Popularity Sans Teeth

IMG_3281Mitch Prinstein’s New York Times op-ed “Popular People Live Longer” bounces between conflicting conceptions of popularity and fails to establish a working definition. For this reason I trust neither the premise nor the conclusions. Moreover, it relies heavily on Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s meta-study, which examines the relationship between the quality and quantity of one’s relationships (not popularity exactly) and one’s mortality. But what is popularity anyway? Some clarity would have helped.

In the fourth paragraph, in passing, Prinstein seems to define lack of popularity (“being unpopular”) as “feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely.” This conflation of the subjective and objective confuses the issue. If “being unpopular” is the same as “feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely,” then “being popular” would be the same as “feeling included, connected, fulfilled.” Yet there are plenty of people with few but strong friendships who feel “included, connected, fulfilled.” Does having just a few good friends, then, make you popular, if you feel good about the situation?

If so, then standards definitions of popularity go out the window. In dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster, popularity is associated with “common” or “general” approval, not the strong approval or support of the few, or with one’s own feelings of acceptance and fulfillment. Has Prinstein pulled a Humpty Dumpty on us?

No–I suspect that instead he has just used the wrong word and concept. Popularity is not the issue here. It may be that some combination of the number of one’s friends, the quality of one’s friendships, and one’s own feelings of inclusion can have a great effect on one’s health. In fact, Lunstad and colleagues emphasize the importance of the combination: ” Importantly, the researchers also report that social relationships were more predictive of the risk of death in studies that considered complex measurements of social integration than in studies that considered simple evaluations such as marital status.” (I view Holt-Lunstad’s study cautiously but see possibilities in the general principle.)

In other words, Lunstad’s study is not about popularity in the first place. Prinstein writes that “Dr. Holt-Lunstad found that people who had larger networks of friends had a 50 percent increased chance of survival by the end of the study they were in.” Yet Holt-Lunstad says “stronger,” not “larger”: “Across 148 studies (308,849 participants), the random effects weighted average effect size was OR = 1.50 (95% CI 1.42 to 1.59), indicating a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships.”

Very well. What about Prinstein’s own discussion of popularity?

He wisely distinguishes between different kinds of popularity, particularly between likability and status–and notes that Facebook likes have more to do with the latter than the former. “Which means that it wouldn’t kill you to step away from Twitter once in a while,” he concludes, bringing me close to to liking the piece. Yet he fails to make other necessary distinctions–not only between subjective and objective states, not only between number and quality of relationships, but also between one’s qualities and others’ responses to them, and between likability and virtue overall.

Likability,” he says, “reflects kindness, benevolent leadership and selfless, prosocial behavior.” First of all, likability, defined in this manner, is not equal to being liked; it is just the state of qualifying for being liked. You can show kindness and benevolence and still be shunned by those around you. In fact, this has happened often through the ages.

But there’s another rub. Often to be kind and benevolent, you have to do things that others don’t immediately like. Suppose, for instance, you are the principal of a school that has had ongoing problems with bullying. To curb the bullying, you institute a schoolwide program of discipline and character education. Students start complaining that it’s stupid; teachers, that it’s taking too much time from other things; parents, that their own child doesn’t need it. But you persist with the plan. Over time, the bullying goes away, and the school’s new practices become habitual. People now praise the character education program for its content and effects. Students who used to dread coming to school now thrive in their classes and walk easily down the hallways. But for this to happen, you had to risk being disliked.

That leads to more brambles still. Likability is not the only virtue in life. Often there is reason to do things that come into conflict with likability. Of course, to do good or to accomplish something important, one need not be gratuitously nasty or cold–but sometimes one needs an independent streak, an ability to think and act alone. It is possible that such internal strength also contributes to longevity.

All in all, Prinstein’s working premise needs much more probing, definition, and refinement. In addition, the forthcoming book (from which the op-ed is adapted) needs a new title. Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World mimics Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (and other titles with similar formulas). It’s too late–the book comes out tomorrow–but did the author and publisher choose this title for the sake of popularity? Or was it meant as a tribute? Either way, it’s a shame; the title limits the book by establishing a flawed opposition. Don’t judge a book by its title and accompanying op-ed, I remind myself, but the two leave me with doubts.

I took the photo while bicycling on Eurovelo 11 last week. I don’t think I would have been on that route, or seen it in this way, without a streak of solitude, which conflicts at times with popularity. Also, I made a few revisions and an addition to this piece after posting it; my most recent update was on June 8.

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