Popularity is multifaceted — there’s not just one kind of popular kid.
Past studies have shown two main types of adolescent popularity. There are the outgoing social kids who gain popularity by being kind and cooperative, and there are the aggressively social kids who acquire and maintain popularity through coercion and disruptive behavior.
Now a new study identifies a third group of popular kids who are described by researchers as “Machiavellian-like.” These kids are more strategic in their quest for popularity. They are both feared and loved. Think of them like the characters in the teen comedy “Mean Girls.”
In the past there was speculation that this third type of popular child existed. This is the first study to show it convincingly with firm data, said Brett Laursen, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University.
“There’s three different kinds of popularity. They look different and there are different ways of attaining each. You can be popular and aggressive, popular and nice or popular and both,” Laursen said.
‘You can become popular by just being nice’
To examine the different types of adolescent popularity, researchers from Florida Atlantic University and the University of Montreal in Canada followed 568 girls and boys in seventh and eighth grades for two years. Classmates identified those who were aggressive, prosocial and popular.
The Machiavellian popular kids, which researchers referred to as “bistrategic popular,” are more manipulative. They are successful at balancing getting their way with getting along. When needed a bistrategic popular teen may act aloof and not talk to another teen, but then “make nice” to smooth things over, Laursen said.
“They’re not afraid to be ruthless,” he said.
The bistrategic group had the highest level of popularity and were above average on physical and relational aggression, as well as on prosocial behavior. They were viewed by their peers as disruptive and angry but were otherwise well-adjusted.
For teens who are struggling with issues of popularity and fitting in, Laursen offers these words of advice: “Being popular is not the same as being liked by others. You can become popular by just being nice.”
What to watch for
Teens can get distracted by popularity. Parents can help by reminding kids that having one good friend is probably more important than being popular, Laursen said.
Also, watch how teens are going about becoming popular. Are they being good friends or are they being aggressive?
“Parents should be careful not to guide their children towards high status unless they are ensuring that they also will remain likeable,” said Mitch Prinstein, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of “Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Cares Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships.”
“Status is bad for us, so parents need to beware that kids will feel tempted towards something that could harm them in the long run,” Prinstein said.