Popularity, Motivation, and Success

Our first dive into the finer points of social intelligence is all about how to be more likable and popular. If you think about this question in the context of evolution, you might assume it has to do with some kind of standing within a tribe. And to be quite honest, you’d be correct, and this shows how close we still are to our so-called primitive ancestors. On a humorous note, we can use high-schoolers as a proxy for these ancestors, because high-schoolers are far more concerned with social standing and status, and are somewhat less sophisticated in their evaluations of such.

A couple of the most powerful predictors in who will be likable and popular are the simple motivation and sensitivity to such factors. In other words, those who want to be popular, and also can tell the difference between popular and unpopular kids, will be successful. You can say the same about people wanting a better job, or wanting to learn to play the piano, for example—if they want to do it, and they are sensitive to what makes a good versus bad piano player, they surely stand a better chance—but it’s a bit surprising to hear that simple social standing and likability follows the same rules.

Motivation and Popularity

Given the choice, it’s a fair bet that just about everybody would prefer popularity and the accompanying social validation over the opposite. It simply feels good to be well-liked and respected by our peers. To achieve traditional popularity requires some amount of effort to socialize and connect with people, and that effort requires energy. Everybody has a limited supply of energy. Hence, the motivation to spend that energy socializing is a significant part of what it takes to be popular.

In reality, of course, not everybody wants to be popular to the same extent as everyone else—to spend one’s energy toward socializing, so to speak. However, as it turns out, there is a strong correlation between how rewarding popularity feels to people and how popular they actually are.

Dr. Dianna Martinez and her team of research colleagues at Columbia University found evidence of a positive correlation between higher social status and social support and the density of dopamine type 2 (D2) and type 3 (D3) receptors in the striatum—a region of the brain that is largely responsible for our feelings of reward and motivation, something that dopamine plays a critical role in producing.

Normal and healthy volunteers were assessed to determine their social status and social support systems and were subsequently scanned using positron emission tomography, a technology that enables us to see D2 receptors in the brain.

The volunteers who had denser D2 receptors were the same ones who had the highest social status, which suggests that popular individuals are more likely to experience life as rewarding and stimulating as a direct result of having more targets for dopamine to take effect within the striatum. These people literally had different brain structures than their less popular peers.

Dr. Martinez summed up the results by saying, “We showed that low levels of dopamine receptors were associated with low social status and that high levels of dopamine receptors were associated with higher social status. The same type of association was seen with the volunteers’ reports of social support they experience from their friends, family, or significant other.”

This contradicts our earlier assumption that personality traits were the underlying cause behind popularity. Rather, social status has to do more with how our brain works. Simply put, our brain structure and how much dopamine we produce influences the formation of certain personality traits that may result in popularity.

The editor of Biological Psychiatry, Dr. John Krystal, commented on the results of the study and said, “These data shed interesting light into the drive to achieve social status, a basic social process. It would make sense that people who had higher levels of D2 receptors, i.e., were more highly motivated and engaged by social situations, would be high achievers and would have higher levels of social support.” Popular people enjoy being with people and in social situations more, which will naturally make you more extroverted and charming.

Indeed, having a healthy amount of dopamine will take one a long way. At this point, you may be wondering: what you can do to take advantage of this new information? Is there a way to safely and naturally increase the density of dopamine receptors in our brains?

Well, yes, kind of. There are chemicals called dopamine antagonists that are used to treat psychological conditions by artificially lowering dopamine, causing dopamine receptor density to increase in order to bring your brain back to an equilibrium. However, a sudden drop of dopamine could mean bad news. This chemical approach comes with loads of undesirable side effects and is not realistic for most people.

Don’t discourage yourself just yet. There are some realistic ways to increase your dopamine receptors—or rather, avoid desensitizing them—that don’t come with the dangerous side effects. It basically involves doing fewer of the activities that artificially increase our dopamine levels: excessive Internet and TV use, coffee, recreational drugs, alcohol, watching pornography, or consuming a lot of sugar and processed food.

Generally speaking, it’s a matter of habit and lifestyle. If you are addicted to something unhealthy, it’s likely because that thing is giving you a hit of dopamine. This will make you feel good for the time being, but it has a long-term consequence. Constant artificial boosting of your dopamine level has a numbing effect on your dopamine-detecting brain receptors. Motivation and reward behavior are dulled as your sensitivity to dopamine decreases.

In essence, the point is to starve yourself of dopamine until you spend time with people. Making conscious choices to do fewer of the things that give us those quick and easily repetitive dopamine hits will have a positive long-term impact on our feelings of motivation and reward in social situations, which in turn can help us to become more popular.