The following is an interview with Dr. Mitch Prinstein, a distinguished Professor of Psychology at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prinstein is the professor of the online coursera course on the psychology of popularity. This interview is about Prinstein’s research into the psychology of popularity and the content of his course.
This is Seph from Positivepsychologyprogram.com and I am very excited to introduce to you, distinguished professor of psychology, Mitch Prinstein. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do and who you are?
Mitch Prinstein: Sure, yeah, thanks so much for the opportunity. I am a clinical child and adolescent psychologist and I am really interested specifically in how popularity and interpersonal relations might help some folks thrive. And how difficulties with that actually might lead kids of adults to have problems in their lives. We’ve been studying popularity in adolescence now, I’ve been doing now for about 20 years or so, and this is a really fun area to learn about how some of the same things that happen to us in childhood still effect us in adulthood, in much the same way.
Can you tell us something that you have found to be most shocking or eye opening when it comes to the differ… or you know the experiences that we’ve had as children on our behavior as adults.
Mitch Prinstein: Absolutely, so what’s really interesting about research on popularity is that there are two different types of popularity. One is really focused on how well liked we are by others but the other one, which kind of sneaks up on us in adolescence, isn’t really liked but it is about have high status. And it turns out that that type of popularity is the one most of us remember when we grow up. Sometimes we’re still shooting for even as adults but that is not the type of popularity you want. Even though that was the types that might have been important when you were a teenager. A lot of people are doing things to try and seek fame or wealth and that’s not a good idea.
Okay, so what is the popularity that we are striving for as adults?
Mitch Prinstein: The kind of popularity that really makes us flourish and feel like we’re making a difference, is the type that has to do with likeability. When we’re well-liked not only do we get treated well by other but it actually opens a new door of opportunities for us. It lets us become more engaged and it helps us to learn more in every experience that we have.
Can you name an example of that?
Mitch Prinstein: Sure, so there’s really good research that shows that kids that are likable are actually those that are invited more social opportunities and because of that it creates a context where they can learn new social skills and learn different kinds of competencies. So as they grow up and they move into romance relationships, they now are ahead of the game because they have had more opportunities to learn and negotiate complex personal relationships. And this just keeps on going for romantic partnerships in adulthood, for committed relationships like marriage. It has applications for our work relationships and even just our life satisfaction.
This reminds me a little, what you’re saying, about Barbara Frederickson’s broaden and build theory.
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah absolutely, Barbara, a colleague of mine is just upstairs and I am really excited about her work. I don’t know if this makes sense, there’s a way in which you can think of it really being something as you put that out, you just get a broader set of opportunities and a really nice way of flourishing in so many different aspects of your life. It’s interesting how much this comes from popularity because our brain are actually developed to care more about social connection than so many other aspects of what we engage in. In fact there’s recent research that when we’re at risk of being isolated, it activates pain centers in our brain, telling us that this is one of the worst things we can do for our survival, is loose out on social connections.
That makes a lot of sense, yeah. And can you explain what happens in the brain when it comes to status and popularity, what are the centers that get triggered and make us behave like this?
Mitch Prinstein: well it’s really interesting, so there’s research that shows that at the adolescent transition the brain starts to develop but it starts within the limbic system and it kind of works its way up towards the prefrontal cortex. And what that all means is that, in adolescence we’re biologically primed to care a lot about social rewards and also social punishments. The time when you were about 13 – 14 years old it felt like the most important thing you could do was to be really well regarded by peers, and you would do anything possible, some of us, to try and make sure that peers really liked us and that we felt connected. Of course this is all happening before part of the brain that is stopping us from doing impulsive behavior is fully developed. So it sets the stage for us to be really caring a lot about our peers and not knowing how to stop doing risky behavior, which is why peer influence is so powerful at that age. Now some of us grow out of that but some of us continue to feel that our self-esteem is really wrapped up in how much other people think of us rather than being more intrinsically derived.
Yeah okay and what do you think the things are that are different between people who do have that intrinsic sense of self-esteem and the people that derive their self-esteem from external forces such as other people?
Mitch Prinstein: Some people have looked at this my thinking about the constructs of rejection sensitivity and it’s interesting when you look at those people that are very concerned about possibly being rejected and most likely assuming their rejected in an ambiguous situation. Seems like their brains work a little bit differently, they actually become far more activated even when thinking about hypothetical situations in which they may or may not be accepted. And because of that the way they’re processing every single social interaction in that way, it really creates a whole different experience for interacting with others. Every single social interaction that is thousands times a day, and it can really lead to a lot of emotional distress or the opposite. People that are able to exert more confidence and feel more capable of succeeding in their social experiences without always worrying about others.
Okay yeah exactly, let me just sketch a situation here. Say there is a person in need of therapy, because he or she is experiencing a lot of emotional distress because the place too high emphasis on the opinion of others or what they think the opinion of others might be. If you were to propose a kind of therapy for this person, which therapy would you suggest and do you think is most effective?
Mitch Prinstein: There’s now a lot of good research demonstrating that interpersonal therapy is the way of helping people identify their patterns within social interactions and maybe figuring out the way that is contributing to their depression. But of course most of the research has demonstrated that cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBT) are really helpful to getting people to recognize their patterns of automatic thoughts, recognize the way in which they are encoding certain fuses in their environment and interpreting those fuse. In ways that are probably perpetuating a sense of concern or anxiety or depression, and with cognitive-behavioral therapy understanding and correcting those types of information processing biases, that really works to reduce that type of internalized distress.
Yeah exactly, that makes a lot of sense. Okay, and how does this relate to the course that you are doing? The coursera course psychology of popularity, which I am very excited about by the way. How does this relate to the content of the course?
Mitch Prinstein: This has a really fun opportunity, in our course, what I am doing is really giving an overview of what we know about popularity. How it is that we measure it, why we all care so much about it and how it has effects way beyond our high school years. So as adults how has the things that predict popularity, in both types of popularity the same as we grow up and how are the effects of both types of popularity still influencing us as adults even many years later.
Mitch Prinstein: So hopefully it’ll be a really fun class for people to learn about kids but also a lot about themselves mostly.
It makes me wonder, you were just saying what it means to be popular but have you come up with some kind of definition of popularity that you think makes the most sense?
Mitch Prinstein: Yeah, there are different definitions out in the literature. Some really talk about that idea about who is the most well-liked and usually those are folks who are really good at leadership. They’re really empathic towards others and they’re people that have a nice way of making everyone feel included and their opinions being important. That’s really different than the kids who are popular in the way we think about it in American movies. The kids who are really dominant and influential, they tend to actually be pretty aggressive towards others especially in ways that makes their status increase and other people’s status decrease consequentially.
Can you give us a little bit of a teaser of what’s going to, be dealt with on the topic in the Coursera course? What is the most exciting thing you’re going to share with us?
Mitch Prinstein: I think if you’re wanting to think a little bit about what your experience was like as a adolescent, understand why some kids were so much more popular than others. Or if you’re wanting to think about how to apply those ideas to becoming more well liked or more popular or gaining the type of status you want in adulthood, this is definitely the class that you want. I think what would be most interesting about this class is that everything you thought was happening in high school might not be exactly the way you thought about it. Things are a little bit different now that we are studying it scientifically and it is a good way to reframe what your experiences were as an adolescent by understanding popularity from the perspective of psychological research.
Okay wow, that makes me even more excited about the course. What’s the advice you can give to parents who are worrying about their kids not being popular or getting bullied at school?
Mitch Prinstein: Well I think that there are a couple of messages for parents. First, it’s important to make sure that kids are being conscious about which type of popularity is the one most important and not to be pursuing the kind of popularity we know leads to bad outcomes in adulthood. The second thing I would say to parents is that when it comes to bullying and victimization this is exactly what is important to look at. One of the things we talk about in the classes, why its not just being victimized that leads to negative outcomes but it’s how we think about victimization and how we talk to kids about victimization that makes all the difference, so we talk about that in the class. What I would say to parents is that it is more important to understand popularity today than in any other time and that is because of social media. It has taken popularity into a whole new world, where kids are experiencing world wide attempts to gain kind of influencing status and have their own social media accounts and a presence. And popularity is very very different than when we were all back in high school and it’s probably more important to understand this now than it ever has been.
That’s interesting, and I saw you wrote a couple of articles about effects of social media and smartphone uses on children and adolescence as well. And, that brings me to question what can you advise parents who are worrying about their children, you know, spending too much time of their smartphone or on social media, what advice would you give to them?
Mitch Prinstein: We’re still learning about the effects of social media, it is a relatively new for psychological study. My graduate student, Jackie Nessie, has been doing great work in this area and what we’re learning is that it’s not social media by itself that is a problem. It’s why kids are wanting to be on social media and what they are doing – what they’re not doing – because they are doing all of this stuff on social media instead. But we’re still trying to learn about that, what we do know is that social media, more than in-personal interactions, presents an opportunity for kids to put forward their best selves and sometimes that’s not their real selves. It’s the best of their photos and their experiences, and when others don’t realize that, they tend to make social comparisons with their peers and think that they are not doing as well as others and they forget that this is not the real life of their peers, it’s only the version of their life they want to share with others.
Yeah exactly yeah yeah, I’ve thought about, the concept of relative deprivation and the way that social media can contribute to that. In which way you think social media can contribute to a sense of relative deprivation?
Mitch Prinstein: How are you defining that, tell me a little bit more about that work.
What I was thinking is that if people log on to their facebook account and they’re checking their timeline and they see all these pictures of their friends in.. on vacation, beautiful photos of them on the beach and they think “oh I wish I had a body like that” or “I wish I could, you know, be on vacation”, and they get a sense of relative deprivation. So that person has something that I don’t have and can’t confront this all the time because as you just said they only see the best of people. They don’t see all of the failures and struggles that they go through, they only get to see the best. So how do you think, this relates to each other and has there been done any research into this yet?
Mitch Prinstein: I love what you’re saying about relative deprivation and I think that first perfectly with some of the results that Jackie Nessie and I just put out. What we found is that kids that tend to engage in a lot of social comparison with others are not going to be as happy after they are spending time on facebook or instagram. But in particular it’s the kids who are rejected by their peers that have the worst time with it because they’re making more upward comparisons, so when they’re looking at the facebook profiles or instagram profiles of others, they’re probably experiencing far more relative deprivation because they’re making comparisons that they feel are having much better lives and are having many more peer experiences. And then they think of themselves as not being invited to all of those events that are being captured on instagram.
Mitch Prinstein: So I think our results are starting to really be quite consistent with those ideas.
Okay, what final message do you want to leave us with today?
Mitch Prinstein: I would say, a couple of things. First of all, we’re doing a global study on popularity and if anyone is interested and they are over the age of 18. It just takes 20 minutes by going to projectpopularity.org, so feel free to spread that link to anywhere you want, would be great, thanks. The second is I would say in our course and our research what we are learning is that popularity is important. It’s not only important in adolescence but it’s important for the rest of our lives but it’s not the type of popularity that you probably think. And hopefully our research and our course will help people really understand that.
Well Mitch, thank you so much for your time, your inspiration, and the knowledge that you’ve shared with us. I will definitely promote projectpopularity.org more extensively to the audience and hope that we can gather a lot of participants for the study and hope to talk to you soon. Good luck with the course.
Mitch Prinstein: Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.