships. Likewise, constantly craving either company or solitude, can make you needy or a loner.

Being likeable is not just about “how others regard” you but also entails how you view and treat yourself and others.  Rather than trying to feel or act superior to others, Prinstein advises that you “help others feel included and welcome.”  

(The author is director, PRAYATNA)  

Published 21 November 2019, 00:30 IST

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