Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Breakfast Club

Popularity Scale Speaks to the Future; Middle has its Rewards:

The cult of popularity that reigns in high school can look quaint from a safe distance, like your 20th reunion. By then the social order may have turned over like an hourglass: teenagers who were socially invisible have emerged as colorful characters, confident, transformed. Others seem preserved in time, same as ever, while some former princes and queen bees are diminished or simply absent, now invisible themselves.

For years researchers focused much attention on those prominent teenagers, tracking their traits and behaviors. The studies found, to no one’s surprise, that social dominance in adolescence often involves an aggressive, selfish streak that may not play well outside the locker-lined corridors.

The cult disbands, and the rules change.

Yet high school students know in their gut that popularity is far more than a superficial, temporary competition, and in recent years psychologists have confirmed that intuition. The newer findings suggest that adolescents’ niche in school — their popularity, and how they understand and exploit it — offers important clues to their later psychological well-being.

As we discuss in juvenile delinquency, in-groups and out-groups play a major role in determining who is more likely to end up delinquent. The researchers break down high school into the following groups:
Some 15 to 20 percent of high school students fall into [the likable] category, according to Mitchell Prinstein, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, and it’s not hard to find them. They tend to have closer friendships, to excel academically and to get on well with most others, including parents — their own and their friends’.

Surveys suggest that about 50 percent of students are average — that is, they have good friends but are neither especially liked nor disliked by classmates. The remaining 30 to 35 percent are split between low-status or “rejected” students, who are on the bottom of the heap, and neglected ones, who don’t show up on the radar at all.

“We have evidence that the neglected kids are the ones most likely to move up, or to move between groups,” Dr. Prinstein said. “These are the ones with no established reputation, they kind of blend into the woodwork, and this can give them a kind of freedom.”
In other words, those who avoid overt stigmatization, of a positive or negative label, have the most room to excel later in life.

So where does delinquency come from? According to these researchers, it's the likable/popular group, due to the importance of popularity and the demands to maintain (or seemingly reject) popularity via peer pressure.
In his continuing study, Dr. Allen has found that the most socially skilled students are three times as likely to be drinking by age 14 as those outside the group. Up through age 18, they are also more likely to commit vandalism, smoke marijuana and shoplift. They are, in short, seemingly more vulnerable to peer pressure and expectations.
Including of the deviant nature. This is quite interesting. When you think back to the various cliques and claques of your high school drama, the "popular" kids were both those who overly-conformed to normative role expectations (athletes, cheerleaders, etc.) and those most openly flouted said norms (delinquents, stoners, etc.). Most kids were average, some were invisible, and the rest were part of the stigmatized low status "geek" crowd.

This passage is what reminded me of that hallowed 80's teen drama "The Breakfast Club":

"The same cannot be said of the rejected group, on the lowest rung on the ladder. In several remarkable studies, researchers have brought together students from different schools, representing different levels of the social hierarchy. Within hours, sometimes less, the children assume their accustomed places — the popular ones on top, the socially awkward on the bottom. Climbing out of the geek ghetto is hard, even if a child knows what likeability looks like."

I guess this is epitomized in the movie by the geek's response, when asked why he had a fake ID: "So I can vote."

I think it was Freud who said we spend our adult lives trying to sort out and make sense of childhood, but I would probably alter that in light of these studies and their importance regarding identity, cliques and adolescence: we really spend our adult lives trying to figure out, and having been shaped by, those four spent in high school.

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