The Science of Mean Girls – 7 Insights about Popularity


Why You should Care about Popularity…

When we think of ‘popularity’, our minds typically wander to secondary school, or perhaps (if you’re Irish) a set of borrowed scenes from the fictional American high schools that graced our TVs as children. We think Mean Girls. We think Clueless, Grease, Breakfast Club… Each generation has their ‘go to’ movie. But beyond the walls of the classroom,  the reality is that popularity is something that matters a great deal more than we like to admit – long before we hit adolescence and all through our adult ‘maturity’ (whatever that is, I’m still waiting to find out).

Because the fact is popular people just do better. Fact.

They’re more likely to be hired. They’re more likely to be promoted. They’re more likely to find their ‘ideal’ mates. They’re more likely to be happy. They’re more likely to spawn popular kids themselves. They’re even more likely – some studies suggest – to have less physical and mental health issues! Who wouldn’t want to be popular? But if you still find yourself  saying ‘Don’t care’, it’s pretty irrelevant, because actually, you do care. A lot…


1. #Trending (Why You already Care about Popularity)

The science of popularity dictates so much as to what content/marketing works and what doesn’t. Why? That dreaded word ‘viral’.

There is a reason why when we see something ‘trending’ we have a piqued interest. If ‘the group’ has defined something as interesting we will have a greater interest in it ourselves. This isn’t just for ‘contagious’ good ideas, products or people either – even diabolically bad reviews of an unknown author on Amazon are proven to increase sales. The fact that others are paying attention to something, taps into a deep animalistic behaviour in ourselves. We survive and thrive, in the herd.

Even if we consider ourselves rebels who don’t go with the herd.We still mind what the herd does, because we want to know where we stand in relation to others. After all, otherwise, who are we? 

2. Even Your Period Cares about Your Popularity

Really! As the descendents of ‘successful’ apes (i.e. the ones who survived to reproduce another day) we were the ones who learned that living and getting along with one another offers huge advantages for our safety and well being. It was even more advantageous if those in the herd ate, slept, hunted, played and reproduced at the same time. It makes group collaboration and group decision making so much easier if everyone’s interested in doing/not doing the same things around the same time. Hence, the contagiousness of the yawn.

Yawning is a gesture that’s so suggestive, even reading the word yaaaaawn right now may have you yawning (although hopefully not out of boredom)! It’s the universal signal to other apes that we’re tired and maybe it’s time to relax and catch a little kip. And, while it may sometimes seem like the most anti-social inconvenience in the world, your menstrual cycle also cares about your popularity (ie keeping you in the herd) too. That’s why you are probably synced up with the other females you spend most time with. I’d imagine one pregnant/nursing neanderthal is something of a liability, but a whole bunch… a matriarchy?

3.  So Does Being ‘Super Hot’, Make You Popular?pretty

Well, I was surprised to find out from my most recent online course, that it is actually a little more complicated than that.Yes, attractiveness does come into it a lot. And you could try blaming marketing and media but the reality is that babies as young as 12 months ‘discriminate’ based on attractiveness. One theory is that in being pre-wired to search for the ‘human’ face, babies automatically seek out the face most close to an ‘average human’ template.

Attractive people are more likely to be hired, admired even trusted. But popularity isn’t as simply as having a symmetrical face – it’s just the head start some lucky few have. Much like having nice packaging on a product. For one thing, how we define popularity and where we fit on the popularity spectrum actually changes as we change, over the course of our lives…

4. Popularity and Personal ‘Big Data’loveya

It helps to think of popularity as a sort of personal database – somewhat like the counters on your social media profile. Every single social interaction, every social experience, from day 1 until our last is clocked into this database and this database dictates our biases for encoding, interpretation, social goals and our social behaviours.

We all have pre-determined biases towards certain behaviours, beliefs and attitudes.

Some help us and others, can be really quite harmful.  Anyone who has undergone or read about CBT will understand this. CBT (or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is all about trying to change these biases for the better, by becoming consciously aware of this largely unconscious daily process. Examples of such bias could include, how quickly we might react in anger (hostile attribution bias) or if we automatically take the fact someone hasn’t said ‘Hello’ as a cue that they don’t like us (rejection sensitivity bias). It can even determine whether we believe things (or even just the things we think are things – like the imagined rejection example) are ultimately our ‘fault’. E.g. “I’m not fun, so of course they didn’t say ‘Hi’. Who’d want to be my friend?” And these biases in themselves can lead to severe anxiety, depression and low body/self image.  

pinkThese behaviours, beliefs and attitudes, in turn, have a massive influence on our personal popularity amongst social groups. They affect how we read/misread the room and respond to social situations and hidden social rules to our advantage or disadvantage.

5. Is that toddler judging you? Popularity and Age

Research has shown that children as young as three years old are able to measure and report accurately on an individual’s popularity within a group. The thing is, they will define it differently than you or I. At a young age we seem to define popularity by the key virtues of ‘niceness’, intelligence and sociability – does little Johnny play well with others? Does he resolve social disruption in the group? Does the teacher like him because he knows the answers?

The reason behind this is because young children are hard-wired to imitate parents and other adults, in order to learn valuable survival skills. Obviously nice sociable kids make easier playdates, but they are also more likely to have approval from the parents and teachers that young children desperately seek.

However (as any nerd will testify) ‘nice guys finish first’ definitely does not remain status quo, as kids progress into puberty.

6. Why Mum Loses the ‘Best Friend’ Status…

mumAs a child turns 11 or 12, their brain rewires, slowly from back to front. Specifically from the cerebellum to the prefrontal cortex until the age of roughly 20. Yes 20. During this time the brain tells its owner to seek out more like-minded youthful individuals to spend time with and to spend less time with Mummy and Daddy. These like-minded individuals are deemed priority one in terms of increasing social interaction and ties within the herd and poor Mum and Dad suddenly find themselves under the label of ‘painfully uncool’. But don’t worry, once their underdeveloped prefrontal cortex that controls behaviour, personality, planning, problem solving and emotions gets the overhaul, they’ll be back. That’s right – it’s up the front, so it changes last.

7. Mean Girls.. It’s Just a Scientific Fact, Sorry

caeserThe second thing that happens is that tweens and teens stop talking about popularity in terms of ‘niceness’. At the age of 11 we can see there is a direct correlation between ‘likeability’ and popularity of r=.77 amongst boys, but this drops to .63 by age 15. However, amongst girls this correlation actually drops a whopping .67 to r = .04 – which means little or no correlation whatsoever! In short, the key determinant of popularity changes during adolescence from social preference (likeability) to social reputation (influence).  Things that affect this are (again) attractiveness yes, but also resources and social skills, particularly those for planned (rather than reactive) ‘social manipulation’ – either skills or bad habits that we will have honed in the primary school classroom.

The good news is that not all popular people are ‘mean girls’. Well, the games aren’t as aggressive and blatant as in the high school movie. It’s equally possible to be popular and nice… they’re just two completely unrelated things! And the really popular amongst us (if you think of celebrities) are likely to be among a group called ‘controversials’. So basically if you’re popular enough, you’re likely to cause debate. Lucky you.

So if you’re a brand…

Which type of popular are you trying to be?

Controversial, loved by some, influencing many, perhaps hated by a few?

Or playschool popular?


If you would to find out more about the science of popularity, check out this great Coursera Course on now.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. suzanne says:

    Definitely agree that attractiveness is probably the biggest factor that plays a role in popularity.



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