From William Golding's classic 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, to director Gus Van Sant's chilling new take on the Columbine massacre, Elephant, cliques among adolescents have provided material for some of the most disturbing storylines in modern Western culture.
With an eye toward investigating this social phenomenon, the most recent Gallup Youth Survey* asked teens point-blank how popular they thought others in their schools perceive them to be. About 4 in 10 (42%) say they are seen as above average in this regard, another 4 in 10 (39%) claim average popularity, and about 2 in 10 (18%) say they are below average popularity-wise.
A closer look at these numbers reveals few obvious differences with regard to demographic categories -- boys and girls are about equally likely to say they are popular, as are whites and nonwhites.
Teens' estimations of popularity were different when broken down by academic standing: Those students who say they are above average academically are more likely to say they are very popular than those who identify themselves as average or below average academically. About half of those students who give their class standing as "above average" or "near the top of the class" also place themselves in one of the top two categories with regard to popularity. Only about 30% of those who give their academic standing as average or below claim one of those top two categories.
Does that mean it's cool to be smart? That certainly seems like a reasonable interpretation, though one should keep in mind that both measures are subjective self-ratings -- it seems likely that teens' underlying level of self-esteem may influence their perceptions of both their academic standing and their popularity.
Popularity: In Their Own Words
We can gain additional insight into what drives teens' perceptions of popularity simply by asking them why they think they are as popular as they are. Predictably, this open-ended question yielded common themes such as physical attractiveness and participation in athletics. A number of teens say they attend smaller schools in which popularity isn't an issue because everybody knows almost everybody else.
Another common theme -- especially among those who say they are of average popularity or below -- is disdain for the idea of "popularity" itself. Many students say they aren't interested in being popular -- and several claim that label has more negative than positive connotations at their school. Following are a few direct quotes from teens included in the study:
- "I don't really try to be popular. I used to try very hard, and
it never really did me any good. Plus none of the popular people at
my school were nice, now I don't try at all, I actually avoid the
popular kids, and I feel much better about myself. The friends I
have are very nice, and I have enough that I'm not lonely."
-- 16-year-old girl
- "[I have] a very negative outlook. I like Japanese anime. I
actually enjoy science classes. In middle school, kids use to make
fun of [me] to an almost insane degree, so I lashed out [in]
violent opposition to them, until they only talked behind my back.
Sometimes when I speak about my ideas and philosophy, they may
sound insane, so many of my peers think I'm crazy." --
- "I have a tendency to take up for the underdog or the new kid
or the kid that is different. I don't care what that small group of
the most popular kids (we call them ‘preps') thinks. The
preps are the ones that only hang out with kids who dress in high
fashion, drive the newest cars, etc. I also don't like groups that
try to follow a herd mentality. I have a good mind and I use it."
-- 15-year-old boy
- "I have a magnetic personality, and I am known by many people.
I also have great results academically. Many people have heard of
me from other teachers, commenting on my intelligence. I am not an
arrogant person, but my intellect and charisma is higher than the
average person." -- 13-year-old boy
- "Because I don't need to be something I don't want to be to fit
in with the popular group. School is a place to learn not a place
to try and be all big and bad. I'll save that for people who don't
have much self-esteem." -- 14-year-old girl
*The Gallup Youth Survey is conducted via an Internet methodology provided by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel that is designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The current questionnaire was completed by 517 respondents, aged 13 to 17, between Aug. 1 and Aug. 29, 2003. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.