Popularity pays off

Popular kids in high school — and average kids who think they’re popular — tend to do well, psychologists say.

About 15 to 20 percent of high school students are rated as likable by their classmates, reports the New York Times.

They tend to have closer friendships, to excel academically and to get on well with most others, including parents — their own and their friends’.

In a continuing study of 185 students in a school in Charlottesville, Va., researchers led by Joseph P. Allen of the University of Virginia have concluded that this group is “characterized by a degree of openness to strong emotional experience” and optimism about their relationships, past and future.

About 50 percent of students are neither especially liked nor disliked while 30 to 35 percent are neglected students, who are invisible to their peers, or rejected students, who are disliked.

“We have evidence that the neglected kids are the ones most likely to move up, or to move between groups,” (University of North Carolina psychologist Mitchell) Prinstein said. “These are the ones with no established reputation, they kind of blend into the woodwork, and this can give them a kind of freedom.”

The same cannot be said of the rejected group, on the lowest rung on the ladder. In several remarkable studies, researchers have brought together students from different schools, representing different levels of the social hierarchy. Within hours, sometimes less, the children assume their accustomed places — the popular ones on top, the socially awkward on the bottom. Climbing out of the geek ghetto is hard, even if a child knows what likability looks like.

Teens who think they’re popular tend to be well-adjusted, even if they’re fooling themselves about their social standing.

That fits in with the results of my daughter’s three-year study of what makes kids popular in middle school. (She was in middle school at the time.) She concluded that self-confidence is the key to popularity.

I think I was popular in high school within my social set. Or was I just happily deluded? It was a long time ago. I did claim to be the only non-neurotic Jewish graduate of Highland Park High School. I may still hold that title.

About Joanne


  1. I’m curious as to how this is useful knowledge, exactly.

    What are they going to do? Mandate that the unpopular kids go to self-confidence classes? Yeah, that’ll help (rolling eyes).

    I was an unpopular kid in school. Rejected, not neglected. I think I’ve done OK for myself, and perhaps have more compassion than I might were I popular.

    But I really do wish I didn’t have to live through so many days of having my homework and books knocked out of my hands and trampled on the floor while being taunted. I don’t think any amount of studies are going to change the reality that unpopular kids face. For a certain percentage of people, grade school just is going to suck. It’s probably better to popularize that fact than to subtly blame the unpopulars by saying “Yeah, but if you had more self-confidence…”

  2. Cardinal Fang says:

    As a homeschooler, I’ve frequently heard that kids need to go to school to learn how to deal with bullies and taunters. But, as both Joanne and Ricki point out, the rejected kids in first grade are still the rejected kids in sixth grade. So how did being rejected for six years help those kids, again?

  3. “So how did being rejected for six years help those kids, again?”

    *sigh* It’s quite obvious really. It prepared them for the NEXT 6 years of rejection.

  4. Independent George says:

    Is this correlation or causation? Do well-adjusted, sociable kids become popular, or do popular kids turn out well adjusted and sociable?

  5. For a certain percentage of people, grade school just is going to suck.

    What this really means is that there are certain kids who, due to their personality, will have a miserable time when dumped into an environment where their social lives live and die at the whims of a bunch of randomly selected kids who happen to be the same age. It boggles my mind when public school apologists insist that this is the kind of socialization kids need.

  6. Stacy in NJ says:

    I homeschool to cultivate healthy, confident children with mature values. So much of the socialization that takes place in schools is really not healthy, for the popular kids as well as the unpopular. They exist in a fishbowl like environment with the most aggressive setting the tone for all. While there are many wonderful kids in our public schools, many have to compromise themselves to exist within the social structure. Sometimes those compromises are deadening.

    The world is a pretty tough place, but I’m not interested in protecting my kids from disappointments. I am really pleased that I can offer them the freedom, structure and support to really engage with the world without being overly distracted by the stupidity and meanness that institutional schooling seems to bring out in even good kids.

    If we could start from scratch and design a way to educate children from k through 12, would we design anything like our current public schools? I don’t think we would.

  7. I was a rejected kid in K-12 school. The social pain and emotional torture you go through when you’ve been labeled an outcast, and no matter what you do or don’t do to try and fit in, you’ll continue to be an outcast, haunts you for life.

    Like the fact that my first date was my Senior Prom, and I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 21. Or the fact that it took years of adulthood to develop the confidence I needed to not be afraid of rejection at job interviews, when speaking in public, etc. Or how it took years to get over the anxiety I used to experience JUST BEING MYSELF.

    I still get anxious when I have to deal with the better looking, wealthier, etc. people out there. The envy of the “popular” crowd lasts for life, too. Though in adulthood it’s more like indigestion than depression, but still, it’s there…

    The 70% of you out there who grew up either popular, or accepted or tolerated by the popular crowd, will never know what it feels like. The other 30% of us out there become cycnical about human society for life, while the 70% majority get upset and ask, “What’s your problem?”

    OK, I’m off my soapbox now. Just had to add those thoughts to the discussion, though.

  8. I was a rejected kid most of the way through school until high school when people figured out I was a handy guy to have around because I could (and would) help them with their school work when they didn’t get something.

    At first I reveled in the fact that people actually wanted me around. Then, I realized they were using me to get around their own laziness. Talk about feelings of resentment.

    To this day, 10 years later, I’ve still got a voice in my head screaming that I’m being walked on when someone asks for something and a lot of times I still feel like Rodney Dangerfield (“don’t get no respect!”). I’ve worked hard to overcome it, sure, but it’s still there.

    Looking back I realized a couple of things:

    One, the age-segregated socialization model in modern schools is a terrible one. As Stacy in NJ very correctly points out, it rewards the most aggressive individuals in the pack while exiling those who are different.

    Two, modern schools’ sickening focus on “self-esteem” through no failure actually makes this worse by robbing reject kids of other places they can find self-worth. Often, the different kids have unique talents or skills that could help them build real self-esteem were they recognized on their merit. In the “everybody gets a trophy” culture, the different kids are denied this, making their sense of self-worth even more dependent on their peers.

    Kids, especially the rejected kids, need the opportunity to mix with a variety of ages, from several years younger all the way to adults, and to have their real accomplishments recognized. A 10-year-old who is a gifted violinist might be a total reject to his 10-year-old peers because he’s nerdy and doesn’t do the things they consider cool. If so, he’ll probably act like a reject whether he’s in that situation or not. However, when he’s genuinely appreciated for his talent by adults or kids of different ages he’ll have the chance to occupy a different social role.

    Homeschooling, when done well, gives kids this wider socialization that their public school peers don’t have. I’ll bet this is the reason that all of the homeschooled kids I’ve met have been better adjusted than almost anyone else.

    Enough of my rant, but it’s clear we need to do something different, because there are too many “rejects” being turned out by the broken socialization model of the modern school.