Sunday, October 28, 2007

Peer Popularity: Understanding Social Dynamics of Peer Relations

McLellan & Pugh (1999) claim that peer relations are essential to understanding identity both individually and socially. Considering peer relations are important during school years, this essay will focus on the dimension of peer culture called peer popularity. This essay will firstly discuss the definition of peer popularity. Then, through expanding on these definitions, some of the psychological and social characteristics of being popular will be explored. Finally, some of the social psychological variables that contribute to popularity will be discussed.

What is Peer Popularity?

In order to understand what makes someone popular amongst their peers, we must first define what it means to be popular. Research suggests that peer popularity can be broken down into two sub categories, they are, peer perceived popularity (also known as consensual popularity) and sociometric popularity (de Bruyn & van den Boom, 2005; Kosir & Pecjak, 2005; Parkhurst & Hopmeyer, 1998). Kosir & Pecjak define socieometric popularity as “students who are well liked by many and disliked by few“ (p.129). In contrast Kosir & Pecjak state that students who are perceived as being popular are those who are described as popular by their peers but are not necessarily like.

It is important to distinguish the two forms of popularity, as both forms differ in their characteristics (Kosir & Pecjak, 2005). Kosir & Pecjak also explain that peer popularity differs from peer friendships. The sociometric measures of popularity does not explore one on one friendships, but rather, perceived status or acceptance within a larger group (Kosir & Pecjak).Therefore, the definition of popularity, is not the amount of friends you have or don’t have; it is how you are viewed within a group.

What Characteristics make you popular?

Not surprisingly children who are sociometiricly popular carry likeable personality traits. These children are easy to get along with because they are cooperative, sharing, forgiving and able to keep promises (de Bruyn & van den Boom, 2005). Furthermore they tend not to be mean, dominating or overly emotional (de Bruyn & van den Boom). Lease, Kennedy, & Axelrod (2002) support this view, suggesting that children who are sociometricly popular have higher levels of prosocial behaviour and lower levels of aggressive and disruptive behaviour.

Peer perceived popularity on the other hand is has different characteristics. Lease et al. (2002) claim the peers perceived as being popular have expressive equipment, spending power and are above average in social aggression and social visibility. In addition LaFontana and Cillessen's (2002) study suggests that peers perceived as being most popular were rated at higher levels attractiveness, social connectedness, intelligence and athleticism. This evidence may suggest that popularity can influence perception of favoured personal characteristics or that favoured characteristics can influence perceptions of popularity.

Peer perceived popularity, also has some associations with sexual activity (Prinstein, Meade & Cohen, 2003). Results from Prinstein et al. suggest that higher reports of oral sex were associated with peer popularity, but not likeability. However, if the number of sexual partners increased, popularity decreased (Prinstein et al.). Prinstein et al. claim that being sexually active fits the prototype of being popular. Therefore more students are likely to engage in sexual activity or report that they are sexually active to gain status.

Common characteristics of Sociometric Popularity and Peer Perceived Popularity.

A common characteristic of both sociometric popularity and peer perceived popularity is attractiveness (Boyatzis, Baloff & Duriex, 1998). Analysis suggest, that the perception of attractiveness is related to the perception of popularity (Boyatzis et al.). That is, as perceptions of attractiveness increases so does perceptions of popularity. These correlations were found both within the female population and the male population (Boyatzis et al.). Adams & Roopnarine (1994) supports these findings as they found that facial attractiveness plays an important role in both peer perceived popularity and sociometric popularity.

In addition both sociometric and peer perceived popularity tend to have positive correlations with social competence (Adams & Roopnarine, 1994). However, the 2 subcategories of popularity use their social competencies differently, but, both know how to use their skill to their advantage. For example, those who are perceived as being popular know their goals and how to achieve them, even if it means being aggressive and manipulative (LaFontana & Cillessen, 2002). This is because they are competent in understanding social structures. However, sociometrically popular students use their skills to gain friendships (see Appendix C for examples).

Does not being Popular make you Unpopular?

According to Kosir & Pecjak (2005) those who are not considered popular in school are not unpopular. Popularity should be considered on a continuum, as either being high or low in popularity. As Kosir and Pecjak (2005) state “the absence of acceptance does not imply the presence of rejection, and the absence of rejection does not imply the presence of acceptance” (p.130). Therefore, being considered popular is independent of being considered unpopular (Kosir & Pecjak). We will now explore some of the characteristics of those children who are considered unpopular.

According to LaFontana and Cillessen (2002) students who were considered unpopular had significantly lower levels of favoured characteristics. In comparison to popular people, there were significantly lower reported differences found in attractiveness, intelligence, athleticism and social connectedness (LaFontana & Cillessen). Figure 1 provides a graphical representation of these differences. Generally the children who were considered unpopular had significantly lower measures of desired characteristics than those seen in popular children.

Social Psychological Variables Contribute to Popularity

Groups are formed amongst peers, just like in life, through social categorisation (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). Those who are considered popular have to maintain their status so they tend affiliate with those who are similar to them. This is because, the people you associate with will influenced how one is perceived by their peers (Boyatzis et al., 1998). Making, Stigma by association an evident dynamic of peer association.

Less popular children seek to join popular groups because they can attain higher status. However, popular children have to reject attempts from others to join their group to avoid stigma by association (Steinberg, 1993). This creates segregation and in-group and out groups structures (de Druyn & van de Boom, 2005). de Druyn and van de Boom suggest that initial likings towards the popular group may became negative because of rejection and jealously. Therefore, the paradoxical idea of popularity is formed (Steinberg).

According to some researchers, children generally have well formed stereotypes about who they consider to be popular and unpopular (LaFontana & Cillessen, 1998). These stereotypes are either confirmed or dismissed depending on personality. For example, those who fit the unpopular stereotype are given less positive attributions by other peers (LaFontana & Cillessen). Therefore, if unpopular children behaviour negatively it further confirms the unpopular stereotype. In addition, less stable attributions were given for more for positive behaviour of the unpopular children (LaFontana & Cillessen).

In contrast the popular children have a mixture of positive and negative attributions towards them from their peers. Popular children are held less responsible for negative behaviours. However, they also had less stable attributions for their positive behaviour (LaFontana & Cillessen, 1998). According to de Bruyn & van den Boom (2005) some of less stable or even negative attributions towards those who are perceived as being popular may be due to judgement, envy or jealousy.

Just like many individuals who interact in a group, children and adolescents over a period of time create group norms and values (Sebald, 1992). These norms can be based on stereotypes but according to Sebald, clothing and appearance is the most predominant group norm. Many students, in particular females, tend to have desires to be more popular (Sebald). Therefore, students are more likely to be susceptible to the normative influences (Bushman & Baumeister, 2008). Sometimes failure to meet the expected norms can lead to rejection or ostracism (Sebald).

Norms are typically created and passed down from earlier generations within the school or are made by the current leader (Bishop et al., 2004). According to Bishop, et al., leaders create norms which reinforce the popularity and authority of a crowd. The popular student leaders are able to control the norms, as other students look up to them to determine what is cool and uncool (Bishop et al). Therefore, the popular students are used as a reference group or an example of behaviours which will maintain ones social acceptance (Bishop et al; Sebald, 1992).

Peers who are perceived as being popular are also considered the trendsetters. They have the ability to integrate cultural dress norms depicted in the media to the school grounds. Therefore, those who are able to create this integration, successfully gain status, prestige and dominance (de Bruyn & van den Boom, 2005). This is an example of how norms from broader society can become norms in the school context and can influence group structures.

McClellands theory of needs might explain some of the social interactions in peer groups. McClellands theory of needs suggests that humans are motivated by three needs (Deckers, 2005). Those needs are affiliation, achievement and authority (Deckers). McCelland’s theory may give some insight as to why these social groups occur in the first place. As identified earlier peer interactions are important to the development of personal identity. Personal identities can be shaped from the attempt to meet these needs in social environments. (See Appendix D for examples)


From the research presented here it is evident that social interactions between children and adolescents are complex. This essay distinguished two different types of popularity and provided a snapshot of what it means to be popular. However, it has not come close to describing the full dynamics associated with peer popularity. Through looking at social categorisation, stigmas, norms, attributions and stereotypes we get a glimpse of the complexity of the popularity system.

Appendix A: Glossary of Terms
Appendix B: Paradoxical Popularity
Appendix C: Social Competencies
Appendix D: Affiliation, Achievement & Authority
Appendix E: Evaliation

Adams, G. R. & Roopnarine, J. L. (2004). Physhical attractiveness, social skills and same-sex peer popularity. Journal of Group Psychotherapy, Phychodrama & Sociometry, 47(1). 15-36.

Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. J. (2008). Social Psychology and Human Nature (1st ed.) Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth

Bishop, J. H., Bishop, M., Bishop, M., Gelbwasser, L., Green, S., Peterson, E., Runinsztaj, R. & Zuckerman, A. (2004). Why we harass nerd and freaks: a formal theory of student culture and norms. Journal of School Health, 74(7). 235-251.

Boyatzis, C. J. Baloff, P. & Durieux, C. (1998). Effects of perceived attractiveness and academic success on early adolescent peer popularity. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 159(3), 337-344.

de Bruyn, E.H. & van den Boom, D. C. (2005). Interpersonal behaviour, peer popularity and self-esteem in early adolescence. Social Development, 14(4). 555- 573.

Deckers, L. (2005). Motivation: Biological, psychological and environmental. (2nd ed.). New York: Allyn & Bacon.

Kosir, K. & Pecjak, S. (2005). Sociometry as a method for investigating peer relationships: what does it actually mean? Educational Research, 47(1), 127-144.

LaFontana , K. M. & Cillessen, A. H. N. (1998). The nature of children’s stereotypes of popularity. Social Development, 7(3), 301-320.

LaFontana , K. M. & Cillessen, A. H. N. (2002). Children’s perceptions of popular and unpopular peers: a multimethod assessment. Developmental Pscyhology, 38(5), 635-674.

Lease, A. M., Kennedy, C. A. & Axelrod, J. L. (2002). Children’s social construction of popularity. Social Development, 11(1), 87-109.

McLellan, J. A. & Pugh, M. J. V. (1999). The Role of Peer Groups in Adolescent Social Identity: Exploring the Importance of Stability and Change. San Francisco; Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Parkhurst, J.T. & Hopmeyer, A. (1998). Sociometric popularity and peer perceived popularity, two distinct dimensions of peer status. The Journal of Early Adolescents, 18(2).

Prinstein, M. J., Meade, C.S., & Cohen, G. L. (2003). Adolescent Oral Sex, Peer Popularity, and Perceptions of Best Friends' Sexual. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 28, (4), 243-249.

Sebald, H. (1992). Adolescents: a Social Psychological Analysis (4th ed). New Jersey; Prentice Hall.

Steinberg, L. (1993). Adolescence (3rd ed.). Sydney; McGraw-Hill, Inc.