But then there is status: the kind of popularity that operates according to hierarchies. The kind that confers admiration but not necessarily true esteem. The kind most commonly associated with, yes, high school. Status, too, Prinstein argues, can affect people’s brains and their bodies overall—in adolescence, and far beyond.
What happens in the teenage years, Prinstein suggests, is a kind of perfect storm, neurologically speaking: At the start of puberty, the brain grows more dramatically than at any other point in one’s life. Myelin, the fatty substance that coats the neurons and allows the brain to function efficiently, increases, affording a burst of neural activity. Those shifts, along with others, aid the brain’s adolescent transition from childish ways of thought (impulsive, relatively un-self-conscious) to adulthood’s more logical, ruminative, and other-oriented modes.
The result: Newfound brain capacity collides with newfound self-consciousness. The adolescent brain is primed both to take in the world around it more than ever before, and to process that information with more self-awareness than ever before. Which is another way of saying that teenagers are particularly cognizant of identity—and another way, too, of explaining why, as Jennifer Senior put it in New York Magazine, “most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.” It’s a powder keg, emotionally, and popularity—or, more specifically, teens’ conception of popularity—is a fuse.
And its effects continue long after high school. Whether one, as an adolescent, was accepted or celebrated by others, whether one ranked high or low—the awareness of all that informs the brain’s biases, far into the future. It conditions someone, Prinstein argues, either to be suspicious of other people, or trusting. To assume friendliness, or conflict. (“We don’t see things as they are,” Anaïs Nin had it; “we see them as we are.”) Memories of what we were inform, still, what we become. Or, as Prinstein sums it up: “Our adult brains began to form to help us survive in the hallways of high school. The problem is, we left high school long ago—and our brains never got the memo.”
The other problem? We are, as a culture, extremely reluctant to talk about any of that. We congratulate ourselves for having moved beyond concerns about popularity, beyond such teenage superficialities—suspecting all the while that our adolescences lurk and linger, if only in spectral form. Popularity is in that way much like class in America: It divides people. It defines people. Yet we generally treat it as a relic of the past—as something that was, once, but that thankfully is no more.
Here, via a professor who has studied popularity and its effects, is a book that is frustrated with all the pretense. Popular, as its title suggests, wants us to talk about its subject—forthrightly and, perhaps more to the point, unabashedly. It wants us to question the power that popularity—status, in particular—exerts on our lives. It offers insights that are bolstered by research; it also, more broadly, gives the concept of popularity a specific language, and an insistent voice. Back in 2001, one-tenth of the undergrads at Yale signed up for a psychology class, and that was not (just) because they wanted social advice or an easy A. It was, it seems, because they wanted answers. The students seemed to recognize, intuitively, that adolescence would live on, in their own lives and the lives of their peers, shaping them—shaping all of us. They seemed to be seeking what their professor’s book now offers: an exploration of why, even in adulthood, it can be so hard to grow up.