Brian Underwood: The popular choice is no choice |

Brian Underwood: The popular choice is no choice

Brian Underwood

Money, it’s gotta be shoes!

It was 30 years ago that Mars Blackmon, Michael Jordan’s famed fanboy played by Spike Lee in the legendary Nike Air Jordan commercials, opined that it was the shoes that made the man.

Some years before, unknown to all but a couple of hundred of my classmates and me, a similar shoe fad swept across Abraham Lincoln Middle School in my hometown of Newport Beach, Calif. It wasn’t Nike, as the big swoosh was still in its nascent stage. No, the social the divider at that point and place belonged to another upstart shoe company — Van shoes. And the model du jour was the company’s red low tops.

All the popular kids had them, and, believe me, it was a divider. It was the mark of cool, but you couldn’t just go and buy them. You had to consider something first. Did you actually have the rep to rep them? Did you dare to wear if you didn’t have the street cred? Or more appropriately for that neighborhood, yacht cred.

Ah, the joys of adolescence. It seems that so many I’ve talked to over the years wouldn’t want to go through all that again, and neither would I.

Ah, the joys of adolescence. It seems that so many I’ve talked to over the years wouldn’t want to go through all that again, and neither would I. Too much drama, too many mental gymnastics, just too much. But rather unfortunately, the more things change, the more they appear to be the same for many adults with respect to popularity.

According to a book called Popular, released last year by University of North Carolina psychologist Dr. Mitch Prinstein, the desire for adults to be popular remains just as strong now as it’s ever been. And this is a bit worrisome when one pauses to consider who is safeguarding and shepherding today’s adolescents from such pressures?

“Adults spend more and more of their time thinking, and behaving, like high school students,” Prinstein said during an interview with Gareth Cooke of American Scientific for a piece called “Cracking the Popularity Code” (June 17, 2017).

Prinstein went on to describe two types of popularity that researchers have identified.

“Most do not realize that scientists have identified two different types of popularity, each associated with very different outcomes,” the psychologist continued. “The first is one found in childhood where children are often most liked by others. The most popular kids are those who lead quietly, help others and cooperate, and this type of popularity predicts many desirable long-term outcomes.”

Unfortunately, a more dysfunctional brand of notoriety attaches itself to many individuals during adolescence based upon changes in neural circuitry triggered by pubertal hormones. And in some cases it follows into adulthood.

“The markers of status — visibility, influence, dominance and power — all activate the social reward centers in our brain and change our relationship with popularity forever,” Prinstein suggests.

He goes on to summarize that for some individuals these markers remain with them into their adult years, and, unlike the positive outcomes associated with those driven by affability, research findings indicate drive for “having high status leads to later aggression, addiction, hatred, and despair.”

In the same article, University of Virginia professor Joe Allen corroborates that those who care the most about their social standing, “grow up to have difficulties with their interpersonal relationships years later. They remain fixated on their status and even on others’ popularity rather than on attributes that may lead to fulfilling human connection.”

So why is all of this important?

Well, we’re just weeks into a new school year, and many students, particularly those who are new to a school, are still working through how to fit in. Shoes, clothes, etc., are outward expressions of how students communicate identity, but what’s driving them on the inside, and what sort of identify are they striving for? What type of popular?

Based on Prinstein’s research, it seems like we can learn a lot from the values young children blend together to define popularity, which can be readily condensed to a single endearing characteristic — humility. Acting not out of selfish ambition, or conceit, but out of consideration, and for others.

And so what Judeo-Christian values have long espoused as a virtue in humility, science now comes alongside and not only validates the positive of this characteristic, but also the harm in its antonym.

A Psychology Today article written by Dr. Michael Austin (June 27, 2012) cites empirical data that supports the notion that, “Humility has been linked with better academic performance, job performance, and excellence in leadership.”

Austin’s article goes on to point out that, “Humble people have better social relationships, avoid deception in their social interactions, and they tend to be forgiving, grateful, and cooperative.”

No wonder kids identify popularity with those who are humble. Who wouldn’t admire or want to hang out with people like that?

So, with the school year still so young, it might be time for a checkup, and a check-in. The checkup is for ourselves and the chance to evaluate what we value, likability or status.

The check-in is for us to connect with the kids in our lives to see what they value, likability (e.g. humility) or status (e.g. things like red Vans, Air Jordans, etc.) Science offers the value in it, and a healthy society relies on it.

For where our treasure is, there will be our hearts also.

Brian Underwood is the director of school development at Sierra Lutheran High School.