243: How to Be More Popular–and Why that Still Matters at Work with Mitch Prinstein

By December 18, 2017Podcasts

 

Mitch Prinstein helps us understand the different types of popularity and teaches us how to boost our popularity by working on our likability.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Subtle ways to boost your likability in meetings
  2. How and why to distinguish between the two kinds of popularity: likability and status
  3. How to get people to stop looking at their phones to talk to you

About Mitch 

Mitch is a professor, scientist, university administrator, teacher, author, speaker, and an exhausted dad.  He and his research have been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, U.S. News & World Report, Time magazine, New York magazine, Newsweek, Reuters, Family Circle, Real Simple, and elsewhere.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Mitch Prinstein Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Mitch, thanks so much for joining us here on the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Mitch Prinstein

Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I think we’re going to have so much fun chatting, but first I want to get your story behind, you had perfect attendance for 12 straight years, kindergarten through high school, or is that 13 years? Yeah. How is that done?

Mitch Prinstein

Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m not sure. I think I was a little bit of geek who liked school, but also I seemed to get sick on Friday nights and be better by Monday mornings. So, I don’t know exactly how that happened.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s a pretty convenient timing. Well, it’s interesting you talk about school ‘cause as I was prepping for this interview, you reference in your research adolescence and the impact it has and it lingers with us. And so, could you orient us a little bit to what were you like in adolescence?

Mitch Prinstein

Yeah, that’s a great question. I think what’s important is that people when they think about their popularity they recognize that there are two very different kinds of popularity. But for the kind that everyone probably thinks about – who is cool and who is most well-known and most influential – that was not me. I was a short statured, kind of skinny, bifocals-wearing kid who was doing pretty well in school, I guess at the time. And so, I was kind of a geek, I would say.

Pete Mockaitis

And I was really intrigued as I was prepping for this here. I kept thinking back to those years and I feel like I really did sort of live on both sides, of being popular – and we’ll talk about the multiple definitions there, with regard to, in grade school – I’d say pre-fourth grade, I was sort of teased a lot. I liked Star Trek, I liked computer games, I was a smart kid and had good grades. And then I met a good friend, who I guess was cooler and popular in that sense, so folks sort of laid off.
But then I went to a bigger high school and all of a sudden few people knew my prior self, and I naturally really liked meeting people. So, in that environment I just flourished. And it was just nuts how I was sort of like a super, I guess nerdy, teased kid, and then in high school it’s sort of a fresh start. And then I became the homecoming king. It was like, “Whoa!” I felt both sides and it’s intriguing how both of the experiences really do kind of shaped my perceptions of things that are going on now in some ways.

Mitch Prinstein

That’s interesting, ‘cause a lot of people do say that there’s a part of them no matter how old they get that still really resonates with that adolescent version of themselves. Somehow what they perceive every day, as you say, the way the interpret social experiences – it somehow still rings back to how they felt about themselves in adolescence.
There’s a pretty cool study actually that looked at earning potential and how much adult men made, their salary, and tried to correlate it with their height. And of course they found that tall men tended to make more money than short men, but what they found was that it wasn’t the height of the men as they were adults. The much stronger predictor of their performance as adults was how tall they were when they were 16. It’s just a really great example about how much that version of ourselves we were back then – it kind of sticks with us. It’s still inside us somehow.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that is wild. So, I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. For folks who don’t have as much the back story, could you orient us a little bit to what’s the central idea behind your book Popular, and why is that important particularly for professionals?

Mitch Prinstein

Sure. Well, there are two different kinds of popularity. One kind is really focused on our likability, and the other kind is our status. And we have a natural human biological tendency to care about others think of us, even a little, but for some people a lot. And if we don’t understand the difference between those two kinds of popularity, we might just be searching and caring about the wrong one for the rest of our lives.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. So could you expound upon that a little bit? What does likability mean and what does status mean?

Mitch Prinstein

Absolutely. So our likability is really the kind of popularity that five-year-olds experience. In fact, even kids as young as three can tell you who are the most and least likable. And without intervention that tends to stay really stable for a very, very long time. The people that are likable are those that make others feel good, make them feel included and valued. The people that are leaders by helping everyone to feel important and that they’re working together, they’re creating group harmony. So that’s important.
That’s very different from the kind of popularity we all remember and think about back in those high school years. That kind of popularity, or that status as it’s called, is defined by being kind of powerful, visible, really well-known and influential. And actually the thing that makes you really high in that kind of popularity are a couple of things – physical attractiveness, but predominantly aggressive behavior. The bullies tend to be very popular, even if we don’t like them very much.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, interesting. So now, aggressiveness can boost status in the sense that they are powerful, they’re visible, they’re well-known and they’re influential. But it sounds like they are not necessarily folks who have a lot of people on their side. Is that fair to say? I guess I’m thinking about homecoming king stuff again, so it’s sort of like when it comes to a vote count, it sounds like the likable people are going to do better in that contest, but when it comes to a, “Ooh, that’s that guy” – that’s more of a status category there.

Mitch Prinstein

That’s right. So, our status is really going to be based on things that are often out of our control, and ways that people regard us ‘cause they’re looking up to us, because they want us to kind of give them attention. There’s actually research that shows that even being high status, getting markers of high status or having people treat you as if you’re high status, creates a kind of biological response that’s kind of in the pleasure center. It’s very similar to the response that someone might get from some kinds of recreational drugs. So it can be a very addictive type of popularity to have.
It’s kind of what social media is in large parts based on – having lots of likes and followers and retweets, things like that. That’s different. The way to get that is to try and put others down to make yourself seem more important, to try and get all the attention on you, rather than calling attention to other people. And many of these tactics are exactly the opposite of what it takes to become likable. And the reason why that’s so important because the people who are very likable tend to be more likely to be hired and promoted, they end up making more money, they enjoy their work experiences more, they’re liked by their coworkers, of course, and they’re actually more satisfied with their jobs. And that’s not necessarily the case for those high in status.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, now that’s intriguing. Now at the same time it seems like if you have high likability going for you and you just keep following that life to where it leads you, you may very well find yourself as a CEO or a head of state or cut a big deal, who then also has status.

Mitch Prinstein

That’s right. People who are high in status and also likable tend to do very, very well. But people that try and go for high status without recognizing that it’s more important, at least initially, to also be likable – that’s the problem. Everyone can remember that boss or knows of some manager who led in one way or the other – the person who was very domineering and aggressive and was only interested in using all their employees as a pawn to increase their own elevation in the company, versus the person who really took the time to get to know the people they were working with, and the status kind of almost came for them incidentally.
The reason why that’s important, not just for people who are one day wanting to rise up the corporate ladder, but also for companies, is that we are likely to follow that high status leader to the extent that we have to, but we’re not bought in to what they’re asking us to do. There’s no loyalty, there’s no investment. But a likable leader – we will follow them to the end of the Earth. We will do whatever they want us to do because we feel genuinely connected to them. And that leads to so much more innovation, productivity and satisfaction.

Pete Mockaitis

I’m with you here. I think about companies as well – the ones I like versus the ones that just have the power, whether it’s a cable company or a service provider for an area where you live. It’s sort of like, there’s not much loyalty there. The second I have another option, I might very well choose to switch, because they’ve got power but I don’t like them. And so then, I’m intrigued by what you say with regard to aggression. So now, aggression can increase your status. Can you give me maybe an example or two for how that could play out?

Mitch Prinstein

Sure. So, the person that kind of enters into a room or a group discussion and says, “All of your ideas aren’t correct; mine are the best. Let me explain to you why I have more understanding of this or I have more authority” – people resent that. People don’t appreciate that they weren’t heard, that their input wasn’t incorporated. Likable leaders can accomplish the exact same objective by saying, “I hear what you’re all saying, I understand that. It’s making me think about an extension of that or an idea related to that.”
And even if they ultimately give the exact same idea as the aggressive person, the fact that they’ve tried to make it sound like they’ve heard and listened and incorporated what others have said, makes a tremendous difference. That’s the way it tends to look in a corporate setting more. Of course in the news there are plenty of different examples of more egregious ways of being aggressive, whether we’re seeing it in the world of politics or in Hollywood right now, we’re seeing other ways of being very aggressive and powerful and letting that power kind of go to your head. I think people can easily think of examples of that.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. So I guess I’m sticking a little bit on aggressiveness increasing the status, because I hear that no one likes to be aggressed upon – that sucks. And the likable way is a more productive way to get buy-in and good relationships and engagement and long-term followers. And so, could you maybe give us an example of how an act of aggression boosts someone’s status?

Mitch Prinstein

Yeah, absolutely. It turns out that it’s many different species where this happens, it’s not just humans. But if you think about how we all kind of got to this point, status was developed as a way of helping to organize groups, so that way people knew which were first to get food or a mating partners or resources of some other sort, and which were last.
And the truth is, being aggressive does lead to very short term, quick solutions. It’s not a healthy way to do that, of course, but rather than having everyone in the entire herd battling over every single decision, an aggressive hierarchy, whether it’s in chimpanzees or in humans, makes very, very clear who’s alpha and who’s not. For that reason there’s this way in which our brains are built that have programmed us to care about high status, to be understanding that groups are going to be organized by that status hierarchy.
The thing that’s different of course about us is that we’re not chimpanzees, we’re human beings and we don’t hand out resources based on who’s the alpha and who’s the toughest. We also have relationships, and we’re also able to focus on likability. So, this is where we see the short term gains of someone who’s high in status, but it leads to long term problems because we are not an animal kind of society that only cares about the alphas.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And so then I can see maybe an action of a bully – for example someone would say, “Oh, we all know who that person is. They’re powerful; we don’t want to mess with them. We may well do what they say.” But you don’t like them, and so when they do their acts of aggression, that just sort of resurfaces it all over again, like, “Ooh, look at the power there.”

Mitch Prinstein

A bully is a great example, and it’s the same for a corporate manager. If you do assert your aggression and you get your way, then everyone says, “Well, they actually were able to get what they needed.” So, that did make them higher because they made someone else seem lower. So it does have the intended effect – it makes everyone hate that person, it makes them want to topple that person, but it is at least in the short term a way of demonstrating, “I do have more power.”

Pete Mockaitis

Now, is it aggression that you said was the biggest predictor of being disliked, or is there another one?

Mitch Prinstein

No, that’s it.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s the one, okay. So, it can boost your status but it will decrease your likability, and likability is a better asset to have, it sounds like, for making things happen. So, could you maybe give us some examples – is it possible to accidentally be aggressive? When I think of the word “aggressive” and imagine the things that an aggressive person does, it almost seems like they are a jerk and they just don’t give a darn about anybody. But I’m wondering, can we be aggressive just sort of accidentally or unintentionally, and are there any sort of particular things we should watch out for?

Mitch Prinstein

Yeah, we absolutely can. I think one of the mistakes that most people tend to make is by being dismissive. And it’s not meant to be aggressive – it might be that someone’s preoccupied, they’re not responding to emails, they’re not acknowledging other people’s comments, they’re not inviting everyone they can to teams or even to go to lunch. Things that might have nothing to do with others – maybe just they’re very in their head – but people tend to see that dismissiveness as potentially an act of hostility or as a slight or an exclusion, in a way that really can hurt others.
And for that reason a lot of people are seen as being aggressive, even when they genuinely don’t mean to be whatsoever. So it does take energy to kind of invest in the human aspects of our jobs. No matter what job we’re in we’re still humans interacting with each other, and we do need to engage in those things that continually remind others, even if just infrequently, that they are valued, they’re heard, they’re people we wish to connect with. That tends to be one of the biggest ways that you see people accidentally being aggressive towards others.

Pete Mockaitis

Excellent, thank you. And so, I’m curious, how do we get a gauge or a read on how likable we truly are? I imagine we tend to overestimate our likability the same way we overestimate… What is it, some huge percentage of people say they’re a good driver, or above-average driver. And so, that’s not possible statistically. So, how do we get a true sense for how we’re doing?

Mitch Prinstein

Yeah. I always joke with people to ask everyone who likes you to meet you in Conference Room A, and if you get there and you’re the only one in the room, that’s your answer. It’s really very hard for us to know this for ourselves, because we surround ourselves with those people who do like us, or at least will tell us to our face that they like us. And it’s very difficult to know. In fact, very many people tend to overestimate or in some cases underestimate their likability. The best thing to do is to get information from peers directly. So the way that it’s done in research of course is that we ask people to simply tell us, “Of everyone in your contacts, who are the people that you like the most?” And you can literally take a vote and get a tally of how many times people are nominated to that question. And that gives us the information that’s needed, but when we ask people to tell us where they think they would fall on that scale, very few people tend to be accurate. And that might be okay; I think the problem is when people are egregiously off from where they actually are.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And so then, I’m curious about what are the most sort of top bang for your buck highly-leveraged things that professionals can do to be more likable?

Mitch Prinstein

Well, I think that there are a few different things. One of them, let’s just say, interaction and behaviour in meetings. This is kind of the time when people really get an impression of one another, and ideas tend to take hold or not take hold in part based on the value of the idea, but also in large part based on how likable the person is who offered the idea. A great idea offered by someone that no one around the table likes is maybe not going to get any pick-up or follow-through, simply because of the messenger.
So, one of the key high-leveraged things to do is to kind of be aware of what psychologists would call the “social norms”. What is the vibe in the room? What are people thinking and wanting, and what is the mood? What really likable people do very well is that they’re able to assess and move that just little by little. If everyone’s happy, then they’re also going to be happy. You don’t want to be the one cynical person in the room. And if everyone is very upset or stressed, you don’t want to come in and unrealistically be too positive either. People want to feel validated and joined. They want to be met where they are.
Paying attention to those norms, and then trying to move them slightly, little by little, is what when you watch the most likable people in meetings – this is exactly what they do so skilfully. So, a good idea is to kind of be patient, bring up ideas not with the big idea right away, at the beginning of the meeting, but let it grow, plant your seeds, let people start to pick up on the idea on its own. Don’t be in a rush to get credit for it – that’s a way of seeking status. And ultimately by the end people will recognize that you led them there, but they’ll feel great about how they got there. So that’s one of the key ways to think about the minute-to-minute behavior in, let’s say a meeting, that leads people to become very valued and very well-liked members of a team.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s really interesting, and I’m thinking about speakers on stage right now, in terms of everyone’s kind of sleepy, it’s a morning session. And then they appear on stage and they say, “Good morning!” And there’s a grumble back, like, “I said good morning!” I don’t know, it sounds like what you’re saying is yeah, that’s annoying to everybody and it’s not just me. Because I’m often the chipper person, in terms of, I feel good, I’m enthusiastic, I’m genuinely delighted to hear what you have to say, so much so that sometimes… I’ve gotten this feedback before – it’s been helpful – that folks say, “Is this guy for real?” It seems like it’s almost too much, in terms of the enthusiasm or the interest or the positivity or cheeriness.
That happens, and so that’s a good tip there, is to read the room and to shift it little bit by bit, and to not be the super cheery, “Good morning!” big and loud cheerleader figure right off the bat. But so, could you maybe give us a couple, I don’t know, if you’d say scripts or key words, phrases, things you’ve seen in action that are just masterful nudges in the positive direction?

Mitch Prinstein

Yeah, I see that people that are very successful at this are very good at reflecting what they hear. So, if someone offers an idea, they don’t tend to just say, “Okay, here’s another idea.” They summarize the room very well and they say, “Okay, so what I’m hearing here is that Jane is thinking that it would be good if we worked on it this way, and I see some values in that. That’s helpful. Okay, Joe, you were saying this.” And everyone gets an opportunity to feel heard and that their information was really sunk in – someone gave them pick-up, someone took what they said and moved it forward down the field a little bit.
That’s really skilful, that’s a very good thing to do, even if at the end they say, “Well, I have some questions about that. If we put all those ideas out there, what might be some of the things that would be difficult about executing that? Or what about this tweak to it?” And again, you can get to the same exact place. It might take a little bit longer, but it doesn’t have to take much longer. That’s very, very helpful.
So, a lot of people when you talk about reflecting are just simply – even in a one-on-one with an advisor or a supervisee – kind of just repeating back what you’ve heard and seen: “Let me just make sure I’m hearing this right. Let me just throw this back at you here and make sure I’m hearing what you’re getting at here.” People find that to be a conversation that they say, “It was so deep. We were connecting, we really understood each other’s language.” And honestly, the person did nothing, other than just say back what they heard. But it changes the dynamic so dramatically that it really enhances likability.
And we’re all in so much of a rush that we think we know what people said before they even finished saying it. We’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay. I know what you’re going say. I’m already constructing my response.” And it’s about slowing that down and saying, “Let me just make sure I’m really getting what you said there.” And obviously you don’t do that after every sentence – that would be silly; but doing it every once in a while is remarkably powerful.

Pete Mockaitis

It really is magical on the receiving end. I’m thinking back to, I had a chat with this insurance guy, who was just masterful at talking about selling life insurance or their products. So, we had one chat about all my life goals and aspirations and things, and then we met up a little later and he said, “Pete, I heard you say this and this and this. And it sounds like what’s really important is this.” And so it was so weird because it’s like I knew I told him those things, and yet as shared them back to me, it felt like he was reading my soul.

Mitch Prinstein

Exactly, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis

It was fascinating, and I just realized if this is noteworthy to me, then it must be pretty darn rare.

Mitch Prinstein

And interestingly, most people don’t even realize when it’s happening. So people will say, “Yeah, yeah, that’s right. That’s a great way of saying it. That’s exactly what I was thinking.” And people won’t realize, “Well, actually you just said it before. This is someone just repeating it back to you.” They might repeat it back with a slight elaboration, but people love to feel heard, they love to feel validated, they love to feel like someone’s taking the time to truly listen to them. And it’s such a simple strategy, but it’s one that really, really enhances likability because it fosters this sense of connection, of bonding. It’s almost simplistic, but it’s beautiful in that simplicity because it’s so powerful.

Pete Mockaitis

Absolutely. And I noticed in your example that you used the name, and I imagine that would pack an extra punch.

Mitch Prinstein

Yes, sometimes so. I think it’s always important also that when talking with people about being more likable, you don’t have to shed your personality. If you’re the kind of person that uses names and it sounds natural, then great – yeah, I think that it can add that extra punch. But at the same time, if that’s just not your style and it’s not something that comes out naturally, I think it’s never going to come off okay if someone’s trying to become someone that they’re not. This is all about how to enhance and exaggerate the best aspects of oneself, rather than trying to suddenly act in a way that feels awkward to them.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And so now I’m imagining another scenario, in which folks are just kind of grumpy, and who knows why? It’s early in the morning, it’s a mandatory training that nobody wants to be at or something. So folks are just sort of grumpy, and you know it, and maybe you even ask folks “How are you doing?” and they’re like, “Oh, fine.” And so, I’m wondering in that milieu, what are some pro tips for doing some of the nudging, even before we are kind of actively contributing content that can be actively listened and parroted back?

Mitch Prinstein

So, like you say, coming in and screaming “Good morning” and trying to get everyone to match your enthusiasm – if you’re one of those speakers, for instance – that doesn’t work. That is annoying, as you say, because that’s kind of saying, “I’m going to railroad your feelings. I’m going to force you to fit me, even if the entire group is feeling differently right now.”
The best thing to do is kind of more of a matching, and again, a slow movement – say, “Wow, yeah, this is a pretty tough morning.” Maybe even ask a few people, “Tell me a little bit what’s going on for you, or what are you so stressed about. I think everyone’s stressed.” Do a lot of just focusing on, “Yeah, that makes sense, I can validate that, I agree with that.” It can be very, very brief, even just nodding of the head: “Yup, sure, makes sense.” Like, “Well, I guess if we’re going to move forward on this, let’s think about this piece a little bit.”
And rather than jumping in and saying, “I’m going to change everyone’s mood in one instant”, slowly, gradually kind of getting them there. And people say, “Well, okay, I get it. You are where we are, but yeah, we have a discussion we have to have, so let’s start moving there.” And within 10-15 minutes the mood can change. But don’t force it. Read the room and don’t ignore what you’re reading. Follow in kind.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, cool. Well, any other top recommended actions to boost likability?

Mitch Prinstein

I would say that it’s the kind of thing that we shouldn’t need to talk about anymore these days, but just taking a couple of minutes at the beginning or end of a meeting to check in with people more generally, is so remarkably powerful. But we are all so interested in optimizing every minute and not thinking about socializing at work or anything like that, but that’s unfortunate – that message – because there really is a lot that comes from having something that is just a general “I care about you” check in.
And it doesn’t have to be mushy or obviously inappropriate, but some way of saying, “Hey, how are you doing? How is it going?” Or even saying back to them, “You seem a little bit stressed, or you seem a little bit more tired. Are you okay?” Just a little thing like that builds such allegiance and kind of alliance between people.
And believe it or not, it’s discouraged in a lot of places, kind of, “This is just business. We should only be talking business, and if you’re not saying something productive, it’s not a valuable use of your time.” And people are told, “Don’t spend any time on that.” But a company that treats everyone like robots gets a company full of robots working for them; and we don’t want that. We want people to be bringing their most innovative, most energetic selves.

Pete Mockaitis

Absolutely. And I’m imagining the scenario right now, in terms of you walk into the conference room and you’re two minutes early or the rest of the attendees are two minutes late. And so, you sit down and there is a colleague or two near you, and of course they are up in their phone. And so, I’m thinking this is a prime opportunity for you to engage a little bit in the “How are you doing? I care about you” small talk. But I think that odds are without some sort of, I don’t know – provocation, interruption, jolt of some sort, they will just continue to be on their phone until the presenter or meeting presider begins speaking. So, any pro tips on nudging in the direction of “eyes off of the phone and toward a conversation”?

Mitch Prinstein

Yeah. Isn’t this exactly what happens all the time? We stand in a room with 100 people, but none of them are talking to one other, because everyone’s head is buried in their phones and emails. Yet research is showing that the more we become electronically networked, the less connected we actually all feel and the more lonely people are feeling over time.
I think that taking it from the online to the offline, creating that bridge is always what’s important. So, two people looking at their phones in an elevator and one person saying, “Hey, did you see this latest report about what just got tweeted out?”, let’s say . And that right there – people will look up and say, “Oh yeah, I heard it” or, “No, what happened?” And it’s referencing again: “I get that we’re both looking at our phones, so I don’t want to just break into something that’s not related. But I’m going to bridge from that to talking to each other off of that.”
And some people will be interested and some will not, but it’s a really important way of trying to reestablish some human connection when we do have those times to do it, because we have less and less opportunity to have real voice-to-voice conversations anymore. And research is showing that that’s having pretty bad effects on us, as really a species. So it’s very important that we try and reclaim some real human connection, even just a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, I love that nudge, that bridge is so brilliant. It’s like, “I too am among you, looking at my phone, and here’s something I noticed on my phone I would like to discuss with you.” That’s good, very nice. Well, we could probably have another whole episode on this, but I’d love it if we could touch for a minute or two how do we think about this whole likability, status thing in the world of social media, and how should we use it in a prudent way that will not leave us depressed and feeling miserable?

Mitch Prinstein

Well, social media is not the problem. There’s actually a lot of research that says that social media can be very good – it can be good for kids, it can be good for adults, it can lead to really positive outcomes. The issue is how we’re using social media, and granted, it’s designed to really get us to focus on status. When we log in, it immediately is telling you how much activity you had, or any new followers that you had, or how many people liked your posts, which has nothing to do with likability, despite the use of that word; it’s really a marker of status.
So, I think we need to recognize that there is, again, this addictive reaction that we get biologically from that on social media and despite the opportunities to do it for fun, we can get addicted, we can get too sucked into it. We need to be really careful that we also use these new great tools for interaction to engage in some real relationship-building as well.
That means that sometimes the posts have to be directed to specific people, maybe using the private message feature. Or your relationship needs to exist both offline and online. So, take what you learned about them online and continue that conversation on the phone or at work or an actual get together. A lot of our relationships have been replaced by what we do on social media, which everyone knows is just far more superficial and artificial as well. People post only what they want other people to think about them. So I think that’s a really important piece.
I think there are ways that we can get sucked into the caring too much about what we think will get us more activity. And there’s actually some recent research that shows that could be very dangerous. Research that also looks at the brain and shows what happens while you’re on social media says that if you look at something that’s very immoral or dangerous or illegal, there’s a part of the brain that actually is responsible for your inhibition and it will appropriately kind of make you think, “I don’t want to engage in those behaviors” or, “I don’t want to have those thoughts.”
But if you see the exact same image with indicators saying that it’s been liked a lot or retweeted a lot, it shows that the inhibitions center of the brain stops getting activated; it shuts down. In other words, just seeing something that’s popular on social media is literally changing the way that we might be responding to these images at this neuro level.
This is not at all different from the way that people kind of exploited the whole “fake news” phenomenon months ago to try and perpetuate the sense of ideas being popular and therefore true and desirable. And so I think people just need to recognize that this stuff is manipulating with our brains a little bit and changing our values, whether we realize or not, and we just need to be a little more careful.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh yeah, I like that a lot. And I think you just nailed the distinction, in terms of, “Am I doing this in order to get a bunch of likes and sort of affirmation?” You just articulated what kind of puts a funny taste in my month when I’m looking at some people’s Facebook quotes. I remember someone put a photo of themselves and then someone said, “Oh, you look so gorgeous!” They just said, “Yeah, that’s why I picked this photo, obviously.”
And I thought, I guess in a way that’s obvious, but in another way that troubles me, and I don’t quite know why. So Mitch, thank you – you’ve put that mystery to bed. It’s because yeah, you put it up in order to seek affirmation, as opposed to just sort of share. That’s the distinction – are you building relationships, or are you trying to get plugs?
Because if you share something about your life – and you might look great in the photo – but in the course of taking the photo it’s like, “Oh, here’s a cool thing that happened to me, world. Now you know it.” And then your friends that you’re out of touch with said, “Oh, that is so cool. I didn’t know you were doing that. I’ve been experimenting with that as well. Check this out.” And then there you go. You’ve sort of built a bridge and nourished a relationship, as opposed to said, “Praise me, world. I need it.”

Mitch Prinstein

Exactly, exactly. So well-articulated, I agree. And kids are always ahead of us on everything with social media, and I’ve been doing a lot of talks recently with corporations, but also with high schools. And what adolescents are telling me is that they have started to recognize that on social media – they’re starting to recognize the artificiality. And they’re creating on Instagram in particular two different profiles – one that they call their “fake” profile and one that they call their “real” one.
But the interesting thing is that they call their real profile the profile that has all the curated images on there, all of the things that are trying to portray a public persona. But the one that they call their fake profile is actually where they express their real feelings, their real desire to connect to other people. So although the semantics are a little bit backwards, they’re starting to trend. Or the pendulum is starting to swing the other way to say, “Maybe we should be using this in a way that’s actually about true connections and not just PR opportunities.”
And I think that’s interesting, because for many people that are in the workplace right now, you’ve got a couple of different generations – you’ve got people, increasingly so, who have been raised on understanding communication exclusively through social media, and you have people who have never experienced social media; and somehow they all need to work together, although their understanding of the way to think about popularity and social relationships is diametrically opposed. It’s a really interesting time for thinking about how that’s affected the way that we interact with each other in the workplace.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that’s so good. And so then when you say “fake” and “real”, I guess the nomenclature they’re referencing is, “Does it have my real name on it, or does it have my super secret name that people who know me…” And I remember I had a friend who was like, “Oh, that’s going to go under the SteffersMarie handle, as opposed to the full name handle. I was like, “Okay, this is sort of silly”, but no, now I see what she’s on to. It’s like, “I’d like to have one to meaningfully connect and just be silly and me, so the public face can’t see it; and then I have one that is my name, and so I need to look awesome so that people associate that to my name.”

Mitch Prinstein

That’s exactly right. And it’s a great swing of the pendulum, I think. I think that people are maybe starting to get a little bit sick of the idea that everything that’s on there is really a bit fake, or a bit more status-seeking, which also tends to be a way that leads to dislikabilty. If people think that you’re trying too hard, it’s a really good way to turn people off.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Mitch, this is so good. Anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and quickly hear about some of your favorite things?

Mitch Prinstein

No, no, go for it.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, cool. Well, could you start us off by sharing a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Mitch Prinstein

Yeah. I’ve been thinking about that a little bit recently in fact, and I don’t know where this is attributed to, I’m afraid, but I know for me at work I have continually tried to follow the adage, “Have learning goals, not performance goals.” I think people who tend to be high-achieving or perfectionistic or at a stage in their life where they’re really trying to do well, forget that no one’s expected to know how to do everything perfectly right off the bat. Everyone throughout their job is in a developmental process and is constantly having to fall down in order to learn how to do better the next time. So, I love that quote and I think it’s a good one to keep saying as much as possible, especially in a high-pressured work environment.

Pete Mockaitis

Alright. And how about a favorite book?

Mitch Prinstein

Oh, there are so many. I think it would be a little trite if I talked about Malcolm Gladwell’s books, but I do absolutely love them and I think that The Tipping Point is a great way of also talking about the power of popularity and why it is that we’re so just naturally tuned to trends and what others do as a way of guiding our own behaviour.

Pete Mockaitis

And how about a favorite study or experiment or a bit of research?

Mitch Prinstein

Well, there’s recently been a study that shows that our popularity, or I should say our lack of it, ends up affecting us in ways that we never even knew about. Believe it or not, at the moment that we feel excluded or isolated, we now know that it activates dormant DNA in our bodies to turn on and prepare us for imminent injury or attack, which of course in 2017 doesn’t tend to happen very often. So instead it throws off the regulation systems in our brain and affects our neuro transmitters. We’re literally learning that popularity is now changing the very blueprint of our existence, and yeah, it has the capability of changing which DNA is being expressed in our bodies. And to me that’s just incredibly cool and incredibly powerful.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s wild. Now I’m wondering, with the inflammation or the DNA expression, are you strengthened by having a stress response and recovering from it? Are you healthier for having had an unpopular kind of bout, or are you sort of damaged or diminished by having a so-called attack of being unpopular?

Mitch Prinstein

It’s the latter, unfortunately. Research now shows that people who are not popular and more socially isolated are twice as likely to die as their same aged counterparts of equal health. In fact, research has shown that the only factor that is a stronger predictor of illness and mortality is heavy smoking – that’s how powerful this popularity effect is.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. So if I have good friends I can just go ahead and smoke, and they’ll counter it?

Mitch Prinstein

I don’t know about that, but…

Pete Mockaitis

I can reach no other conclusion that this, Mitch. I’ll tell my wife. Okay, cool. And how about a favorite tool?

Mitch Prinstein

A favorite tool. Oh, that’s a good one. But why don’t I go old school and say the telephone? Anything that gives you an opportunity to make a true, human social connection. I’ll go with that.

Pete Mockaitis

Alright, cool. And how about a favorite habit?

Mitch Prinstein

Oh, I would say exercise, working out, without a question. And for psychological reasons as well – there’s nothing more important than… Everyone knows that the minute they stop working obsessively on something is when all the good ideas come. And there’s no better way to stop thinking about whatever you’re stressing about than to try and lift 200 pounds off of yourself for fear of death. So I would say exercise is a great way to shut off your brain and get it to start working again.

Pete Mockaitis

Awesome. And is there a particular nugget or piece that you share in your teaching or writing or speaking that really seems to connect and resonate, getting folks giving you all those status retweets or Kindle book highlights or vigorous note-takings?

Mitch Prinstein

I would say if you feel like you were not the most popular person in your school, and there were times in your life where you wished you were, I would say that you’re in the 99% majority and you should be very happy, because it turns out that those who grew up being the very, very most popular, in some cases are at higher risk for problems in the long run than those of you who were just average.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, now I think we have an over-representation of the 1% in this audience, so I will follow up. What are the risks that folks who were popular early on may suffer?

Mitch Prinstein

The people who were the highest in status, but they were not likable – and that’s an important distinction, but the ones who were not likable – research shows they tend to continue to view the world through their status lens. They continue to think that the only way to get ahead is to make themselves seem higher in status, even at the expense of others, and to constantly be evaluating their own position on the status hierarchy. For that reason, research has shown that the highest status, but simultaneously not likable people have greater risk of relationship difficulties, addictions, depression and anxiety.

Pete Mockaitis

Understood, thank you. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Mitch Prinstein

Probably the best would be MitchPrinstein.com, or check out the book.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Mitch Prinstein

I would say take a moment to think less about how everyone is thinking about you, because people aren’t thinking about you; they’re all thinking about what you think of them.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. [laugh] That’s good. Mitch, thank you so much for coming on, sharing this wisdom and expertise. I hope that you have way more cool research, insights and publications and all that good stuff, and you’re both high in status and highly likable.

Mitch Prinstein

Thanks so much, it’s a pleasure.

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