The science behind what makes certain kids popular

From an early age, you can already see playground politics. On the one side of the playground are the popular clique, surrounded by kids wanting to be just like them, as they make up all of the rules of play. On the other side, you get a few lone individuals who prefer their own space and feel disconnected from the rest of their classmates. But why does this kind of popularity start so early in life? And what’s the science behind what makes certain kids popular?

Social skills

Although science has yet to determine what specific factors determine popularity – because these change in different areas, age groups, and kids – they can generalize what makes one kid popular, while the other not. If you’ve ever watched Mean Girls, you’ll know that popularity is dictated through social power and these popular kids are often mean and insulting, and this isn’t just in American teens.


Unfortunately, these traits can be seen in kids as early as preschool age, and researchers have called these children ‘bistrategic controllers.’ The most common characteristics of these bistrategic controllers is the ability to manipulate and threaten others, but also offer positive interactions with those closest to them. This means, the closer you get to them, the nicer they are – and many kids want to push through that barrier to be their best friend.

Walking lie detectors

There has been much study on the behavior of popular kids, and the British Journal of Developmental Psychology found in 2002 that popular kids are talented in their ability to have a good ‘theory of mind.’ This means they can easily put themselves in other’s shoes and understand how they may be feeling, and the study found that popular kids were better at understanding someone else’s perspective on an issue even than those who were deemed ‘uncool.’


These popular kids were also more efficient and accurate when working out whether another person was lying or telling the truth. These abilities may aid these kids in their popularity status, as they are able to determine how others would feel if they made certain moves and are able to manipulate this, for better or for worse.

As time goes on…

The study above was tested on younger children, but another study has investigated the role popularity plays in high schoolers. Researchers have found that those who are perceived as visually attractive and more aggressive are only perceived to be more popular – but this does not play a part in whether they actually are, or whether they are more liked by their peers. Many older children base popularity on how well-liked they are, meaning assertiveness and looks do not work all of the time.


Popular kids have good impulse control

If we are to judge popularity on the above, then those with higher aggression and power are the most popular. However, a volatile temperament does not bode well for friendships as many children do not want to be friends with someone who will shout at them for no reason. So, these kids also have to have good impulse control, so they can fully control their own emotions and when it is the right time to blow a fuse.

Does popularity make children happier?

It’s the age old questions – my child isn’t popular, so is he unhappy? The simple answer is no. Of course, a child will always be happier if they are surrounded by real friends as humans yearn for social interaction. However, children will always make their own friends in their own individual way, which could make them much happier than being well-liked by masses of people.


Although playground antics often go over our heads, it’s interesting to note that there is science behind popularity. It’s important to bear in mind that being ‘popular’ isn’t always a good thing, as some people gain that status by bullying tactics. Not everyone who is seen as being popular as a child maintain that into adulthood, and lots of ‘unpopular’ children are well liked by the time they become adults, and are more confident in their own skin.