For most of us, the thought of returning to high school is enough to make us cringe. The BS. The drama. The push for popularity among different cliques. No thanks.
 
Despite our maturity as we age, move on and enter the world of work, many of those same cringe-worthy behaviors seem to unwantedly trail us like a piece of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of our shoe. Often, they just go by different names or become more subtle in nature, but they are still there. Particularly, of all things, popularity.
 
We all like to pretend this idea of pursuing popularity becomes ancient history and irrelevant to us as we ease in adulthood, but we’re just fooling ourselves, says Mitch Prinstein. These dynamics of how we interact with one another and how much we still fundamentally care about what others think about us continues to have a powerful influence over our lives.
 
Prinstein, of all people, would know. He’s been studying human behavior—and specifically this idea of popularity—for more than 20 years as the John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience in the Clinical Psychology Program at the University of North Carolina. He culled his research and thoughts together this year with the book, “Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World (Penguin Random House).”
 
What’s important to note, he says, is that not all popularity is created equal. There are people who are popular because they are likable, and people who are popular because they have gained a certain status. Think of people in the workplace and/or bosses. Most of us prefer to be around the first type—people who are likable and are generally interested in us as a human being. This is also the type of personality we should strive for, he says. It’s healthier and more fulfilling. The problem is, the second type is the breed too many of us fall into. It’s easier and faster to attain, and we’re practiced at it because it’s the same sort of adolescent, status-seeking behavior we knew in high school.
 
What’s interesting, he notes, is that the findings are also applicable to businesses.
 
“We’re in a culture that’s all trying to pay attention to ourselves, make us feel like we are somehow better than everyone around us,” he says. “That’s really a bad recipe for any type of cohesion or community or shared goals and teamwork.
 
“This is why in an office we might see the kind of leader that’s trying to make themselves seem most powerful, but they’re not good leaders. They might get other people to follow, but they those people are not particularly loyal, not actually interested. It’s just a type of fear and domination way of leading others. When there are leaders who really make everyone feel included and they foster this sense of community, you get the same if not better work ethic, but you also get more buy-in and loyalty and commitment.”
 
It particularly has a direct application to customer loyalty. Research has shown that in order for someone—or a brand—to be well liked, what they do is less important than how they make the customer feel.
 
“They may be going through all the right motions, but it’s about whether the recipients feel the way you want them to feel—and what you want them to feel is valued, included and happy. Those are the key ingredients to someone being likable. You can do all of the things that someone might say will make you seem more customer oriented, but if they don’t actually make the customer feel valued, a little less stressed, a little happier, a little more included and cared for, then it’s not going to work. You really have to deliver.”
 
Prinstein’s interest in the psychology of popularity actually began on the front lines—as he was going through the adolescent struggles. He carried that with him through college and grad school and into the professional world. It’s something that’s inclusive of everyone and hasn’t seen a lot of changes despite the changes in culture and generations. It applies as equally to Millennials as Baby Boomers.
 
“As I’ve aged, I’ve seen the field evolve, and I’ve been surprised at how much the exact same things that characterize popularity dynamics in high school take on different names and more subtleties in adulthood.. The same issues we need to be thinking about with our kids are the same issues we should still paying attention to in the office and in our personal lives. So, one of my main impetuses for writing it was having adults remember that you didn’t leave all of this back in high school. It’s all pretty relevant.
 
“The second thing that really made it feel urgent is that we seem to be in a time that focuses on the wrong kind of popularity, perhaps more than at any time in the history of our species. We are focusing on the kind of popularity that leads to problems rather than the kind that helps us. I felt an urgent need to send up a warning flare in hopes that people would about-face on this damaging trend.”
 
Being able to apply it to businesses is an added bonus, he says. What’s interesting is that so much of the focus on areas such as customer loyalty and experience revolves around marketing principles, while academic research never gets tapped.
 
“I would say that most of the questions that companies are thinking about are questions that we behavioral scientists have spent our entire careers answering for free,” he says. “It’s our jobs to do that and publish these results. In some ways, the biggest difficulty is for us to figure out how to get the message into the hands of people who can use it, rather than simply publishing it on our own scientific journals and talking to each other.
 
“We are an untapped source that’s worth billions of dollars in knowledge and people-hours. People don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We’ve already done it in a far more controlled and stringent way than most companies have the ability to do, because we can do these experiments without having to worry about the bottom line. It’s consequence-free for us, and we can save millions of dollars for people trying to test out ideas that have real consequences for their bottom line.”

For more from Mitch Prinstein, listen to our interview podcast here!
 

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