I often hear from teenagers that one of their greatest goals is to obtain more Instagram followers than anyone they know.
Even some adults appear obsessed with social media, tracking the number of retweets on their Twitter profiles or likes on Facebook. This type of status-seeking might be easily dismissed as juvenile or superficial, but there’s more to it.
Recent evidence suggests that being unpopular can be hazardous to our health. In fact, it might even kill us. Yet most don’t realize that there’s more than one type of popularity, and social media may not supply the one that makes us feel good.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, consolidated data from 148 investigations published over 28 years on the effects of social relationships, collectively including over 308,000 participants between the ages of 6 and 92 from all over the world. In each study, investigators measured the size of participants’ networks, the number of their friends, whether they lived alone, and the extent to which they participated in social activities. Then they followed each participant for months, years and even decades to track his or her mortality rate.
The results revealed that being unpopular — feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely — predicts our life span. More surprising is just how powerful this effect can be. Dr. Holt-Lunstad found that people who had larger networks of friends had a 50 percent increased chance of survival by the end of the study they were in. And those who had good-quality relationships had a 91 percent higher survival rate. This suggests that being unpopular increases our chance of death more strongly than obesity, physical inactivity or binge drinking. In fact, the only comparable health hazard is smoking.
The human body’s sensitivity to popularity may reflect the effects of natural selection over thousands of years. Anthropologists believe that it was humans’ ability to form and comprehend more complex vocal sounds — the rudiments of language, and the foundation of our identity as a social species — that enabled us to survive, ultimately outlasting our hominid neighbors like the Neanderthals, Denisovans and Homo floresiensis. As social beings, we protected one another, shared resources and collaborated to gain advantages over other species.
This may be why we remain so attuned to popularity today, even when we’re not consciously thinking of it. Research in psychology and neuroscience has begun to reveal a number of automatic physiological responses to unpopularity. For instance, our popularity may have an effect on our DNA.
George Slavich and Steve Cole, experts in the field of human social genomics at the University of California, Los Angeles, have described our genomic material as being exquisitely “sensitive to social rejection.” They study what happens immediately after we’ve been left by a romantic partner, excluded from a social event, rejected by a stranger or even simply told that we may be judged by others we care about. Within 40 minutes, they and other researchers have found, these experiences affect the expression of individual genes, determining which parts of our DNA are turned on or off (called epigenetics). Even imagining that we might lose our connection to the herd, they have found, can change how DNA behaves.
This process may affect only a few dozen out of at least 20,000 genes, but even that small number seems significant. According to Professors Slavich and Cole, those affected genes play an important role in our immune systems. Some are linked to the body’s inflammation response, which is critical for healing wounds or fighting bacterial infections. The professors suggest that this cellular-level response to rejection may be nature’s mechanism to help those who were unpopular. Millenniums ago, individuals who had no peers to protect them were vulnerable to injury or attack. Those whose bodies preemptively activated a “pro-inflammatory” response that prepared them to heal from any impending wounds were the most likely to survive.
Other genes implicated in reactions to rejection are related to viral protection. Professors Slavich and Cole suggest that ancestral humans who had no peers to defend them no longer had a great need to be protected from viruses — who would infect them? — so their bodies conserved energy by reducing their vigilance to infection.
Being unfriended on Facebook doesn’t make you more vulnerable to attack by saber-toothed tiger, but our bodies may still be responding as they did 60,000 years ago. Today humans suffer from a wide range of diseases related to chronic inflammation, like cancer, asthma and Alzheimer’s. We’re also very likely to catch the common cold.
That’s most likely why our concern for social standing begins so early and persists throughout our lives. Dozens of studies reveal that children’s popularity can be measured reliably by age 3, and it remains remarkably stable not just through the next dozen years of primary and secondary education but also across contexts, as they move from community to community and into adulthood.
Yet this same research reveals that there is more than one type of popularity, and most of us may be investing in the wrong kind. Likability reflects kindness, benevolent leadership and selfless, prosocial behavior. Research suggests that this form of popularity offers lifelong advantages, and leads to relationships that confer the greatest health benefits.
Likability is markedly different from status — an ultimately less satisfying form of popularity that reflects visibility, influence, power and prestige. Status can be quantified by social media followers; likability cannot.
Anyone who has been to high school will recognize the distinction — and recall that those high in one category are often low in the other. Research suggests that despite the great temptations to gain status, those who achieve it ultimately experience greater unhappiness and dissatisfaction, while those who are likable have far greater satisfaction and success.
We may be built by evolution to care deeply about popularity, but it’s up to us to choose the nature of the relationships we want with our peers.
Which means that it wouldn’t kill you to step away from Twitter once in a while.