How Parents Can Help Kids Navigate Social Dynamics with Dr. Mitch Prinstein

social dynamics

Show Notes

On this episode of Grow Kinder, we talk with Dr. Mitch Prinstein, whose research on popularity and peer relations has established him as a thought leader in adolescent psychology. As director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Mitch leads the Peer Relations Lab, which, for nearly twenty years, has studied why popularity plays a key role in childhood development and how it influences our lives as adults. We talk with Mitch about popularity in terms of likeability and status, its positive and negative impacts, and how parents can help kids navigate social dynamics in the twenty-first century.

Learn more about Mitch’s work at, or check out his book Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Cares Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships. You can also watch his TEDx talk here.



[0:00:02.7] AL: The Grow Kinder Podcast features conversations with thought leaders in education, business, tech, and the arts who all share one thing in common: a dedication to growing kinder in their work and lives and helping others do the same. Brought to you by Committee for Children.

Today we talk with Dr. Mitch Prinstein, a child psychologist and director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Prinstein has dedicated his career to studying peer relations and popularity. He is the author of Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Cares Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships.

Here are your hosts, Mia and Andrea.


[0:00:45.8] AL: Hello podcast listeners, this is Andrea Lovanhill.

[0:00:48.1] MD: And it’s Mia Doces.

[0:00:49.1] AL: We’re happy to be back with you today and talking to a very accomplished child psychologist. Mia, would like to do the honors of telling us a little more about Mitch?

[0:00:56.8] MD: I would. Our guest today is Mitch Prinstein. He is a researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and I’m super excited to talk to him today. His field is about peer relationships and specifically about popularity. He’s going to talk to us today a little bit about the work that he’s done around looking into people’s popularity in high school and how that impacts their lives, their careers, their health even, over the years.

[0:01:25.8] AL: Thank goodness we’ve got the chance to talk to Mitch today, because I am stressing over my 20-year high school reunion in two months from now.

[0:01:35.5] MP: Really, Andrea, you’re stressed about it? Why?

[0:01:38.2] AL: I am of two minds about it; I’m kind of ambivalent. I’m stressed because you have this fear that like, you show up there and you are who you were, and you have all of the pressures that you had again. I wonder, it would be a good question for our guest: Is that the case for people who were popular in high school? They probably are like yeah, let’s go back to the high school reunion.

For me, I’m not so sure that this is going to be a good experience for me. I see it as a sort of a grand anthropological experiment. I’m very curious about where people ended up and what the dynamics will be now and –

[0:02:13.2] MD: Is this the first reunion you’ve been to since –

[0:02:14.6] AL: This is the first one I’ve been to, I haven’t gone to – I need a good 20 years before I go back.

[0:02:19.3] MD: You live a long distance, it’s not like you still live in a town and you don’t know kind of what’s become of people, well that’s going to be –

[0:02:24.9] AL: Yeah, a couple of thousand miles to get back there.

[0:02:27.2] MD: – really interesting. I mean, I still live in the town in the city where I went to high school.

[0:02:34.8] AL: Were you popular in high school?

[0:02:34.8] MD: I’m not sure I really thought about it that much.

[0:02:36.5] AL: Which means you were.

[0:02:37.9] MD: I don’t know that that’s true. I’m sure in one of Mitch’s talks that I saw, he does say something about, “of course you can think back and identify the popular people.” Of course I could do that—I could say like this person or that person was popular. I feel like I had a lot of friends in high school, but of course I can look back on myself and think like, oh, that wasn’t very nice behavior that I did. I look back and think, if I knew what I know now, I probably would do some things differently. But you know, I felt like I was having a good time, but I think I experienced a lot of the same angst that everybody else does when they’re in high school.

[0:03:11.6] AL: I mean, it’s a hard time.

[0:03:12.5] MD: I like a boy, he doesn’t like me, you know, all those kinds of things.

[0:03:17.5] AL: This made me really introspective, sort of looking through Mitch’s materials and thinking about popularity. I kind of had this thought where I don’t have a lot of very close friends as I did in high school because I’m a transplant and also because I have small children. I don’t have the time for connection that I used to.

Yeah, at the same time, feel that I’m much more likeable now than I was in high school. I feel more myself or who I was meant to be, more at ease, and less worried about putting that out—or less worried about what people think when I do put it out, and able to navigate things better.

I had much closer relationships in high school, but folks stay around there for a long time, you know, in the area where you grow up, that’s typical.

[0:04:00.0] MD: Right, I wonder how much of that is maturity and how much of that is like self-awareness and how much of that is because we work in a field where we think about these things a lot.

[0:04:09.2] AL: Forced to think about relationships all the time, whether we want to or not.

[0:04:11.9] MD: Right.


[0:04:12.3] AL: Welcome Mitch. We’re so happy to have you. This is Andrea.

[0:04:14.4] MD: This is Mia. We’re particularly excited to talk to you today, because we think you have some really compelling research that our listeners are going to be excited about hearing.

[0:04:22.7] MP: Thank you so much, thanks for having me.

[0:04:25.2] AL: You’re a very accomplished child psychologist, and you’ve spent your career focused on peer relations. How did you become interested in that area of research?

[0:04:33.5] MP: You know, I think that peers are so important for understanding adolescent development, but most people don’t realize this. In psychology, when I entered the field there was still a big focus on blaming kids’ moms for everything going on in their lives, which is remarkably unfair and also inaccurate.

There was research that occurred just around the same time that I was born, it turns out, that said that peers and interactions with peers predicted our life course decades later, even more than some of our interactions with our parents or our IQ. That was kind of my experience growing up as well. I always felt that the relationships that I had with my friends and the experiences that I had at school were – I just knew that they were impactful.

I knew that it was important in my life, and it just seemed like a natural fit to want to study that when understanding why some kids do well and why some kids are at risk.

[0:05:24.5] MD: Right. Sort of specifically about those peer relationships. You’ve written a book about and done a Ted X talk about a very particular part of peer relationships, which is popularity. Could you tell us a little bit about what led you to that and your point of view on popularity?

[0:05:40.6] MP: Yeah, I was really interested in popularity, and I think it’s a topic that is more relevant now perhaps than ever. Because it’s something that we all know about. We all remember what popularity was like, we can all tell you—no matter how many decades it’s been since we graduated high school—we can all tell you readily the names of the kids that were the most popular.

We can probably all remember where we stood on the hierarchy. What’s really interesting is that if you speak with someone who is eight or 18 or 80, they will immediately reflect on those high school years and those memories about popularity, with sometimes almost the same emotion they had when they lived through it in adolescence.

It’s a topic that we all feel very close to, maybe a little bit scared of. It’s surprising in its impact. There’s something about popularity that maybe we’re still vying for, even now.

[0:06:31.1] AL: I think that makes a lot of sense. I’ve actually been really excited to talk to you because in two months I’ll be going to my 20-year high school reunion, and I’m approaching it with some trepidation and some excitement. I was just talking to Mia earlier about if the trepidation is there only when you're not popular.

Are folks who experience popularity in high school – Do they think fondly of it? And how self-aware are people of their popularity? Can you accurately judge your popularity?

[0:07:00.0] MP: No, we’re really bad about knowing our own level of popularity, it turns out. In fact, some people talk about the high school reunion effect. Going back and really getting feedback from others of the way that you were perceived by them is sometimes completely different from the experience that you had when you were going through it.

What’s it like for you going back 20 years later, a lot of people talk about some of those same emotions coming up. You know: What will people think of you, or will you be regarded as the way you were back then, even though you’re probably very different now?

[0:07:32.5] AL: That’s almost exactly what I just said to Mia. Are you in the same circumstance with the same people and do you begin to act as you did at that time? Were you popular in high school yourself?

[0:07:45.1] MP: Well, that’s an interesting question, because that’s one of the things that made me interested in popularity. It turns out there’s two different kinds of popularity. The one that we all think about is kind of being cool; we call it having high status. It’s defined by being visible, influential, someone that has a lot of power and dominance; and no, I was not that kind of popular at all.

I was a short-statured kind of geek with bifocals and a good old 80s or 70s haircut. I was by no metric a popular kid when I was in high school. But there’s a second kind of popularity that most of us can relate to a little bit more and that’s the extent to which you’re likeable. You’re someone that people want to spend time with, you make them laugh, you make them feel welcomed, valued.

What’s really interesting is that totally different characteristics make you likeable, versus high-end status. [Depending on] whether you're likeable or high in status, you have two totally different life trajectories. I hope that I was someone that was likeable. But I was definitely not cool or high in status.

[0:08:50.5] MD: Mitch, when you talk about these two things, talking about the likeability being the much stronger predictor of positive outcomes for kids. Yet, I think a lot of people would agree that—not just today’s youth (I hate to use that: “today’s youth,” “kids today”)—but I think it’s kind of for a long time been the case that people value and pursue that high-status popularity. Do you have any thoughts about that? And in some ways it does seem amped up by social media these days.

[0:09:21.9] MP: I think you’re right to talk about it with today’s youth as a different cohort in a lot of ways, because there’s something that happened around the 80s, we saw it occur much more in the 90s and in this century with the way that we think about popularity. Some research says that it had a lot to do with the beginning of CNN as a network on TV.

That suddenly changed the way in which we consumed media. CNN brought about a 24-hour news cycle and some scholars say that once they did that, it changed the journalistic kind of tactic to emphasize a lot more stories where regular people became the news. I grew up in the 70s and the 80s and I remember that time and I remember when Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous was on and we suddenly had a very up close and personal look at celebrities, people high in status that normally we wouldn’t expect to know anything about, just read about in a magazine or see in the movies. Then we had reality TV and we got to pick for ourselves who was high in status and maybe even we could get high status.

Social media is kind of the reflection of all of that. I don’t think it’s caused the problem, but I think it’s the latest invention where it’s allowed us all to kind of vie for status 24/7. Suddenly, that ability to be cool and visible and dominant and influential, it extended beyond high school and we’re now in a world I think where everyone can be still seeking status no matter what age they are. We’ve made it easier than ever to spend all day staring at your phone, looking to see how many likes your most recent post got and how many followers you’ve gained. I think it’s a little bit scary for today’s kids because they don’t see the difference. They were born into this world where we care about status and we never stopped caring about it no matter how old we get.

[0:11:11.2] AL: This reminds me of something. I’m going to get it totally wrong but there was an article a long time ago about how Facebook was grouping users and the activities they would do and there was such a high number of people that were just looking at their own stuff over and over again, rechecking their own profile, their own pictures, their own comments to see how liked they were or to groom them so that they could appear a certain way.

I remember that really struck me because I was doing that, I don’t consider myself a particularly self-absorbed person, but I noticed that I’d go back and check. I was really checking for how people reacted to me, not necessarily what people were doing in their own lives or to learn about others.

[0:11:55.0] MP: Well, I think you’ve got it right on. I mean, we all do that, and some of us do it maybe more than others or more than is healthy, but I think we all do it. The reason why, we now know, is that there’s a part of our brain, a very primitive part of our brain deep in the center, that is related to why we have addictions and that is the part of the brain that seems to become the most activated when we’re on social media and we get this kind of likes or these followers.

It's a part called the ventral striatum. It’s really sensitive to what is called social rewards, anything that tells us that people are looking at us, agreeing with us, following us, or praising us socially. I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg realized that the ventral striatum was there when he developed Facebook, but without realizing it, he has tapped remarkably into this addictive center biologically, kind of prime, that makes us care about our popularity, that makes us care about what other people think about us.

[0:12:52.7] AL: When you say care about our popularity, is it more caring about status than likeability?

[0:12:57.9] MP: Well, that’s what’s interesting. I mean, likeability and status can both light up that area of the brain and make us feel good. But we used to live in a world where you could kind of scratch that itch or make yourself feel good by pursuing likeability. But it’s become so much easier to pursue status, you can literally do it at any time of day just by clicking your mouse.

I think we’ve lost sight a little bit of the way that we should be investing in relationships—which kind of popularity we should be caring about. That’s why I wrote the book. I think that for the first time in the history of our human species, we have lost our way on how it is that we relate to others. We’re starting to focus on the kind of popularity that’s bad for us, rather than the kind that we know would lead to much more happiness and success.

[0:13:43.8] AL: Which I think is really weird, you know? Because I think that everybody kind of understands, you know, there’s all the stories of, “Oh, that person is so rich and famous but they’re very unhappy.” Those stories persist and everyone kind of knows that that’s not what brings you happiness, but I guess that part of your brain that experiences the reward is just so strong.

Knowing that there are these healthier and a less healthy path around popularity. Let’s say we’re parents and we understand that, yet we see our kids really pursuing this status path, what can we do as parents?

[0:14:18.8] MP: Well, that’s a great question because I think there’s something that we should do. I mean, I have young children who haven’t started social media yet and I’m not going to shield them from it entirely. But I do think we have to be active in how we think about how our kids are consuming social media and what it is that we’re reinforcing.

What I mean is, there are big things we can do, and there are little things. The big things are, How are we reinforcing messages about status accidentally and giving kids the message that they should be caring about that without realizing it?

Sometimes we do it because we talk about celebrities in the house or we tell our kids about our own social media profiles, and it subtly conveys to them that that’s something they should care about. Or we talk with our kids about how proud we are, not of making someone else feel welcome, but of them being the one that got the most invitations to a party, you know?

We accidentally communicate these norms and values, those are big things that I think we as a society and as parents need to think about: Have we accidentally started to send the wrong message? But I think there are little things we can do too. I think that parents need to remember that kids on social media are still kids. They are consuming information with just as many questions, just as much confusion, and just as much of a need for help.

As we ask for them to talk with us about other forms of media, what they see on TV or in the movies, we have to help kids remember not everything they see on there is real. Some kids are fronting, you know, what they say they like they’re just saying they like so they seem cool. It’s not that they really like those posts or those people. Really help them understand how to become media literate when it comes to social media.

[0:15:56.5] MD: This kind of makes me think about how important those conversations are, right? Capturing those times of the day, you know, people’s lives are so busy, you know? Is it at the dinner time or is it maybe during your commuting time? Do you encourage people to try and set aside special time for conversations or just as things occur?

[0:16:16.5] MP: I think it should be a daily discussion. Interesting facts from the Pew Research Institute, they’re a nonpartisan fact tank that looked at the extent to which kids are speaking with their parents about their social lives. They found that about three quarters of parents talk with their kids about their offline social experiences: what happened at a friend’s house, what happened in their school. But far less—in fact, I think it was less than one out of every three parents—ever talked to their kids about their online social lives, and I get it. We’re all playing catchup, we didn’t have any of this when we were growing up. We might not know what to ask or how to ask, and kids kind of roll their eyes. They don’t want to have to explain to us how Snapchat works and what it means when someone snaps a picture. But I think we can ask kids things like, “If you saw this posted, why would you think that that was posted? What would you think other people were thinking when that was posted?” Or asking them, “What are the things that you see that online that are correct versus fake? What are the things that you think would influence you and not influence you?”

So we can be Socratic and really ask kids to tell us how they’re consuming social media. We don’t have to have the answers; we just have to be willing to let them process what they’re experiencing with us. Rather than kind of letting them log on and just – they do what they do, most of us don’t even know how many profiles they really have or the passwords to all but one of them.

Kids are experiencing so much and it’s unfortunate that parents often are not giving a platform as often as kids might even want, to help them process, what are they seeing, what does it mean to them?

[0:17:54.3] MD: Yeah, I think the other part of that is something that we’ve been exploring in our curricula. It’s also this opportunity to discuss values, to help kids and families talk about what it is that they value, what’s important to them, and are their behaviors or other people’s behaviors aligned with those things that are their values.

[0:18:12.3] MP: Exactly. I mean, girls are more likely to post full-body selfies, boys are more likely to post just their face. What does that mean? I mean, we know why this is happening, we know why society sends different messages to men and to women, but social media is now reflecting that and sending a message that might be undoing all of the great work that we’re trying to do to get the focus off of bodies and off of objectification of women.

It’s important to kind of point out where social media might be undoing a good work or communicating a value that we’re trying so hard to stop. But data suggest that that’s exactly what’s happening.

[0:18:53.1] AL: If I could take us back to the likeability versus status construction. I’m curious about developmental age and where these things make more sense versus others. Are you just as concerned with status when you’re a kindergartener as you are with likeability? I’m particularly thinking about that because recently, I had a parent-teacher conference with my son’s teacher and I was very relieved, I felt palpable relief to hear how he was interacting with his peers and that that was going really well—that he was adaptable, and that he was comfortable, and that he was invited to play, all of these things.

In the back of my head when I’ve looked over your research and listening to your talks, I was thinking, “Did I care about that more because I hope that he’s not unpopular later? Or did I care about the just intrinsic value of those social connections?” I care about the social connections. I care that he is doing right by others and that that is being recognized. But there was this moment where I had relief, where I was sort of like, “Oh, maybe he won’t have to deal with some of the things that I felt or dealt with when I was a child in trying to make these social relationships work and not having status.”

[0:20:05.8] MP: Yeah, there is some really cool work that I’ve read on that and the idea that parents sometimes are either looking for their kids to have everything they didn’t or they’re looking to protect their kids from the things that they experienced. Parents play a remarkably big role in shaping what kind of popularity kids are looking for. And to your question about when all of this becomes relevant: Everything changes at puberty.

Kindergarteners seem to think of status and l likeability as pretty much the same thing. But right around puberty—and by then, I don’t mean when you start seeing physical changes in bodies. The changes that occur in the brain that lead to our craving of status, they actually occur about two years before the point where you see changes in the body.

It’s that first time that 11-year-old rolls their eyes at their parents and calls them totally lame. That’s when that part of the brain just turned on, five minutes before and made them suddenly really interested in this kind of status. The reason why is because we actually now know that there are these receptors for dopamine and oxytocin that suddenly become way more populated within the brain.

We crave them very much. Oxytocin makes us want social bonding, particularly with peers, and dopamine makes it feel really good when we get it. That kind of neurochemical –

[0:21:29.4] AL: I’ve had a total flashback to the first time I purposefully said a curse word in front of other kids, when I was 11.

[0:21:35.7] MP: That’s right.

[0:21:37.0] AL: I was like, if I say this in this circumstance, they’re going to think I’m cool and I’d never up until that point had it.

[0:21:42.3] MP: That’s right, exactly. You know, it so crazy that even biologically, we’re so prepared to want that. There’s research that shows that even adolescent mice prefer to hang out with other adolescent mice, rather than adult mice, the minute they kind of have these biological changes occur.

We’re oddly biologically programed to suddenly crave being cool and getting that kind of attention.

[0:22:05.4] MD: I thought it was Saved by the Bell.

[0:22:06.7] MP: Right, yeah exactly.

[0:22:08.3] MD: That was like Saved by the Bell really shaped me. That’s what I want.

[0:22:11.2] AL: Oh, I totally remember the day that I became the stupidest person my son knew. Yeah, I remember very clearly.

And you know, actually Mitch, now that you are bringing this up, I am thinking too about this idea that you’re talking about and my experience having children, just with a boy but I was also a middle school teacher and counselor. There was something that I noticed specifically with the boys, a little bit with the girls, but really with the boys around adolescence, where you were talking about status equals likeability. There’s this light bulb that goes on for adolescent boys that everything was just going fine—like I go to school, I play sports, I play with my friends, it’s all good. You get to middle school and all of a sudden, you realize there is a social hierarchy. And then you realize that you are not at the top of it. It’s this really intense moment for boys and maybe for girls too. Is that something that you have studied or know about?

[0:23:07.3] MP: Absolutely. You know I think it is such a wonderful description because that’s exactly the way it seems to work. If you ask kids before middle school who is high in status, who is high in likeability, and you explain that in a way that they understand, they will pick the same kids. If you ask boys after puberty who’s most liked and who has the higher status, you will get different kids but there is some overlap. If you ask girls after puberty who has high status and who is really likeable, you get almost no overlap whatsoever.

And that’s what’s really interesting is that—particularly among girls, but also for some boys—being high in status is not at all related to being high in likeability. In fact, some people hate those people who are high in status and really strongly dislike them. So it becomes really interesting. Suddenly, we’re presented with a choice, right? On that fateful day in middle school, we have every opportunity to interact socially in the cafeteria, on the bus, what are we going to do?

Are we going to say and do things to increase our status? Or are we going to do things that make other people feel happy, valued, and included, and we are going to promote our likeability? In some ways that is a question we can still ask ourselves today, no matter how old we are. Every social interaction we have, hundreds and hundreds we have a day, where are we investing our time and energy? The reason why I think this is so critical is because we thought of this focus on cool and status as being a phase in adolescence.

You graduate high school, you go back to the real world and everyone needs to work together as a community. That is not the way it is anymore. So you’ve got people in whatever position they may be in, in government or elsewhere, that are still vying for status, and research shows that they are at such higher risk for depression, substance use, aggressive bullying behavior, even as adults, relationship difficulties. There is something about our desire to pursue status, even though it leads to bad outcomes.

[0:25:06.0] AL: You’ve talked about, in your TED Talk in particular, you ended saying we have a choice every day to choose status or make everyone around us feel welcome and included and are heard. What are some practical tips for educators or those who work with children that can help with inclusion and focus on what I think you would say is more of the right kind of relationship builder, which is that likeability side that doing-for-others side?

[0:25:29.7] MP: So there is a lot of great research that is coming out now showing that teachers can create an egalitarian classroom environment, and when they do that, when they help the kids to see each other as equals and recognize that everyone in the classroom has something to offer, that the team, that the whole needs in order for the group to succeed, that seems to make the status hierarchy kind of attenuate. You know, kids are not so focused anymore as being the one with all the attention.

Because everyone needs to be the center of attention at some point. Everyone needs to be the influential person at some point. They find that it leads to increase in grades, decrease in peer victimization. It is a really powerful technique of asking kids through a social curriculum. What have you done to make other people feel included today? What are ways in which your behavior has made other people feel happy versus somehow less included or less valued today, and helping kids to understand that empathic perspective on making everyone feel like equals.

These are really important things that teachers can do because parents don’t often have the opportunity to watch their kids in front of a giant group of other kids. But that is what teachers do all day. So teachers really can help create more of that egalitarian mutually respectful environment that seems to make the status piece not as strong. It is not going to go away completely, right? But it is going to be not as strong and powerful.

[0:26:56.6] AL: That is a really good point, At Committee for Children, we also have done a lot of work around bullying prevention. I personally have done a lot of speaking about bullying and bullying prevention. You know, one of the things that we know that can be hard for teachers, because teachers are people, and that can really make a big difference, is that there are some kids, like you’re talking about, that really aren’t very likeable, for whatever reason right?

A lot of it has to do with behaviors, they’re often kids who maybe are on the spectrum that make them have a more difficult time with relationships, and sometimes if teachers don’t have good awareness around that, they actually also make the problem worse by doing heavy sighs, rolling their eyes at the kids, the ways in which they treat those kids. So I think is there something that you recommend to educators to reign it in themselves when kids are difficult?

[0:27:49.7] MP: Yeah, absolutely. So you raise the idea that kids can be disliked for a whole bunch of different reasons, and that I think is the first step: to really recognize that. Research tells us that the kids who are the most disliked fall into two different categories. One category are those kids who are aggressive. Now kids who are aggressive and are disliked for that reason should be dealt with in a very different way. Often those kids themselves have experienced— they’d been the victims of aggression, or they’ve witnessed aggression in others. There’s a whole different way of thinking about how to help those kids and how people might respond to those kids.

But then there is that other half. That half that’s rejected for other reasons. They may deviate, if not in atypical social presentation like kids on the spectrum as you mentioned, it might be for any number of things. They might somehow violate local norms. It could be their physical appearance. It could be their socio economic status, or they could simply need some help learning how to attune to the group before they make suggestions or they try to enter into a play situation. Some kids are just a little bit more boorish or blunt about it. They throw out their ideas without recognizing that it would be disruptive instead of more helping people to segue into their ideas. There are some pretty good social skills training that can work and can help teachers.

But in my experience, once you talk with teachers about identifying all of the different subtypes of rejected or disliked kids, it helps them have different empathy and understanding for why some kids are so disliked, and it changes their responses. So they respond, recognizing “Oh this is annoying to me perhaps as the teacher, but it reflects a skill that I am qualified to help my student learn a little bit more about, or I can pick up now teaching moments in the classroom where that child can gain that skill a little bit more.”

What frustrates me unfortunately is that we do so little of this now because despite likeability being one of the strongest predictors of success and happiness and even our physical health decades later, we don’t spend a lot of time talking about this. We don’t invest a lot of time and energy in helping people to recognize these things and really value likeability.

[0:29:59.6] AL: And where does kindness play into this? I mean the podcast is called Grow Kinder but it’s not always directly related to social-skill development or to some of the things you’ve been talking about. And as you said, many children and adolescents who are considered popular are not kind in their interactions with others. So how do you see that, or do you see that fitting into the equation?

[0:30:21.2] MP: I think that is incredibly important here. As I have been talking with different audiences and different groups related to the book, what I found is that there’s a remarkable misconception out there about kindness. Some people seem to equate kindness with being a pushover: with acquiescing all of your own needs for the needs of others and have to be a complete sheep or a conformist. That’s actually not what the research shows at all, at least in the research that I am familiar with. You can be remarkably kind, but also you can be one of the most powerful leaders at the same time, within the classroom or on the playground or even in the board room, because kindness is really coming from listening, being empathic, helping other people feel like what they say is important. It is incorporated. It’s not overpowered.

You can still assert your own opinion. You can still have your own agenda. And you can help move that forward, again: even if it’s just on the carpet during playtime, you can suggest what games and you can set the rules, but there’s a way of doing that that makes other people feel belittled and diminished, or there is a way of doing it that makes people feel that they were included as a part of it—and the latter is kindness. It is one definition of thinking how to make other people feel that you value them. I think that that’s really important.

I think that a lot of people do get in the trap of saying, “Well, if I have to walk around being nice and kind all the time, then I am never going to get what I want and I am going to be a pushover.” That’s just not true. That is not what the science says.

[0:31:52.6] MD: Yeah and we think about can kindness be taught, because you are talking about some things that are kind of nuanced, right? It’s not necessarily intuitive. It feels like those are things that you really need to practice to get right, to be able to be both assertive but inclusive.

[0:32:12.3] AL: Well, it seems kind of fought with some cultural underpinnings, too, because you are talking about kindness as perceived as weakness, which I think is a pretty common thing. There is also a more individualistic culture. One of the things that kept occurring to me was I’d hear terms like “group think” or “herd mentality” and “Don’t you want to stand out? Don’t you want to be different?” Because there is power in that in some ways, in not just going with the flow and doing what others expect, to be included.

[0:32:40.9] MP: You are absolutely right. I think that also gender comes into this as well. There’s different ways in which men versus women are “expected” to be kind or the way in which being kind might be reinforced versus punished. I think that is really unfortunate because it sends all of these mixed messages and there is different societal expectations. But I really believe that this is something that absolutely can be taught.

The reason why I think it is so challenging is because when we start thinking about how to intervene or monitor social behavior, we can’t detach the fact that our own prior experiences, whatever it was like for us when we were children and adolescents and high school, it is coloring the ways in which we’re reading everyone else’s behavior today. So you really have to know where you came from before you start becoming an objective evaluator of how other people are interacting socially.

Because the truth is, what to you seems hostile, to someone else might seem not at all hostile or less hostile, and we really have to be very frank with ourselves about what are the biases we’re coming into all of our social interactions with, and where are the things that can be changed without teaching other people the traps that we learned when we were growing up, do you know what I mean? I think that’s an inherent part of this is that, once we start talking about social behavior, as you say we have to realize it is very nuanced, very subtle. The difference between a successful and an unsuccessful social interaction can be a very small difference. So we need groups of people to weigh on this together. No one should feel personally responsible for changing someone else’s social behavior all by themselves.

[0:34:22.6] AL: What is an act of kindness that you yourself have witnessed recently that you would consider a true act of kindness?

[0:34:28.2] MP: Well I live out here in the south in North Carolina. So I really appreciate the focus here on others. That is stereotypically is discussed within this region compared to more of the hyper-aggressive or self-centered need to get one’s own things accomplished. So I’ve seen people here be very nice about yielding their turn in line or asking a stranger if they are okay. Really letting someone know that their opinion was heard and explaining why it may not be incorporated, but nevertheless why it was important to the conversation.

All of these are ways of communicating what I think are the important aspects of kindness that also happen to make people very likeable. And the reason why I appreciate those things and have really focused on those things is because I have seen perhaps more examples of the opposite: times when people are really more focused on meeting their own needs rather than recognizing that there is a community of people who might have needs that are more important than any one individual’s.

[0:35:33.1] AL: You know, Mitch, I want to take us back just a second, because something occurred to me about what you were talking about and how strong some of these feelings can be for people who are really pursuing status, right? It is something very primal, it is biological, and I think it is not difficult for people to necessarily step back and realize they may have a problem or they may want to change the way that they are living in terms of the relationship with seeking status versus likeability.

And you did mention some things about just thinking more about likeability than status, but do you have any thoughts about how people can really deal with those urges? Is there some way that people can help regulate themselves against some of those very strong urges they have for the rewards?

[0:36:22.6] MP: Yeah, I am so glad that you asked that. There are so many things in life that we do that may not be the best for us, but they feel really good, and they might be really easy to do, and they might be things that have been reinforced in one part of society or another. This is just one of those, and just like with everything else, we have to exercise some moderation. We shouldn’t blame ourselves just because we do this every once in a while, or we have these thoughts.

It is natural, it makes sense. It does in fact feel good biologically. Let’s not spend too much time blaming ourselves for it, but let’s just recognize that there may be times to try and stop our urges—to try and keep us from engaging in anything excessively and recognize, just like we do with anything that might be tempting, that we might want to make the healthier choice.

Sometimes that means logging off of your phone or taking the focus off of yourself and taking a moment to recognize how you can make someone else feel good or how you can help to make other people feel included. It’s not something you have to do 100% of the time. In fact, you can be high in status and you can be high in likeability at the same time. I just fear that things have run amok so wildly that there may be some people out there who haven’t engaged in an active genuine kindness in much longer than we would care to admit.

There might be some people who are focused so much on status, or maybe we are raising a generation who has been bred to think about status so much, that we’ll start devaluing likeability in ways that could be pretty dangerous. I think it is just about balance, moderation, and recognizing that there are genuine social forces that are making us human and understanding how to play those out in a way that’s going to maximize the chance for good outcomes and stop us from becoming desperate status seekers.

[0:38:16.3] AL: And you’re doing a lot to spread that message and influence things toward what you feel is probably a healthier perspective around status and relationships. You’ve mentioned your book, you have put a lot out that we can see, that is evidence of that, your book Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Cares Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships is one. We’ve also heard that you mentor psychology students and I am curious, what do you bring to mentoring those students, or what do you think about in that relationship that is connected to your research?

[0:38:49.1] MP: Oh, that’s so nice of you to say, thank you. I love serving as a mentor. It’s a huge part of what I do and it’s probably the most rewarding thing of all of my work. My wife always tells me I get – she goes, “Why don’t you get excited about what you accomplished as much as what your students accomplish?” because I really do feel like helping to bring up the next generation is a responsibility, and it’s really fun.

What I think about mostly are my mentors. I was very lucky to have mentors who were great at understanding their own needs, their own wishes, and their own desires as being separate from their mentees’. They really were great at modeling for me how to think about helping a person identify their goals, understand why they are making those goals, and help them pursue those goals as earnestly and with as much energy even if they are wanting to do something that’s not at all what you did or what you would have picked in their situation and just really appreciating each person’s individuality and really recognizing that everyone has their own path and there is no one right path and there is no one right outcome in lives. You can be happy in a lot of different ways and there is a lot of different ways to get to any one of those end points. That’s what my mentors did when they were working with me, I thought. I thought they were just so wonderful in that way, and I’ve spent my career trying to just be half the mentor to others that they were to me.

[0:40:13.2] AL: Do have a specific adult or teacher that had a positive impact on you when you were growing up in that way that you want to just give a shout-out to or some specific examples?

[0:40:21.8] MP: I was very fortunate. I grew up in Long Island in New York, and I went to a school district with lots of great teachers. I thought that they did a really good job of making learning something you can be enthusiastic about. It didn’t feel like a chore to them, and therefore it didn’t feel like a chore to me, and I mean really I can name so many of them. I remember my English teacher, Mr. Blue, and I remember my math teacher, Mr. Wells.

So many teachers who really – they came into class every single day excited about what they had to say. Enthusiasm is more contagious than anything, I believe, and that’s the way that I try to be teacher as well when I am in front of the classroom. I don’t care how much they learn. I care how excited they are about the topic, because that means one day they might be interested in relearning, even if they forgot what I taught them.

[0:41:11.5] MD: And when we talk about the narrative around popularity for students and you are talking about the aspects of adults that influenced you—and there are lots of things that adults are expected to do when they are mentoring or teaching students—how do we change the narrative around popularity? If you could give one key takeaway or tip that an educator that’s in a classroom all day with students could do themselves to model and change that narrative, what would it be?

[0:41:38.6] MP: I wish every middle school and high school student knew there are two different kinds of popularity. There’s one that you care about a lot right now but 99% of people don’t have it, and you have a much better life for not caring about it too much and not being overly focused on status. So ride it out, middle school and high school will be a much better time if you are focused on likeability, and it will set you up for a better life much more than any kind of quest to be the coolest kid in school.

[0:42:13.8] MD: You know, I think that that is such a worthy message and I do wonder when one or two hands go up and say, then they give examples, you know, in popular culture of—and there are so many of them—of people with high status and low likeability. You know, kind of hold that up as a model. Do you have kind of a reaction or response for that? Because I’m sure that comes up.

[0:42:34.2] MP: I don’t know very many people, and I did a lot of work on this when researching the book, I don’t know a lot of examples of people high in status and low on likeability who are happy: who feel fulfilled and who have what it is that everyone wants when their life is ending, which is connection, and impact, and real emotional peace.

They may have money, they may have fancy things, they may have fame and attention, but even the most famous people on our planet right now are at much higher risk for depression. CEOs are at higher risk for depression, and celebrities, when interviewing them, constantly talking about what they really want is to feel genuinely connected with some people that they can trust and love them for who they actually are.

That’s what I think is the outcome we should all be going for. There may be examples out there of people high in status, low on likeability who have that outcome. I haven’t found them yet.

[0:43:32.2] AL: That’s actually a great thought to leave us with: the pursuit of what you want your life to be, that kind of end goal, and what do you want to leave behind? For our listeners who are interested in learning more about you, your research, your book, where can they go?

[0:43:45.3] MP: Well, I have a website at where there’s information about the book and other activities that we’re engaging in, including a link to my lab website at UNC Chapel Hill.

[0:43:54.9] AL: Do you have a final tip for me as I walk through the doors of my 20-year high school reunion?

[0:44:01.1] MP: Well, I would say, remember that you are not the person that you were the day that you graduated. Although, don’t be surprised if every part of your brain is making you feel like you are.

[0:44:14.5] AL: Thank you.

[0:44:14.5] MP: Sure. Good luck!

[0:44:15.5] MD: Andrea, you’re going to be great. Dr. Mitch Prinstein, thank you so much for joining us, it was a pleasure talking to you today.

[0:44:22.4] MP: Thank you so much, it was a pleasure talking to you too.


[0:47:02.3] AL: Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoyed our conversation with Dr. Mitch Prinstein. You can find more episodes at, and make sure to rate and subscribe on iTunes or stitcher.