What makes kids popular among peers? Tuning into the needs of others, for starters. (Photo: Stocksy)
Some kids are deemed popular way before the painful pecking-order days of high school begin. And now researchers have new insight into why: popular children have the ability to identify what others want, think, and feel, according to the Australian study, which appears in the latest edition of the journal Child Development.
“Our study suggests that understanding others’ mental perspectives may facilitate the kind of interactions that help children become or remain popular,” lead author Virginia Slaughter, professor of psychology and head of the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland, noted in a press release. And training children to be sensitive to others’ thoughts and feelings, Slaughter adds, can be particularly helpful for those who are struggling with friendship issues or feeling socially isolated.
The ability to realize what others are thinking and feeling helps people understand complex social situations, such as when one person double crosses another or is being sarcastic. Cognitive scientists call it theory of mind. And while past studies have shown it has a connection with popularity, this meta-analysis looked across the findings of multiple studies relating theory of mind with popularity — 20 of them, which included data on 2,096 children from 2 to 10 years old from Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America. So it made the overall pattern clearer.
But if it’s the positive qualities to intuit and empathize that make kids popular, why is it that popularity is so often depicted — particularly in pop culture — as catty, shallow, and mean?
Because researchers measure two types of “popularity,” Slaughter tells Yahoo Parenting, which start to differentiate in late primary school and become more noticeable in high school. There are “perceived popular” kids, deemed “popular” by others and who enjoy high social status. Then there are “sociometrically popular” kids, who are nominated by others and are well liked. The categories can sometimes overlap, but don’t always, and the Australian study found that both types were associated with theory of mind. “So understanding what others think, want, and feel is related to both status and likability,” Slaughter explains, while adding that the behaviors of each may differ.
“Studies suggest that sociometrically popular, likeable children are kind and pro-social, good communicators, and low on aggression,” she says. “Perceived popular children with high status are also good communicators, but also more inclined toward relational aggression such as gossip, exclusion and manipulation.”
The upshot? The ability to understand what’s going on in others’ minds is linked to popularity. But how a child uses that skill depends on what he or she wants to gain — high status or likeability. Here’s hoping it’ll be the latter.