Why Are Some People More Popular Than Others?

I have never been popular. I have had my five minutes of fame on a couple occasions, such as that time the food on my tray rolled all over me in the cafeteria at summer camp and my face magically encountered the floor. I sometimes was recognized as an outstanding public speaker at comedy open mics where I only "bombed" a little. However, for the most part, I have always been an "inbetweener," someone who walks the purgatory roads of normality and anonymity.

I recently started college for the second time (I am a Law School graduate in Italy, which means I am not a lawyer, and especially not a lawyer in the United States). As an adult learner, I am an observer of all those dynamics that would have driven me insane back in the day. In a sudden rush of nostalgia for my teenage anger, I decided to ask a student from the college I attend in California what she thought of popularity. Hannah Hyon, this is her name, said, "it's the measure of how liked you are by others." Her friend, Blaine Shelton, said Hyon is a very popular girl. "She has been sitting here for five minutes, and [she] said 'hi' to so many people," he said. According to a study by Columbia University, however, some people cannot help being popular. Researchers found that popular individuals have slightly different brains. "I'm pretty sure if popular people are wired differently, then she's one of those people [who have a 'differently wired' brain]," said Shelton about the recent discovery. The study shows that popular people are not only aware of their own reputation, but they can also intuitively detect others' likability level. By doing so, researchers said, popular people are able to suit themselves to diverse situations, to be more social and to draw attention to themselves.

The concept of popularity has been even intriguing scientists for years. Sociologist Scott L. Feld explained why we all seem to have that friend who is more popular than us. In 1991, he introduced the idea of "friendship paradox." Because friendships are bilateral, said Feld, you are likely to be friends with someone who has more friends than you. "If X is friends with Y, then Y is friends with X. How can Y and other friends of X have more friends than X does?" writes Satoshi Kanazawa in Psychology Today. The same paradox can be applied to social media to understand why you might not have as many followers as you would like.

Remember the cool high school kid everybody liked? Social scientists agree he or she is probably on a path to success. The role people play in high school, researchers say, is often the one they assume during their entire life. Jocks will be jocks, and drop outs will be...out, scientists say. However, psychologist at the University of Virginia Kathleen Boykin McElhaney thinks introverted teenagers should not despair. "Teens who are not broadly popular may demonstrate positive adjustment over time if they maintain a positive internal sense of their social acceptance," she writes.

Besides, Jennifer T. Parkhurst of University of Illinois says popularity does not always determine one's level of likability. Sociometric popularity is what makes humans likable, writes Parkhurst. Perceived popularity, on the other hand, is what makes them influential over their peers. According to Parkhurst, the two types of popularity are often mutually exclusive. This explains why some popular people come across as aggressive or "stuck-up," Parkhurst reports. In response to whether or not he feels comfortable around popular people, Shelton said, "It depends. Certain people are like shining stars in the crowd. Generally, I start feeling uncomfortable around them after three or four minutes of interaction." Sounds familiar?