S: The secret to success is not high status. It’s like ability. This is based on research yet we get caught up in the status game especially on social media. I had such a powerful conversation with today’s guest, Mitch Prinstein. He’s the author of Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World that Cares Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships. Mitch is board certified in Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. He serves as the John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and the Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Mitch, it’s great to have you on the show.
M: Thanks so much for having me.
S: Let’s talk about the book, Popular, what was it that inspired you to write this book? There must be some sort of compelling story behind this?
M: I’ve been interested in this topic since I was a kid myself, really, wondering why some people seem so much more popular than others. But I think my main reason is because it feels like our society has become one that is emphasizing exactly the wrong type of popularity. There are different versions of this and I think we’re headed for a bit of a disaster.
S: Okay. Tell me more about this disaster. This is very good bait so I’m taking it.
M: There are two different kinds of popularity. One is the type of popularity that reflects how much we’re liked by others. We can be more liked among others if we do things to help them feel happy, included, and valued. But that’s not what we think about when we think about the word popular, we usually think about those high school days and we think about the people who were influential, visible, powerful, dominant. These days, we’re kind of living in a world where that type of visibility and dominance is much more of what’s emphasized, not only for adolescents but really in the rest of our lives—if we think about the corporate world, if we think about politics, if we think about reality TV and social media—we’re getting the message at every turn that we should really be focusing on how much we are visible rather than really connecting with other human beings and how much we’re powerful, dominant, and aggressive rather than being empathic and kind. There’s been some research looking at what happens to those people who are likeable versus those people who have high status—which is what we call the other form of popularity—even decades later and the results are completely opposite—people who are likeable do quite well, people high in status don’t.
S: What happens to the people that are high in status? I’m thinking back to my high school years and those popular kids were such jerks—I know I shouldn’t feel this way but maybe I feel a little bit of satisfaction when I hear that they’re managing a McDonald’s or something, it’s like they didn’t go very far in life—let’s distinguish this a bit further like the likeability versus the status and where that leads.
M: You know, 95% of us were not the most popular in our high schools. I think it’s very common and natural for people to feel a little bit put off by the idea of popularity—at least when thinking about it in terms of status—because those people who are high in status, there are a couple of things that really hurt them. One is that those of us in that 95%, we had to suffer a little bit in adolescence, we had to learn how to get along in a world that didn’t give us everything for free, make it very easy for us. We learn from those struggles, they help us, they are important for our development as adolescents. We can be grateful now decades later that we were not the highest in status. I think it’s one important thing to remember about these kids who may have had it a little too easy as adolescents, they really lost out an extremely important learning opportunity. But second, the best way to increase one’s status to make yourself seem high is to make others seem low, is to really be aggressive, to bully, or to somehow really self-aggrandize, make yourself seem like you are far more important and worthy of attention than everybody else. That might be reinforced for a few years in the hallways of your high school but that’s not the way the world works or at least not the way that it should work. Those people decades later researched by, for instance, Joe Allen at University of Virginia, another psychology professor, his research found that those highest in status in high school, they grew up to be far more likely—not necessarily to work at a McDonald’s but that might be true as you say—they do have relationship problems. Their friends and romantic partners don’t enjoy spending as much time with them as the romantic partners and friends of those of us who were not as high in status. They are also at much greater risk for addictions, they have a higher risk for depression and anxiety as well. They tend to get hired, maybe even promoted, but they don’t stay on those jobs very long. If they do have people that report to them, those people don’t feel particularly loyal towards them or very invested in their teams as a whole.
S: How do we take specific practical application of this likeability factor of popularity and improve our likeability, improve our influence in our social seers, and make a bigger impact?
M: If we take away the kind of dirty-word aspect of the word ‘popular’ and we think about it as really reflecting likeability instead of status, then popularity is something that we want. In other words, likeability is something that could really benefit us. All things being equal, the likeable person is more likely to be hired. Research shows that not status, but likeability predicts longer lives, better health, better relationships at both work and at home. To be more likeable, the number one thing we need to do is the exact thing that makes you higher in status. It pertains to aggression, likeable people are not aggressive, they are more focused on making everyone feel heard, important, valued, making everyone feel like equals and included. In many ways, it’s doing exactly the opposite of what you would do to be high in status. I think there are ways that we can do that every single day with every interaction that we have, happy to talk about that in some detail if you’d like.
S: I would, yeah.
M: One thing that I’d point out though, even first just the extent to which we are now being pulled towards things that are taking us away from likeability and focusing more on status. I think social media is a good example of that. Social media is a great, great tool that actually can help us in a lot of ways and research shows that it does help us and help our kids in some ways. But if you think about what you’re called to do on social media, you’re called to really demonstrate status, accrue followers, retweets, and likes, which really have nothing to do with likeability, but markers of visibility, power, and influence. If we really think about how we spend our day every day, how much of our time we spend cultivating relationships, and making other people feel included and valued versus how much time we spend in a given day trying to make ourselves seem better than others, more visible than others, more powerful than others, getting more attention from others, we might be surprised to learn that we’re pursuing a kind of popularity that is destined to hurt us rather than spending more time on likeability which is actually very likely to help us.
S: How would we assess whether we’re going down that wrong track? Is there some sort of online personality test or assessment we can take?
M: Yeah, it’s a great question. Unfortunately, there’s not that kind of a test that would be reliable. As a psychological scientist, that would be hard for me to endorse if it wasn’t done in a particularly in a rigorous way, but I do think that we need to look at our own relationships to really think about our level of likeability. In those relationships, how much time are we focused on ourselves and our power in those relationships? In our time with others, how much are we really helping other people to feel like their contributions are important? For instance, an example, imagine you’re at work and there’s a meeting and you have a very clear idea about how that meeting should go or what the outcome should be. The high status person, the people that also end to be quite disliked might come in and really try to dominate that meeting. In a simple given interaction, many of us might have that experience on a daily basis, might come in and really try to demonstrate that we have the most knowledge, the best ideas and we will try and get our way. But the people who are most likeable, they also get what they want but they do it in a much more clever way. Research shows that they listen to what everyone says, they’re often one of the last to speak. They listen to others, they reflect to what others have said, they make it clear that they’ve heard what other people are saying first, and they try and introduce ideas by building on what others have said. They ultimately—these highly likeable leaders—get voted as being the most likely to be the ones that people want to follow, the ones that they want to be loyal towards, but also the ones they want to see promoted, they’re rooting for them to be promoted. These are very strong, strong leaders who have done so by making everyone feel a part of every decision, making everyone feel included and heard with everything that’s occured. This is exactly the opposite from the way that some people will engage in that kind of interaction in their workplace. The same would apply for how we might interact in our personal relationships as well.
S: Yeah, like a manager who’s not very effective, not a good leader will come to a meeting, speak first and share his opinion or her opinion, and then the rest of the room is basically like a rubber stamp of his or her opinion instead of waiting until the end and letting everybody else give their opinion or thought.
M: That’s exactly right and that’s a really good way to say it. It’s an interesting dynamic that there are many managers who are under the impression that they will be rewarded for having created every idea and for taking credit for each of those ideas and really convincing everyone else to fit their own vision, which is not what the research suggests. The much better way to do it is to create a team where everyone feels like they were a part of the decision and that they all share in the credit. Those people who fear that doing so will hurt their own careers should recognize that it’s those kinds of leaders that reward others, make everyone else feel valued, and take a personal interest in each of their own direct reports that ultimately do far better in the long run. The great example of where likeability triumphs over status.
S: Let’s go through a few different use cases where likeability is trumping status in terms of impact for the person and for the community. We’ll start with let’s say somebody who founds a non-profit, if they want to make a wonderful impact and yet they are the high status kind of person, they’re all about ego and contrast that with somebody who has founded a non-profit and they’re all about giving, and about being a servant leader. How would this play out for both cases?
M: The likeable leader knows their employees’ names, they know something about each of their lives, they take time to attend to team dynamics to make sure that everyone feels that they’re part of the decisions that are being made together. They’re probably working in a way that is much more interactive with their community as well, really helping to make sure that that that non-profit reflects the community’s values and is engaging in a shared partnership with the community. The likeable leader probably is using a lot more humor and a lot more flexibility within the context of their meetings and they’re probably doing a lot more to invest in each individual’s learning trajectory. The status-oriented leader may not know who their direct reports are either knowing their names, or knowing anything about their own career goals might be interested in pushing their own ideas as a way to really focus on increasing their status and that’s key. High status leaders tend to be engaged in activities that will directly increase their own status. In fact, even in the studies that were done with those high status high schoolers, when asking their partners what they were like decades later, their partners would say, “I feel like their relationship with me is only using me to try and increase their own sense of status,” which is also what happens in a business setting, that people find that they’re using their projects as instrumental just to increase their own profile. This is more of a status-focused approach. Again, it can have short-term gain, it can increase status briefly, but it certainly leads to a lifetime of unhappiness.
S: It certainly sounds like it. Let’s do another use case, let’s say it’s somebody who’s very active in their local community, maybe they’re not the leader of it, maybe they’re on the PTA, Parent Teacher Association or they’re on their Homeowners Association board, either they’re highly likeable or they’re high status. How does that play out?
M: That PTA or Homeowners Association member who is high in status or is status seeking is probably spending a lot of time telling to everybody else why they’re wrong. It’s probably challenging the leader as a threat to their own sense of power and leadership and trying to get their own opinion heard by putting down everybody else. Their strategy is to really over turn everyone else’s opinions as a way of asserting their own as most important. In a dramatic example—and maybe a very topical example—they may call other’s names to themselves or behind their back, they may spread gossip or rumors, or somehow belittle others’ contributions, or try to negate the validity of others contributions as a way of making themselves seem like the only one with valid ideas and the only one who has a vision that people should subscribe to. The likeable person is probably going to do that in a very different way. They’re really going to spend time to become a part of that group and understand its norms. Likeable people are very good at knowing how to read the room and how to move the group from within rather than exerting themself as a force to completely change the direction of a group. It might be a little bit slower in some ways, but the research would suggest that it’s going to lead to more sustainable growth and ultimately have long term dividends paid off because that PTA will change the culture, not in response to one leader who may come and go, but in a way that changes the entire norms of the group to value different things in a way that will have a much more substantial impact on that PTA or on that Homeowners Association.
S: It kind of reminds me, I had this epiphany at one point where I was dragging my kids to Tony Robbins events, sending them to Dr. John Demartini, and so forth, and then I realized like, “Wait a second, they’re kind of not really taking it in. They’re not fully enrolled, they went through somebody’s programs or maybe they didn’t.” One of my daughters bowed out early out of a Dr. John Demartini program and I’m like, “Oh, no. Why did you do that? It would have been so amazing for you.” Then I realized that I can just be the change that I want to see in the world or in my family, and I can model the kind of behaviors that I’m trying to enroll them into, or inspire in them. That really changed the relationship I had with my kids and also changed them. It’s pretty exciting. I’m sure there are some sort of parallel or corollary here with likeability and effectiveness in changing people and the culture.
M: I think that’s such a great point. I think it also reminds me that these dynamics are being taught in childhood and adolescence. Exposing our kids to these ideas is incredibly important because we learn how to interact in interpersonal context when we’re in the halls of our high school. For those of us that learn that the world is a place where we are rejected, or admired, or powerful, or somehow ineffectual, there’s really fascinating work that I talk about in the book that talks about the ways in which that’s internalized, the way in which our brains even continue to rely on those memories to determine the way that we interact in every business meeting and every social relationship that we have today. We use those adolescent experiences which are critical in how formative they are at the time on our brain is maturing to teach us how to understand our social interactions. When we’re having an argument with a spouse or when we’re sitting in a business meeting, there is a part of us that is 14 years old interpreting what’s happening around us. Obviously, there’s plenty of parts of us that are way older than that. But we can’t deny that a part of our experience in our adult relationships has a lot to do with the way that we experienced our adolescent relationships particularly with peers. For that reason, the ways in which we teach these lessons to our children and give them messages about how to think about whether it’s leadership or relationships that’s really critical for how we’re building the next generation.
S: That reminds me of—I learned a really powerful framework—I think it was from Pia Mellody that there’s the adaptive teen, it’s like we have an inner child in us and whether that is an adaptive teen or an anxious child—for me, it was an anxious child. I have fear of abandonments, I’ll be needy or kind of clingy sometimes, that’s my form of inner child. Let’s say that a previous partner of mine was an adaptive teen then she was more kind of standoffish, emotionally distant, and just less available. She would stonewall or grow cold when we were in a disagreement or an argument, that dynamic that I learned about from—I was at an intensive on learning about your inner child—it was so powerful for me because I could see the dynamic happening and how I’m not going to change her and she’s not going to change me. Adaptive teens and anxious inner children, they tend to gravitate towards each other and that always ends up with a lot of arguments and so forth. Rather than change the person, just go for an adult, somebody who’s not got an anxious child, or an adaptive teen, somebody who’s kind of in their best self already, they’re whole. When you’re that person, you attract that person as well and you don’t have this dysfunctional dynamic. Are you familiar with this sort of framework?
M: I think that makes really good sense and I have heard about that. I think one of the things that I found so fascinating when looking at the effects of how those inner initial experiences of popularity play a role in our lifetimes later is that the effects that it has are far more dramatic than we ever realized. As you mentioned, it can really affect the dynamics of relationships. It can also affect the way in which we experience how we see literally the world around us. There’s been some really interesting studies where they’ve had folks wear an eye tracking device, a device that sits over their pupils and is able to record exactly what they’re looking at and how long they spend focusing on particular things in their visual field. What they find is that based on whether people had experiences growing up of rejection and/or popularity, it seems to be related to how much when watching the same exact video they spend time staring at rejection cues or ignoring those cues and staring at things that suggest that there’s social success going on. It really suggests this incredibly scientific proven pattern to demonstrate that what our experiences were back then is something that we are—without realizing it—recreating in all of our experiences today. If you are rejected, you are walking around literally seeing the world through these rejection-colored glasses seeking out and spending time focusing on other signals for rejection. Then not surprisingly, continuing to see the world in a more rejecting way. That’s actually a really good thing. There’s evidence that people who see the world in a rosy way aren’t missing out on really important signals that they need to see, in just the same way that obviously people who are seeing the world in a way that confirms their prior experiences with rejection might be missing out on the opportunity to see positive cues. That inner experience as we now see from even neuroscientific perspectives, a very enduring and powerful effect on everyday social interactions.
S: But on the other hand, isn’t it also important to see that we live in a friendly universe instead of one that’s cold, dark, and desolate? If you characterize people or the universe in a particular way, won’t you see more of that? Your reticular activating systems can be tuned in on that and you’d be less happy and less feeling connected to the community and to a higher power?
M: Absolutely. That’s why for most of us that grew up average in terms of popularity, that’s the best thing. We don’t want to have a filter that makes things seem too rejecting or too rosy. Most of us were not the most rejected growing up, nor are we the most popular. This is one area where we want to feel really, really good about having been right in middy middle, really average, that’s what you want for yourself and for your kids when it comes to popularity.
S: I feel like I was in the middy middle, somewhat popular, but not in the popular clique. I feel very versatile in my adult life now that I’m able to blend in and be included in many kinds of different communities. I’m curious what your thoughts are about giving kids access to things like iPhones, social media, gaming systems, and all that in their formative years. Because as you said there’s so many little things that’s seemingly little, but they change the whole course of the child’s life as they grow older because it was in their formative years, and now they have this perspective that’s kind of warped?
M: Oh, these things have changed our entire public conversation about relationships. We talk about our friends and about our friends’ lives now based on what we’ve read on their feed and what we saw got a lot of likes or posts. It’s changing our social relationships dramatically. I don’t think there’s any way we can realistically stop our kids from engaging in a lot of these types of new media. I think, we can obviously do our best to enforce moderation. But I think what’s equally important, if not more an important, is that we’re talking with our kids about what they’re seeing on social media and helping them to understand how best to use it. Because this is now a world where I don’t think this is going to disappear anytime soon. I may be wrong, but I do think we need to really help engage kids in conversations about what they’re seeing. They need to know that what people are posting on social media is curated and it’s false in some ways. It’s not representative of people’s true experiences, feelings, or physical appearance. I think we need to help people recognize that what they see as something being “very well liked” doesn’t necessarily mean that people agree with or endorse all of the values and suggestions by whatever that post was. They may be doing it because they’re fronting, or they’re trying to simply express general support, or in the case of teens, they’re doing it because they believe there will be severe friendship sanctions for not immediately posting a like to someone’s selfie post or something like that. This is a really important issue because kids need to develop a social media literacy for how they interact and there’s good evidence that kids are now starting to develop what they call their real on their fake profiles because they’re craving a sense of true connection with one another. But they’re living in the worlds where they’ve been taught to interact primarily on social media and in ways that are cultivating and promoting more of a fake type of interaction. In my talks with teens now in all corners of the country, I’m hearing from them that the reason why they’re developing these second profiles is because they truly crave and want more real interaction, but they live in a world that’s become harder to get.
S: In fact, you might have anonymous profiles on Quora or on—what’s that blogging platform?
M: Reddit is one. There are several where there’s a lot of discussion about their emotional experiences because they’re having a hard time knowing how to get that experience elsewhere. You’re right, those are meeting that need in some ways. But again, it lacks an intimacy that we can still get from voice-to-voice or face-to-face interactions, but kids are not getting as much anymore.
S: Yeah. What was called Tumblr, that was the name of the platform.
M: Yes, yes.
S: There’s all these crazy kind of anonymous confessions of what’s going on in teenagers’ lives on Tumblr, it’s kind of tragic, really. What age do you think you would want your child to start using social media, or have access to an iPhone or a smart phone, and having their own iPhone, and that sort of stuff?
M: It’s really hard to say because there’s no really good research on this to be able to tell us what happens when someone too young gets a device or access versus too old. The Pew Research Institute does a fantastic job. They are a nonpartisan fact tank that has great data on what’s most common right now and what happens. It seems that at the transition adolescents—11, 12, 13, lots of kids are getting access and spending a remarkable amount of time being exposed to social media messages. Sometimes multiple forms of electronic communication at once because they may be gaming or watching a show, while it’s tweeting about it and then texting about it all at the same time. There are ways in which social and other electronic communication is all being interwoven simultaneously. It’s hard to say whether that is good or bad or whether a nine-year-old having it will have a worse life outcome than a person who didn’t look at it until they’re 16, we simply don’t have that research yet. What we do know is that the way in which someone interacts on social media can be problematic. My graduate student Jackie Nissy did a wonderful study demonstrating that there are some kids, perhaps those particularly at risk for depression who might spend much more time than others online engaging in social comparison and really looking for ways to compare themselves—for girls, this is often their body shapes, or their facial appearance, or the number of their friends that they see online, how many of those friends are posting pictures with other friends, and are they at social gatherings where they were not invited—and really engaging in those kinds of activities where they’re using social media as a way to basically reduce their own sense of self-worth and compare themselves rather than using, let’s say, the private message feature to engage in a conversation with somebody or to post good news. These differences in how you use social media clearly do seem to have strong negative implications for kids’ development. Her research demonstrated there was more likely to be depression a year later if kids were engaging in a social comparison online. We’ve also had research demonstrating that some kids are on social media simply to increase their own status in these digital status seekers, as we’ve called them in our research seem to be at greater risk for risky behaviors that similarly reflect their desire to get a lot of status rather than truly making connections with others. Kids can tell you exactly which of their peers are the digital status seekers who are using social media for perhaps, these bad ways versus the ones who do it for more relationship building. That would be the bigger concern for me than the exact age when someone would start using it. Especially given that most kids, when they get on, parents rarely talk with their teens about what they’re doing on there or how to process what’s happening on there.
S: I think that’s the big mistake because kids are going to have access—whether we like it or not—to porn, to disturbing images, and of course, it’s all a filter bubble, so it’s getting more reinforcement around the beliefs, and political views, and all that that we resonate with. Facebook understands all that and even just a kid getting access to email, they have words or phrases in their terminology, and their vernacular that I could never imagine having when I was a kid like they know what penis enlargement is because they’ve gotten those emails in their spam folder, in their inbox, and that just blows my mind that these kids are just growing up too fast in a world that’s a little scary, frankly.
M: I’ll scare you even more. There has been recent research that’s looking at what happens in adolescents’ brains when they’re on a platform like Instagram. What they find is they’re looking specifically at a part of the brain that is, it’s referred to the prefrontal cortex, it’s kind of like our brains brakes. It tells us when to stop engaging in every impulse and when we should instead do something more thoughtful, premeditated, and really consider all of the pros and cons. It’s a part of the brain that’s very uniquely human. In fact, it doesn’t exist in the same way in other species and it helps us to really be far more careful and able to control our impulses. This prefrontal cortex, when you show kids pictures of dangerous, illegal, and immoral acts, then you see this prefrontal cortex really activated which is great news, it really says that kids generally are getting the message from their parents or elsewhere that they should maybe avoid these types of illegal and dangerous acts. But when you show kids these exact same pictures with icons attached to them that says that that picture was liked a lot on social media, the prefrontal cortex is no longer activating. In other words, the research is saying that when kids are watching all of these things like what you’re talking about online and they’re seeing that these have images, have lots of likes, retweets, or follows, comments attached to it, it’s changing potentially the way their brain is responding to what they’re seeing. It’s not just what they see, it’s how they’re processing what they’re seeing at a neural level. The importance of parents and teachers really speaking up and talking with kids about what they see, “What does it mean when there are a lot of likes on there? Does it mean that people agree with these immoral acts or does it mean that people are liking it because they’re just wanting to seem popular themselves or something like that?” These are critical conversations for us to be having or social media risks undoing everything that we’re teaching our kids as parents. This is a message that I’m obviously very passionate about and I think is really, really important for us to talk about. One of the reasons why I’ve been talking to so many kids around the country and one of the things I even talk about in the book is exactly how to have those conversations to help kids understand what social media might be doing to their brains.
S: It’s like these huge YouTubers and Instagram mega stars, and so forth, people like CaptainSparklez or PewDiePie who probably many of our listeners have never heard of, yet most kids will have heard of because they’re following these people. These are big YouTubers that play games all day long. You can watch them play games, and they’re narrating, and they’re talking about life and stuff. That’s like a surrogate parent. If you’re abdicating your responsibilities as a parent, having this tough conversation saying, “Hey, you’ve probably already seen porn online, so let me talk to you about it, and what are the dangers of it, and why you don’t want to get hooked on it, because it will change your brain and it will end up messing with your relationships when you grow older.” If they’re not having those conversations with their kids and the kids are turning to not only their peers, but these surrogate parents like PewDiePie who have billions and billions of views on YouTube, it’s pretty crazy.
M: It is a brave new world where kids have access to far more information than any of us did. It’s not only changing what they’re seeing and how they’re responding to it, but the way in which they think about where to get credible information. I think that’s important because the problem with the internet, no matter how interactive it may seem is that it is not a replacement for the kinds of relationships that you can have offline. Kids tell us now in our research, they spend at least 80% of their time interacting with friends and peers through an electronically mediated channel—texts, gaming, social media—than they do with good old fashioned face-to-face or voice-to-voice interactions. I hate to sound like an old dinosaur here, but there is evidence that there’s something about those types of traditional relationships and social interactions that has value. It has value particularly in adolescents when we are learning how to negotiate far more sophisticated in our personal experiences than ever before. I mentioned my graduate student Jackie Nissy and one of the other research studies that she did in our lab was to really look at how the romantic relationship development occurs at the same time when these skills develop at the same time when kids start becoming really active on social media. Sure enough, those kids that spend more time interacting with romantic partners digitally in mediated communication platforms, tend to grow up to have worse romantic relationship skills. Just a nice example of where we can show concretely that this replacement of face-to-face or voice-to-voice interactions is unfortunately leading to poorer skill development in things that we all need to learn when we’re kids and adolescents.
S: How does that show up? What does a relationship, a dysfunctional marital relationship, look like for somebody who spent way too much time on social media and digital devices and so forth?
M: Our research followed kids just for a year or two, so we can’t look at what it looks like at a marital relationship presumably years later. But what it did look like in adolescence was more difficult times with conflict negotiation, knowing how to engage in a productive and helpful disagreement that’s every single relationship has those, and appropriate conflict management would be ways of being able to listen, and being able to negotiate for one’s needs, to be able to discuss that you’ve heard what others have said in the context of a conflict, and be able to apologies when necessary. Do so in a way that’s emotionally intimate and connected to help people understand that you are reflecting the feelings that someone that you’re having a conflict with is experiencing. Those kinds of conflict management skills that are incredibly important for all of us to have were reduced and were less developed in those experiencing lots of social media interactions, maybe a disproportionate number. The other area that we found how to deal with asserting your needs, the experience of being able to indicate in the context of a romantic relationship, what it is that your values are, what your needs are, and how you need someone else to help you with meeting your emotional needs in a romantic relationship. That was also diminished in those who were reporting more social media use.
S: It’s almost like by spending so much time in digital interactions with a significant other in your formative years as an adolescent, you don’t learn the mirroring and matching of like when your mirror neurons are hard at work figuring out how to mirror your, let’s say, girlfriend or boyfriend, you don’t get that over Snapchat or whatever. Then you can’t deal with your partner in that real way. The mirror neuron seem like it’s an important part of this equation, would you agree?
M: Absolutely. I think that one of the limitations for our electronically mediated communications, if we don’t like the way the conversation is going, you just stop responding, you can ghost that person, you could just not reply to their text for three days. That’s not the way that interactions work at the workplace, that’s not the way that it works on a marriage, you can’t really do that. Similarly, these texts and these communications that kids are having, they’re not always one-on-one communications. Crafting a text is a group exercise for adolescents today. They share the text that they got from one person with all their friends and then they workshop their reply text with those same friends to decide whether or not their text is capturing what they want for it to capture. In some ways, that offers an opportunity for a really unique, an in depth opportunity to talk with friends about how to communicate. But at the same time, that’s not the way that our relationships work in real life. We don’t have a conversation with somebody at a board meeting and before we offer our contributions, we workshop what we want to say with five other people first and then raise our hand and make our contributions. This is taking away opportunities to really learn how to make mistakes that we all make in relationships, and how to benefit from them the next time, or understand how to rapidly communicate with others based on both verbal and non-verbal signals. I think that there’s a lot of ways in which social media is changing our fabric interpersonally, but I think perhaps the most relevant, to me at least, is the way that it’s also changing the lessons that we’re teaching kids about what kinds of relationships are the most important. Are we teaching them to value the kinds of relationships that will help them or the kind that will hurt them down the road?
S: Very true. One thing I thought of when you’re talking about how an adolescent’s brains will get changed by different experiences and having certain things available to them that are not in their best interest. It reminded me that I had learned—I think it was from my friend, Amy Africa—she said that research had shown that the brain gets changed in not a good way by you yelling at your devices, whether you’re yelling at your Amazon Echo, by not being polite and kind to your voice-powered devices like your Amazon Echo, Siri, or whatever, actually changes the brain in a negative way, have you heard about this?
M: That’s interesting, I haven’t heard that.
S: It makes a lot of sense. You may think there’s no impact there, it’s just a computer algorithm, who cares that I’m calling Alexa names or getting frustrated that I’m raising my voice, it matters a lot because you change.
M: Yeah, that’s fascinating. I think that makes really good sense. I do think that one of the problems with the way that popularity is being cultivated today through social media is that, our use of Twitter for instance, it’s about being popular with a group of people that you have no intention of ever meeting. If you think about what it was like to have interpersonal relationships 20 years ago, much less 100 or 1000 years ago, this is a very different way of humans having social relationships than ever before. We use to believe that other than a few small select people who might achieve some level of unusual visibility, most of us would have interactions only with those that we knew, those around us. There was no ability to have a relationship with people outside of your community in the same way that there is now, at least not in a mass way, or you can communicate with hundreds or thousands of people at once. But that’s actually the very function of Twitter or with other social media platforms. Sure, I’m on these platforms, too and I feel the way of why people get sucked into them just like everybody else. Like I said there’s actually quite good benefits for social media, so I don’t want to sound like I’m saying, we should all log off, we shouldn’t. I just think that we should be aware that to some extent, we’re spending a lot of time and energy focusing on having a relationship with people that we don’t know their names, we will never meet them, and we don’t genuinely have a relationship with them in the way that our bodies, our species, and our brains are programmed to have relationships. This is truly a completely different world where we are valuing a kind of relationship, a kind of interaction, a type of popularity that we know will hurt us. Just like everyone else blows the whistle to warn us, to stop us from doing things that are bad for us, I hope that people recognize that we are now getting pulled to do something else that’s very bad for us and we’re all willingly doing it, not realizing the trap that we set for ourselves.
S: There are even relationships that are happening purely online like romantic, or even sexual relationships, where there’s no intention of meeting in person or having any physical contact at all. It seems very dysfunctional to me, but maybe I’m just being judgmental. I don’t know, what are your thoughts about that?
M: I quote a researcher in the book and I won’t get the quote exactly right now, but I’ll just paraphrase and say that she points out, we have developed tools to be able to communicate with far more people from a much farther distance, far more rapidly than at any other time in human history, and yet, we, as a species, feels more lonely, isolated, and distant from one another than ever before. That paradox, that fundamental disconnect between the kinds of relationships we can now engage in and the kinds of relationships that will ultimately make us happy is to me one of the main reasons why I wrote the book and why I think we need a major wake up call.
S: Besides limiting our use and types of uses of social media and of our always on devices that seem to even follow us into the bathroom and everything, besides limiting those things, and limiting our focus on high status, what should we be doing to increase our likeability and our emotional intelligence, our empathy, and all that good stuff?
M: You said it. Empathy is, I think, one of the best avenues for this. Empathy is extraordinarily important in developing likeability, empathy is also the antidote to aggression. If we want to culture that values likeability, and that does not value status, then, we need one where we teach empathy, we value that, we reward one another for it. This is, I think one of the important things that we need to really focus on and really realize as something that has become lacking, it’s no longer the thing that’s valued as much. If you think about who gets the accolades at your office and who’s the person that really gets the most power in a room, it’s not the person that’s most empathic, it’s not the person who’s the most quiet, it’s often the loudest person who draws attention themselves. But this is not the same in every culture on our planet. There are other places where collectivism or wanting to contribute to the group is emphasized, if not primarily, then at least a little bit more than the individualistic approach that in some ways so typifies the United States. I think there’s just a little bit to learn, I’m not suggesting that we can change the entire fabric of our culture, but I think there might be some lessons to learn, and some ways to really think about how a culture that thinks of ourselves as united and as working towards common goals might be helpful, and how raising children to think about a dream that inspires them to work towards the betterment of others and not just towards making themselves the most famous, the most powerful, or to have more than everybody else. I think there are some lessons there that don’t require us to become a collectivistic society or a socialist government, but to understand that there are other perspectives and perhaps the pendulum needs to swing just a little towards recognizing how this could work and does work elsewhere.
S: Are there some like there are muscle building exercises, are there some empathy building exercises that you would recommend?
M: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s critical for us to really pay attention to the amount of time that we’re spending focused on others rather than ourselves. I think you can do that in any given medium. Are you interested in raising your hand to give yourself more attention, and time, and facetime or are you raising your hand because what you’re saying will be better for the group? Are you putting on clothes everyday to draw more attention to yourself? Is that where you’re spending your money? Is that why you’re buying the things that you buy? Are you spending time connecting with others to ask them about their lives and to express that you value them? I mean really, really think about that. How much time do we spend everyday to let others know that we care about them? That we think that their contributions, or their presence, or their input is important? We’ve skipped over a lot of those basic fundamental ways of communicating these days. It’s a very fast-paced world where everyone’s trying to get more attention to themselves in some ways. That might not be the best thing.
S: In addition to having these kind of reflective self-questioning sessions, what sort of other exercises would you recommend for building empathy? Is there something that we can do on a daily basis that is more interactive with a loved one or somebody important to us that will help? For example, I’ve interviewed Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt on the show and we talked about the Imago Dialogue, mirroring in that dialogue process, summarizing, validating, and empathizing. It’s such a powerful way to build rapport, relatedness, and understanding with that other person so they feel heard, and they feel gotten. If you don’t do that, if you’re trying to think of your next come back, or some defensive argument, or whatever while they’re speaking, you’re not truly listening, so this kind of puts the kibosh on that because you’re not allowed to add your own commentary, you’re only, as I said, mirroring and then after you’re done with all the mirroring and they feel everything’s been said, you can move on to the summarizing, the validating, and the empathizing. Any interactive exercises that you would recommend?
M: That’s exactly one of the recommendations that I also offer in the book, particularly in the softcover where there’s an extra chapter on this to really talk about—I’m a clinical psychologist—I talk about the ways in which clinical psychologists rapidly need to develop rapport with patients and that use of reflecting and trying to really express that someone has been heard, and that you are able to rephrase what they said without adding anything new, but simply rephrasing what was said in a way that helps for people to understand that they were heard, and that perhaps, you understood what they were saying on an emotional level, and in addition to whatever facts were being conveyed, thus being a remarkably powerful tool to enhance likeability. I think that what you’re saying is in fact exactly one of the recommendations. I agree that it’s far more powerful than people might ever realize. A second thing that I would say is that one of the things that we’ve learned in all these years of research on studying how our childhood affect us as adults has to do with those filters, those lenses that we wear that affect us. One of the other interactive exercises that I strongly recommend is that we stop ourselves before we react to what we think happen in a social experience to check in and determine whether what we have perceived in a social interaction is accurate for what the other person believes they’ve just communicated. In other words, someone might make a comment to you that you interpret as being hostile, rejecting, or somehow critical of something that you’ve said, or done, or some way in which you’ve acted. It’s remarkable how many times people will find that initial instinct where they believe that they were just criticized is wrong. It’s based on maybe a long time history or a long ago experience where they felt criticized. But in that moment, they have mistaken the signals that they’ve gotten. The reason why that’s of course important is that we tend to not stop and check in, we believe our instincts despite the fact that we have these incredibly biasing filters and lenses that we’re wearing, we believe it as truth, and we respond immediately in perhaps a hostile or in a sad way if we feel we were just criticized. But it’s remarkably powerful and important to take a moment occasionally to stop and ask, “I feel like that was critical. Is that what you meant? To me that sounded like you were saying this,” and people are amazed at how often the person will say, “Oh, I completely didn’t mean it that way,” either they’ll say, “I don’t know where you got that from,” or, “Now that you said that, I see that the way I said it might have come across inappropriately,” or, “I could see where you would have seen it that way. I’m so glad you checked in, that’s not at all the way that I meant it.” If you could imagine the number of conversations that could go a completely different way and ultimately change in our likeability dramatically because we’re not responding in these dejected or hostile ways in response, just by checking in every once in a while, it’s a remarkably powerful interactive piece.
S: That reminds me of a couple of similar approaches, one is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT, where A plus B equals C of activating event plus somebody’s behavior equals some outcome and you have this story about it and then you take an action. We’ve got the activating event and then you’ve got the behavior and then you pause, you reflect on that, and you interject maybe a new story about that, or at least leave room for that decision to be something different because maybe it wasn’t the reactive thing that you first came up with like, “Okay, they probably don’t like me or they probably said that to spite me or to hurt my feelings.” That’s one, CBT.
S: Byron Katie has this amazing four questions plus the turnaround which she calls The Work. I’ve interviewed Katie on the show—and that’s one of my absolute favorite episodes of the last several years that I’ve been doing this podcast—we actually went through the four questions and the turnaround with an issue. For me, that was quite painful at that time, it was really healing, it’s basically not only alleviates suffering to go through these four questions and to really question your belief and your “truth” but it actually eliminates suffering in many ways. That’s another thing that I think would be really helpful—listeners, if this at all resonates for you, please listen to that episode, it’s really amazing—are you familiar with Katie’s work?
M: I haven’t heard that episode. It sounds absolutely fascinating and I agree with you that the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is indeed exactly the kind of approach that promotes the kind of checking in and challenging your automatic assumptions that I’m talking about. It is now known to be the most evidence-supported approach for those experiencing difficulties. But I wish that everybody, whether they were experiencing any debilitating symptoms or not, we’re familiar with the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy because it’s exactly those principles that if everyone knew them and understood them, we would have a far more efficient well-functioning human race.
S: I wholeheartedly agree. What would be the next step for our listeners? They should pick up your book and read it, obviously. In addition to that, what would be a next step for them to become a better human? Where would you send them?
M: As you mentioned, in the book, I have some specific instructions on the best way to make application of some of these ideas for anyone who’s been in high school, specifically for parents, and also specifically for people in the working world. I think there are many, many different possible things to do. But the number thing that I’d probably suggest, before reading all of those suggestions in detail, would be to simply recognize that the kind of popularity that we all think of when we hear the word popular is really bad for us. If we have had experiences growing up, or we weren’t as popular as we want, or we still feel today tempted to try and somehow get that type of status, then that would be a very big mistake. We don’t want status, we don’t want that kind of popularity. If you feel badly about your own childhood, you probably ended up better off because being likeable is far easier to attain, to achieve, and it’s much better for us in the long run anyway.
S: Do you have a website for the book or for your research that you want to suggest for our listeners?
M: Sure. I have a book website at mitchprinstein.com.
S: Awesome. Thank you, Mitch. This was fabulous. I really enjoyed the conversation and loved the insights. Now, I hope our listeners will take this, apply it in their lives, and have more well-adapted children of their parents, or more effective relationships in the workplace, or with their various family members. I also thank you very much, Mitch.
M: Thank you so much.
S: Thank you listeners. We’ll catch you on a next episode of The Optimized Geek. This is your host, Stephan Spencer, signing off.