One day, we all showed up to middle school and some kids were popular, while others simply weren’t. As someone who was never lucky enough to sit at the cool kids’ lunch table, I always wondered just what it took to be popular. It was an ephemeral and intangible quality, but it was impossible not to notice that the popular kids all seemed to have the right clothes, the right hairstyles, and they certainly didn’t do dumb things like get good grades or play clarinet in the band (like yours truly). Popular kids may have been blessed with the perfect crimped bangs and the trendy Guess jeans, but it turns out that they may have lucked out in the genetic lottery, too.
Recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that a person’s proclivity for popularity is at least partly inherited. By studying sets of identical and fraternal twins in a computer-modeled social network, researchers at Harvard and the University of California–San Diego determined that the number of times a person was named as a friend in the network had a strong genetic link, as did a person’s tendency to be either at the center of the network or on its fringes.
One thing the study didn’t specify is exactly what it is that makes someone popular. Is it a single gene, or rather a specific combination of genes like beauty, extroversion, and sociability that determines who sits at the coveted lunch table? If popularity is a combination of genetic factors, it should come as no surprise that attractive, outgoing parents pass down genes for these desirable traits, while other parents imbue their children with the genes for introversion, bookishness, or shyness, making them less likely to be popular.
One unavoidable fact is that a person’s perceived level of attractiveness affects how he or she is treated in life. Studies show that from childhood, kids pick their friends based on their looks. Other studies demonstrate that an unattractive physical appearance results in an unfairly lowered opinion by other people, and that attractive people are bolstered by the (sometimes false) perception that they are kinder, friendlier, and more competent. Perhaps popularity is just the lucky accident of being considered conventionally attractive.
But popularity isn’t just in the eye of the beauty holder. People who are perceived as popular often share a set of personality traits that make them desirable friends. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology tested male college students working on a project and had them evaluate each other’s likeability. The students rated as most popular were those who tended to carry a certain gene associated with impulsivity and rule-breaking behavior. They were the students who were most likely to suggest illegal activities, flaunt authority, or break the rules. While several other studies have shown that adolescents who break the rules tend to be well-liked, this one (conducted at Michigan State University) is the first to connect the behavior with a specific gene.
Nature Versus Nurture
With all the emphasis on genetics, it’s easy to forget that a huge component of a person’s personality is his or her environment. According to Psychology Today, one study found that parents’ parenting style greatly affected their kids’ popularity among their peers. The study, conducted in the Netherlands, found that popular children tended to have authoritative/democratic parents who were affectionate, friendly, and supportive. These parents were more likely to nurture their children’s creativity and develop positive behavior patterns. Authoritarian parents, on the other hand, were more likely to be stern disciplinarians, express impatience and exasperation, and offer minimal help with problem-solving. The children of authoritative parents learned behavior patterns that other children and teachers were drawn to, while the children of authoritarian parents were more likely to have troubled family relationships, making their social relationships that much more strained.
Popularity itself may be an important product of natural selection. In the evolutionary process, individuals that were closer to the center of a social group would have earlier and broader access to information and resources, while those at the fringes would be left in the cold (literally and figuratively). People in the center of a vast social network are the recipients of more support, more assistance, and more care than those with fewer friends and social connections, and they would have been more likely to breed successfully and pass down their genes to subsequent generations.
However, popularity does have its disadvantages. In cases of disease, people at the center of a network would be more likely to encounter viruses or pathogens, while people on the outskirts of society are protected by their isolation. Studies have shown that modern-day popular adolescents tend to be happier, but are much more susceptible to gossip and negative influences from friends. Those at the fringes of a social network are less likely to be swayed by peer pressure and are more likely to be independent-minded.
Humans may be born with an innate predisposition to be sociable and outgoing or shy and quiet, but our genetics are not the only factors that determine our destiny. Without an upbringing that enables children to fully utilize their popularity genes, those traits will lie dormant. It’s also possible for the “chromosomally-challenged” to foster the kind of outgoing personalities that will put them at the center of a social network. What the much-publicized Harvard study fails to mention is that popularity is as much a function of environment as it is of inherited traits. It’s a lucky confluence of genetics and upbringing, and although most people get over their junior-high experiences (whether they were pleasant or humiliating), if we had to do it all over again, few among us would pass up the chance to sit at the cool lunch table.