Perhaps no period of life is more fraught with obsessive worries about popularity, social hierarchies and reputations than that treacherous, three-year period known as middle school. The social anxieties of adolescence have driven plotlines from "The Wonder Years" to "Hannah Montana" where teens and pre-teens spend entire hours and episodes agonizing over what their peers think. Figuring out whether you'll end up being a cool prom king or queen bee--or the kid who eats alone in the cafeteria--is an integral part of becoming a teenager.
Turns out, it doesn't necessarily matter. Whether or not your high class voted you "most popular," teenagers who perceive themselves as well liked are just as socially successful over time as the kids who actually are part of the in-crowd, according to a new study in the May-June issue of Child Development. In fact, the overlap between the kids who believe they're popular and those who are deemed popular by their peers is pretty small. "Certainly there's a subset that feels good about themselves and is also popular, but that isn't the majority," says Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, a research associate in psychology at University of Virginia who conducted the study. Her findings add to a growing body of research suggesting that our perception of how we fit into the social world is just as important--if not more important--than our real-life position in the social world.
The researchers asked 164 students at a public middle school to tackle a nerve-wracking question: how well liked were they among their class? McElhaney gauged the students' popularity within the class with assessments from the teenagers' peers, asking them who they would "most like to spend time with on a Saturday night." She also had close friends rate the subjects' aggression and hostility, saying whether statements like "is mean to others" applied to the teen in question. The study began with a group of 13-year-olds; McElhaney checked back in with them a year later to gauge whether each teen was doing better or worse socially. "We were measuring their aggression and hostility, along with a peer rating of whether people want to hang out with the teen," she explains.
Half of her finding wasn't particularly surprising: the popular kids fare great socially, with their peers becoming more interested in hanging out with them over the year. But the teenagers who felt good about their place on the social ladder did just as well; they became less hostile and their peers became more interested in spending Saturday night with them even if they weren't ranked as particularly well liked.
"If you're popular, sure, you do well, but the same is true if you felt that you were socially accepted," says McElhaney. "And if you look at both of those effects together--popularity and self-perceived social acceptance, we found that either one was OK."
The one group of teenagers who did not fare well socially were those who did not perceive themselves as well liked and were not ranked as popular by their peers. These kids were viewed as more hostile toward their peers as the year went on and they were less sought out by their classmates over time. "They're not at all on the radar screen," says McElhaney. "They don't see themselves as accepted and that's where it's most problematic, when you don't have either that popularity or sense that you're well liked."
One of McElhaney's most interesting findings is that self-perceived and peer-perceived popularity don't line up too well; most of the well-liked kids do not perceive themselves as well liked and visa versa. The correlation between self-perceived and peer-ranked popularity was .25, meaning about a quarter of the kids who were popular according to their classmates also thought they were popular. For the other three quarters, there was a disconnect between how the teen saw themselves and what their peers thought.
Why such a perception gap? For one thing, humans are notoriously bad at gauging what others think of us, whether it's a musical performance or on a first date. We're usually way off base thinking we did far worse or far better than others think we did. Although this particular study did not get at what exactly makes a teen feel well liked, McElhaney ventures a guess: kids who felt well liked but weren't considered more universally popular, may have carved out a small niche for themselves where they have a small number of very positive social relationships that bolster their self esteem. Or, they may be off the radar at their high school, but highly involved in an outside activity, like a church group or competitive sports team, so they're relying on their experiences outside of middle school to figure out their social standing.
The research also does go into what effect these perceptions have in the long run--whether those who see themselves as popular or those who actually are well liked will have more social success in their adult lives. McElhaney is hesitant to guess but does emphasize that how social standing evolves in adulthood is likely to be much more complex than who is hot and who is not in high school. "It may be that other measures of social standing than popularity are more telling in the long run," says McElhaney.
Other social psychologists place their bets on the kids who perceive themselves as well liked, not those deemed to be popular. John Cacioppo, a psychologist at University of Chicago, has done longitudinal research following children and loneliness, finding that the perception of social isolation predicts a higher risk for depression and other health problems; the perception of social acceptance, it seems, protects against such ailments. "Our own research suggests it's not the objective isolation, but the perceived isolation, that is at the core of what loneliness is," says Cacioppo, who is publishing a book on loneliness in August.
Both his research, and the Child Development study, bolster a mounting body of social psychology research suggesting that our perception of the social world--whether we view it as welcoming or hostile--can have a big impact on our mental and physical well-being. Individuals with many friends can often report being lonely and to be suffering from some of the negative physical effects of loneliness, while, on the reverse side, those with a few friends might say they're getting along just fine. Loneliness and popularity, researchers are finding, are subjective conditions that depend on the individual's perception of what it means to be "well liked."
"This gives some hope to teens going through middle school who find themselves not to be the popular kid," says Cacioppo. "There are other ways to achieve the same psychological benefits of feeling connectedness, without being the football player or the cheerleader." Finding a group, even if it's small, in which you comfortable and well liked can be just as rewarding as being the one with the most MySpace friends. Will teenagers actually take that message to heart? McElhaney isn't so sure. "My kids aren't teenagers yet, so we'll have to see," she says.