Study identifies three distinct types of teen popularity: prosocial popular – aggressive popular – bistrategic popular

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Adolescents place a lot of emphasis on popularity and they are keenly aware of the difference between being liked and being popular.

If forced to choose, many opt for popularity.

Popularity, however, has many faces. In prior research, two groups of popular adolescents stand out: those who are aggressive and those who are prosocial.

Prosocial popular teens acquire and maintain popularity through cooperation.

Aggressive popular teens acquire and maintain popularity through coercion and aggressive behavior.

Yet, if you ask any teenager about popularity, you will hear about a third group, who are described as Machiavellian-like.

“The most popular are feared AND loved.”

Just like the “Mean Girls” in the iconic American teen comedy, this group of teens can be aggressive when needed and then quickly “make nice” to smooth out any ruffled feathers.

To put this idea about teens who are both loved and feared to the test, researchers from Florida Atlantic University and the University of Montreal in Canada conducted a novel longitudinal study to examine different types of popular adolescents.

For the study, published in the journal Child Development, researchers followed 568 girls and boys in seventh and eighth grade (median age 13) for two years.

Classmates identified those who were aggressive, prosocial and popular.

Results from the study identified three distinct groups of popular adolescents: prosocial popular; aggressive popular; and bistrategic popular or Machiavellian.

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.

“Bistrategic adolescents are noteworthy not only for their very high levels of popularity, but also for the way that they balance getting their way with getting along,” said Brett Laursen, Ph.D., co-author and a professor of psychology in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science.

“They were less prosocial than prosocial popular adolescents, but at the same time less physically and relationally aggressive than the aggressive popular adolescents.

These youth are truly Machiavellian, maintaining their popularity by off-setting the coercive behavior required to maintain power with carefully calibrated acts of kindness.”

Bistrategic or Machiavellian-like teens maintain their popularity by off-setting the coercive behavior required to maintain power with carefully calibrated acts of kindness.

This group of teens balance getting their way with getting along.

As expected, prosocial popular adolescents were well-liked and well-adjusted; aggressive popular adolescents were neither.

“Prosocial popular adolescents are well-adjusted while aggressive popular adolescents are troubled on many fronts,” said Amy C. Hartl, Ph.D., senior author, who conducted this study as a psychology graduate student at FAU.

“The prognosis for bistrategic popular youth is mixed.

Their well-adjusted social and emotional profile coupled with a moderate propensity for social dominance and rule breaking may prove good or bad depending on the environment, thus providing hope for positive long-term adjustment and concern for the same.”


As adolescence progresses, the importance of peer relationships increases dramatically.

Teens spend proportionately less time with family and more time with friends, and these peer relationships become more intimate (Buhrmester & Furman, 1987Ellis, Rogoff, & Cromer, 1981Larson & Richards, 1991).

Further, peer relationships provide an important context for learning and developing interpersonal skills that are necessary for both friendships and romantic relationships later in life (Connolly, Furman, & Konarski, 2000Furman & Wehner, 1994).

As such, being accepted by one’s peer group during early adolescence seems likely to pave the way for successful social functioning throughout the course of adolescence and into adulthood.

However, the relatively limited literature examining social acceptance with peers during adolescence indicates that popular status does not uniformly predict positive outcomes for teens, nor does rejection automatically lead to negative outcomes (e.g., Allen, Porter, McFarland, Marsh, & McElhaney, 2005Prinstein & Aikins, 2004).

We suggest that during adolescence, teens’ perceptions of their own social success may be a crucial predictor of long-term social functioning, such that even teens who are not broadly popular may demonstrate positive adjustment over time if they maintain a positive internal sense of their social acceptance.

One of the fundamental changes that comes with the increased mobility, larger school contexts, and greater independence of adolescence is an increased ability to select one’s peer group and to associate with peers who may or may not also be classmates.

Sociometric studies examining effects of popularity during childhood typically rely upon assessments within a single contained classroom (as this is the most relevant social group for most children), and past studies have demonstrated strong correlations between children’s own views of their social competence and their sociometric standing (Harter, 1982).

In adolescence, however, groupings may be far larger, possibly encompassing entire grade levels in schools and/or including friendships from contexts outside of school (e.g., youth groups, sports teams, and work places). As a result, it becomes increasingly possible for the meaning of popularity as assessed by classmates to naturally diverge from the adolescent’s own sense of their social acceptance.

For example, teens who are less popular on a school wide basis might engage in niche picking (Scarr & McCartney, 1983), in which they are well liked within a smaller group of friends (either within or outside of school), which may serve as the teens’ effective or functional peer group.

Hence, with development, perceived social acceptance may become an increasingly important marker of social success, in part because self-reported social acceptance is likely to most accurately reflect the adolescents’ success within their own uniquely defined social milieu.

Evidence from several sources supports this idea that perceiving oneself to be liked may actually be at least as critical in determining future social outcomes for teens as is actually being liked by other teens.

Several bodies of evidence from both childhood and adolescence – in areas ranging from attachment expectations, to attributional biases, to rejection sensitivity – suggest that internal assessments of one’s relations with others and expectations about how one will be treated by others are critical in shaping emotional and behavioral outcomes (e.g., Dodge & Price, 1994Downey & Feldman, 1996Sroufe, 2005).

Further, there is some indication that self-views become more stable and enduring by adolescence, suggesting that they may take on more importance in how individuals approach their social worlds at this age (Trzesniewski, Donnellan, & Robins, 2003).

Research with younger samples and at least one study with adolescents has suggested that children who perceive themselves as having great difficulties being liked by their peers are likely to go on to experience social difficulties – they may withdraw from peer interaction and/or their attempts to engage their peers may be relatively unskilled and thus unsuccessful (Boivin & Begin, 1989Caldwell, Rudolph, Troop-Gordon, & Kim, 2004Cassidy, Kirsh, Scolton, & Parke, 1996Cillessen & Bellmore, 1999Patterson, Kupersmidt, & Griesler, 1990Rubin & Mills, 1988).

Alternatively, those who see themselves as being socially accepted may seek out future friendships with greater confidence in their abilities and thus in a sense make themselves into people that their peers like and seek out as companions (Nelson & Crick, 1999).

No research, however, has examined the extent to which teens’ perceptions of social acceptance by peers might have predictive value even after accounting for actual popularity within a broader peer group or whether perceptions of acceptance might be an important moderator of popularity in predicting adolescents’ future development.

Much of the work examining outcomes of peer acceptance during adolescence has utilized sociometric measures as predictors of adolescent adjustment.

This work reveals different outcomes for those teens who are sociometrically popular (via peer nominations of “most liked”) versus those who are perceived as popular (via peer reports of who is popular; Cillessen & Rose, 2005Gest, Graham-Bermann, & Hartup, 2001LaFontana & Cillessen, 2002Parkhurst & Hopmeyer, 1998Prinstein, in pressRodkin, Farmer, Pearl, & Van Acker, 2000).

In addition, low sociometric popularity is distinct from peer rejection, which is usually determined by peers’ nominations of “least liked” classmates.

Cross-sectional studies have generally shown that sociometrically popular teens have good social skills, few behavioral problems, and a large group of friends, particularly when compared to rejected teens (Franzoi, Davis, & Vasquez-Suson, 1994Frentz, Gresham, & Elliott, 1991Pakaslahti, Karjalainen, & Keltikangas-Jarvinen, 2002Parkhurst & Hopmeyer, 1998Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 1998Wentzel & McNamara, 1999).

However, one recent short-term longitudinal study revealed mixed outcomes for popular teens:

Although they became more competent within their close friendships and showed decreases in peer-reported hostility over time, they also demonstrated relative increases (over 1 year) in minor deviant behavior and alcohol and substance use (Allen et al., 2005).

Thus, sociometric popularity may well be a concurrent marker of social success, but the internalized sense that one can do well with peers – as a potentially more “face valid” indicator of teens’ level of confidence and sense of efficacy in their social world – may be at least as important as a predictor of future levels of adaptive social development.

Although no studies to date have investigated how self-perceptions might moderate the effects of popularity per se, there is some evidence that such moderating effects are likely to exist.

In particular, the negative effects of both peer rejection and membership in a low-status “crowd” have been shown to be mitigated by one marker of adolescents’ social perceptions:

The degree to which they valued being accepted by their peers (Brown & Lohr, 1987Prinstein & Aikins, 2004Von Bank, Brown, & Steinberg, 2006).

More specifically, teens who were seen as “left out” by their peers (either by “least liked” nominations or by lack of peer-reported crowd affiliation) but who also reported placing little importance on peer acceptance demonstrated significantly better adjustment than those who were similarly ostracized but also cared more deeply about their status with peers (Brown & Lohr, 1987Prinstein & Aikins, 2004).

Although these studies have begun to map out some ways in which certain cognitions may moderate the effects of negative experiences with peers, it also seems important to also understand how self-perceptions may moderate the effects of a more broadly applicable phenomenon, that of being preferred or well liked by one’s peer group.

Somewhat surprisingly, questions about the future import of either adolescents’ actual or perceived social acceptance have rarely been addressed empirically.

Further, no study of which we are aware has investigated how perceived social acceptance and sociometric popularity might work together in predicting adolescents’ future social adjustment.

The current study used multiple methods and multiple reporters to assess the effects of both a preference-based measure of sociometric popularity and self-perceived social acceptance on the relative changes in social functioning in a diverse sample of young adolescents who were followed over a 1-year period.

We hypothesized that sociometric popularity and perceptions of one’s own social acceptance would both be primary predictors of relative change in social functioning in early adolescence, as determined by peer reports and observational data of interactions with friends.

However, we further hypothesized that the links between sociometric popularity and the outcomes in question would be moderated by perceived social acceptance.

More specifically, we expected that adolescents who perceived themselves to be accepted would be socially well adjusted (decreasing hostility, increasing desirability as a companion, decreasing withdrawal, and decreasing advice seeking), regardless of their actual sociometric status. However, those who lacked acceptance both in terms of self-perceived acceptance and preference-based sociometric popularity were expected to have the most difficulties over time.

Discussion

Many adolescents agonize extensively over how well they are liked and accepted by their peers—a fact that is both well known and at times bemoaned by the adults who live and work with them. However, there is relatively little research examining the developmental import of social acceptance at this age and virtually none that looks at the relative contributions of what teens themselves think versus peers’ ratings of their social status. Although many adults may get frustrated or impatient with adolescents’ investment in being well liked by their peers, the current study suggests that adolescents’ level of acceptance from their peers is indeed a key predictor of their future social development. Further, these data suggest that although both sociometric preference-based popularity and self-perceived social acceptance predict future social success, in fact, it is not necessary to be highly accepted by both standards. When teens themselves felt socially confident and comfortable with their peers, they did well regardless of their actual social status; alternatively, teens who were highly preferred by their peers according to sociometric ratings also fared well, regardless of their own perceptions of their social standing. Finally, the adolescents who demonstrated the worst social outcomes over time were those who lacked both a strong sense of their own social acceptance and correspondingly were rated as unpopular by their peers.

The combination of sociometric popularity and self-perceived social acceptance was significantly predictive of relative changes in peer-reported indices of adolescents’ social adjustment, including aggressive and hostile behavior, desirability as a companion, and withdrawal. The combination of these two variables accounted for between 9% and 16% of these outcomes (with the moderating effects accounting for approximately 3% – 4%). Past research has typically found sociometrically popular teens to be relatively socially successful, so in that sense, these findings may not seem particularly surprising. However, adolescents who believed themselves to be socially accepted fared better socially regardless of their level of popularity—even relatively unpopular teens became increasingly less hostile and increasingly more desirable companions when they believed that they were accepted by their peers. One possible explanation for these findings is that some teens who were not seen as popular by their classmates may in fact be socially successful in other arenas outside of school (e.g., church and work). Thus, they maintain a high level of confidence and assurance that they are likable and fun to be with, such that peers at school come to increasingly seek them out. Further, they may have access to peer interactions outside of school in which they have opportunities that allow them to further develop their social skills, maintaining ones that are adaptive and dropping those that are discouraged (e.g., hostility). Finally, the adolescents who became relatively more hostile and who were increasingly less sought out by their peers were those who uniformly lacked social connections—they were both broadly unpopular (as per preference-based sociometric rankings) and viewed themselves as not fitting in. This is clearly an undesirable position for these teens, and the combination of hostility and social isolation is likely to continue to be costly to their future socioemotional adjustment.

With regard to peer ratings of withdrawal, both sociometric preference-based popularity and self-reported social acceptance predicted which teens demonstrated the greatest relative increases in withdrawal over the year. Adolescents who were left out and those who felt left out both became relatively increasingly withdrawn (as rated by their peers) from ages 13 to 14 years. Teens who are not perceived as popular, although not necessarily rejected, still may suffer socially from being “off of the radar screen” with regard to their peers at school. Their tendency to not be included in peer interactions at school may foster a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, in which these teens begin to decrease their bids for inclusion in peer activities over time. Similarly, teens who are low in self-perceived social acceptance may approach peer interactions expecting failure and rejection, and this negative mind-set may undermine their ultimate social success in multiple ways. The relative increase in withdrawal seen in these adolescents could also be linked to social skill deficits that both peers and teens themselves are aware of. However, even when teens may actually have the abilities to interact appropriately with their peers, the heightened tendency to avoid peer interactions may result in missing opportunities to practice these skills. Thus, in the quickly changing social milieu of adolescence, this tendency to withdraw may be particularly costly, in that the social skills and tactics that were successful at younger ages may now no longer be effective.

Finally, a similar pattern of moderating effects was also found for observations of adolescents’ behaviors while asking for and receiving advice from their friends. In this case, both adolescents who felt highly accepted and adolescents who actually were well accepted demonstrated very low levels of change in the rates at which they sought very basic advice from friends. In contrast, the teens who showed the greatest relative increases in seeking basic, practical advice were those who were low on both popularity and self-reported social acceptance. To the extent that asking for advice from friends seems like a positive behavior, this finding may at first seem counterintuitive. However, recent research has suggested that high levels of seeking help from peers may be a marker for emotional neediness that predicts future social anxiety (Teachman & Allen, 2008). Along these lines, the types of practical advice sought by teens who scored high on the particular scales used in the current study were so basic and elementary that they may have reflected relatively unskilled social behavior on the part of the target adolescent. Thus, the adolescents high in either self-perceived social acceptance or popularity appeared to feel no need to seek advice on practical matters and perhaps also intuitively recognized that more subtle or emotionally grounded strategies are required in order to attain stronger relationship support. On the other hand, the high levels of advice seeking in teens who were low in perceived social acceptance may mark their (largely unskilled) attempts to engage with their friends around relatively trivial and concrete matters. Though their friends do respond to these requests for help, it is likely that the degree of advice seeking about concrete topics displayed by these teens is off-putting or irritating. In a sense, we may be capturing a real-life example of “trying too hard”—these adolescents may be compensating for their insecurities and/or relatively low social status by approaching their friends in a somewhat clueless and/or needy fashion. However, some caution is required in interpreting this finding, given the relative instability seen in this measure from ages 13 to 14 years; it may be that the measure of advice seeking becomes a more salient measure of neediness during mid-adolescence, and/or the measure may be capturing some other aspect of the dynamic of teen friendships that will become clearer as additional waves of data are examined.

Overall, these data demonstrate that neither preference-based popularity nor perceived social acceptance tells the whole story with regard to predicting adolescents’ level of future social functioning. However, further research with additional waves of data will be needed to determine whether either teens with low popularity but high self-perceived acceptance or those with high popularity but low self-perceived acceptance will continue to do well over the longer term. Similarly, although the findings for the teens who were both low in sociometric popularity and self-perceived acceptance mirrored those often seen with rejected children, this study was not intended to examine the effects of peer rejection. By definition, the teens in the current study were all able to find at least one friend to participate with them, resulting in a sample that as a whole was relatively well socially adjusted. Future research particularly targeted at differentiating teens who fall at the low end of normal on social acceptance versus those who are relatively socially isolated versus those who are actively disliked by one’s peers would be useful in furthering our understanding of these complex social dynamics. Finally, the approach used to measure change over time in this study (predicting future levels of behavior while covarying baseline levels of that same behavior) is but one measure of change over time. This measure of change is distinct from identifying change in the sample as a whole and from trajectories of growth over longer time periods; further research employing these methods will be important to conduct in the future.

It should be noted that the procedure for gathering the sociometric preference-based ratings of popularity used in the current study differed from other methods, including the classroom-based methods that have been utilized in similar studies with younger samples. Given that early adolescents are interacting with a broader range of peers within the school context, the classroom-based method appears less appropriate (and indeed, logistically less feasible) for this age group (Allen et al., 2005). However, the fact that each participant selects 3 of the 90 – 120 raters of popularity may create a slight bias in this measure as the larger group is slightly more likely to contain peers who knew each participant. Given the small percentage of the rating group that was selected by any individual teen (less then 3%), these biases were considered tolerable, though care should be taken in generalizing these findings to other studies of popularity that use different methods. This measure also asked adolescents with whom they would like to spend time (rather than to name peers they like or consider friends). Although this is believed to yield primarily a preference-based measure, it is likely that status considerations also play into youth’s nominations on this measure. On a similar note, ratings of social acceptance (which were assumed to reflect social success within one’s own social niche) were gathered via self-report, whereas success with the broader peer group was assessed via peer-reported sociometric rankings. Thus, we cannot say for sure whether the patterns of findings in the present study is attributable to the differences between self-report versus peer report, narrow niche versus broader group, or some combination of the two.

In spite of these limitations, this short-term longitudinal study highlights the critical importance of social acceptance from peers in relation to the promotion of healthy development during early adolescence. Given the developmental changes that take place in children’s patterns of socializing as they enter adolescence (e.g., Buhrmester & Furman, 1987Ellis, Rogoff, & Cromer, 1981Larson & Richards, 1991), it becomes increasingly likely for school-based ratings of popularity to diverge from one’s own perceptions of social success. As such, teens’ beliefs about their own social abilities may stem from several sources and may not be based entirely on peer relationships within the school context. Thus, although popular adolescents do fare well socially, teens’ own social perceptions may become increasingly important in shaping future adjustment, and it is possible for adolescents to ultimately be socially successful without being broadly popular. Said differently, feelings of confidence in one’s own social standing seem to act as a protective factor—teens that demonstrated high levels of self-perceived social acceptance fared quite well over time, regardless of whether they were considered popular or unpopular by their peers at school. Similarly, feelings of not fitting in put teens at risk particularly when they are not well accepted by their peers: The teens who fared the most poorly over time were those who both felt left out and who, in fact, were left out in terms of preference-based popularity. Thus, social acceptance may become more multi-faceted during adolescence such that a complete understanding of social functioning during this developmental stage should take into account both teens’ own sense of their social standing as well as ratings from their peers.


Source:
Florida Atlantic University
Media Contacts:
Gisele Galoustian – Florida Atlantic University
Image Source:
The image is credited to Alex Dolce.

Original Research: Closed access
“Test of the Bistrategic Control Hypothesis of Adolescent Popularity”. Amy C. Hartl, Brett Laursen, Stéphane Cantin, Frank Vitaro.
Child Development doi:10.1111/cdev.13269.

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