Popularity can be a touchy subject. College provides some with an opportunity to start over, but not everyone wants to leave past social experiences behind. In fact, popularity has been surprisingly popular this semester.
Psychology professor Mitchell Prinstein’s “Popularity, Friendship and Peer Relations” allows undergraduates to participate in a self-study of popularity and has attracted approximately 570 students.
“When I was a kid, I was very tuned in to all of these dynamics,” Prinstein said. “My friends and I discussed who was popular, and why they were popular, and what it meant about them. I always thought it was a salient part of growing up.”
“Project Popularity” is a mock study that will last for the entire semester. Students answer questions about everything from their own appearance to their high school crowds, and data from the students are used to look closely at popularity and peer relationships.
Prinstein received a teaching grant from Information Technology Services that helped him develop the study.
Prinstein said he expects the results will be skewed when compared with a real study for a variety of reasons. Although questions are answered anonymously over the Internet, lying “is always a concern whenever a study involves self-reporting,” he said. “You hope exaggerations will cancel each other out because some people will say they were more popular than they really were, others less. In actual research, you’d get others’ opinions — parents and teachers, for example.”
Also, although preliminary data have shown that his students reflect a range of social groups, he believes many of them have “specific reasons” for taking the class.
“I took the class because I wanted to learn about myself and why certain things happened to me,” Ilia Medina ’05 said. “My experience in high school was awful, absolute Hell on Earth — My questions are being answered pretty much the way I suspected they would, but I still don’t think that justifies it, I still don’t see why it has to be the way it is.”
But Daniel Clemens ’05 said he thinks more popular students were drawn to the class.
“I think it’s because they want to hear why they’re cool. Less popular kids might be afraid to grapple with some of the issues we discuss,” Clemens said.
Clemens identified himself as “fairly popular” in high school but less so in middle school and said he took the class for specific reasons.
“I thought if you knew what types of things made someone popular, you could try to emulate those characteristics,” Clemens said.
Lauren McBrayer ’02, who said she was popular as captain of her cheerleading squad in a suburban public high school in Georgia, agreed that the class seems to contain a lot of popular students. But she said she went into the class thinking it would help make her a better parent.
Prinstein did not specifically say whether he was popular in school, instead stressing popularity’s relevance to everyone.
“If you ask kids what they talk about the most, if you look at what popular culture depicts as important, it’s peer relations,” he said.