How Popular People's Brains Are Really Different Than Everyone Else

Photo: Getty 
How Popular People's Brains Are Different Than Everyone Else

I wanted to be popular; pretty badly, in fact. I think most of my 7th grade class wanted it as well, even if they didn't admit to themselves. When you were popular, it seemed as if everything was yours. I wanted to be well-liked and have the ease of what I thought the popular life entailed. I had a lot of friends, even popular kids, but it wasn't the same. I wasn't in the highest echelon of popularity that I wanted to be.

I remember one day, a popular girl named Pam invited me to come over to her house after school. I stupidly declined. I think I felt that I was too awkward to go to what must have been a dream house, a house where everyone was beautiful and popular and glorious. Pam never asked me over to her house again, and I never reached the scales of popularity that I craved.

In a new study, researchers studied what makes popular people different than not-as-popular people. The introduction says, "How do we recognize that certain individuals are popular ... even when this collective preference differs from our own?"

The researchers found that popular people share one common trait: their brains are more aware of other people's popularity.

Popular people are popular because even at a neural level they care about popularity. So while the rest of us can hope and dream of being popular, our brains are probably zeroing in on other aspects of people, like whether they make us laugh or if they're super smart.

For the study, Noam Zerubavel and his team of researchers from Columbia University recruited 26 participants from two student clubs. First, they had each participant rate how much they liked each other member in their club. By tallying these scores, the researchers could rank all of the participants by popularity.

Next, each group member (perceiver) looked at the faces of every other group member (target), in addition to the occasional ghost face (a morphed average of all the other faces) while in an MRI machine.

The students had been told that their task was to hit a key as quickly as possible on each presentation to say whether the shown face was a real person or a ghost, while the scientists were only actually interested in how their brain activity changed according to the popularity of the person they were looking at.

What the researchers discovered was that there really is something different about the brains of popular people — they have neural responses that are more sensitive to social hierarchy. This awareness may be why they're popular in the first place.

They're cognizant of who's in and who's a big loser, and can select who to be friends with and who to freeze out. In addition, once you're in with the in-crowd, people will be drawn to you and will instinctively pay more attention to you.

I sure could've used this study when I was 13; I would've known that hanging out with Pam was crucial to becoming popular.