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Be Nice — You Won’t Finish Last
Posted on April 16, 2017
The New York Times
By SARAH MASLIN NIR APRIL 7, 2017
During the rosy years of elementary school, my inclination to share my dolls and my knack with knock-knock jokes (“Who’s there?” “Tank.” “Tank who?” “You’re welcome!”) were enough to elevate my social status. I was the belle of the playground. Then came my tweens and teens, and mean girls and cool kids. They rose in the ranks not by being amiable but by puffing cigarettes, breaking curfew and pulling pranks on unsuspecting nerds, among whom I soon found myself.
Popularity is a well-explored subject in social psychology. The latest thinking is parsed by Mitch Prinstein, a professor and director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in his forthcoming book, “Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World,” and in his currently running MOOC. (Some 58,000 have taken the online course, via Coursera.)
Dr. Prinstein sorts the popular into two categories: the likable and the status seekers. The likables’ plays-well-with-others qualities cement schoolyard friendships, jump-start interpersonal skills and, when cultivated early, are employed ever after in business and even romance. Then there’s the kind of popularity that emerges in adolescence: status born of power and even notorious behavior.
Enviable as the cool kids may have seemed, Dr. Prinstein’s studies show negative consequences. Those who were highest in status in high school, as well as those least liked in elementary school, are “most likely to engage in dangerous and risky behavior,” like smoking cigarettes and using drugs.
In one study, Dr. Prinstein examined the two types of popularity in 235 adolescents, scoring the least liked, the most liked and the highest in status based on student surveys. “We found that the least well-liked teens had become more aggressive over time toward their classmates. But so had those who were high in status. It was a nice demonstration that while likability can lead to healthy adjustment, high status has just the opposite effect on us.”
Dr. Prinstein has also found that the qualities that made the neighbors want you on a play date — sharing, kindness, openness — carry over to later years and make you better able to relate and connect with others.
In analyzing his and other research, Dr. Prinstein came to another conclusion: Not only does likability correlate to positive life outcomes, but it is also responsible, he said, for those outcomes, too. “Being liked creates opportunities for learning and for new kinds of life experiences that help somebody gain an advantage,” he told me.
The findings were music to my nerdy ears: Those halcyon early days of popularity really did matter.
The meek — or rather, the genuinely nice — shall inherit the earth after all.