High school politics: Study finds ‘Machiavellian-like’ teens are most popular

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Being considered “popular” is incredibly important to millions of teenagers. It’s a trope that has been depicted in countless movies and TV shows, but it still rings just as true today as it did when The Breakfast Club was released in theaters in 1985. But, how exactly does one go about becoming well-liked among classmates? Interestingly, researchers believe they’ve uncovered the recipe behind high school popularity.

Prior research had identified two main methods: pro-sociality and aggressiveness. Pro-social teens gain popularity through cooperation, while aggressive teens attain popularity through more manipulative strategies like coercion.

Now, a new study from Florida Atlantic University concludes that the most popular teens actually blend these two qualities together. Described as “Machiavellian-like,” these teens can be aggressive and manipulative when it serves their purposes, and then quickly switch over to nice and agreeable when a situation calls for such an approach.

“The most popular are feared AND loved,” the study reads. Researchers even cited the popular 2004 film Mean Girls as an example of this strategic behavior among teens.

In collaboration with researchers from the University of Montreal, the study’s authors followed 568 girls and boys in seventh and eighth grade (median age of 13) for two full years. Each teen’s classmates were asked to identify who was pro-social, aggressive, and popular.

The results revealed three distinct groups of popular teens: prosocial popular, aggressive popular, and bi-strategic (Machiavellian) popular. The bi-strategic group was found to be the most popular among the three, and exhibited above average levels of physical aggression, relational aggression, and pro-social behavior. These bi-strategic teens were viewed by their peers as angry and disruptive, but besides that, well-adjusted.

“Bi-strategic adolescents are noteworthy not only for their very high levels of popularity, but also for the way that they balance getting their way with getting along,” says Dr. Brett Laursen, a co-author on the study and a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University, in a release. “They were less prosocial than prosocial popular adolescents, but at the same time less physically and relationally aggressive than the aggressive popular adolescents. These youth are truly Machiavellian, maintaining their popularity by off-setting the coercive behavior required to maintain power with carefully calibrated acts of kindness.”

Regarding the other two groups, prosocial teens were seen as generally well-liked and well-adjusted by their peers. Conversely, aggressive popular teens were not considered well-liked or well-adjusted; their popularity was rooted in notoriety and negativity.

“Prosocial popular adolescents are well-adjusted while aggressive popular adolescents are troubled on many fronts,” comments Dr. Amy C. Hartl, the study’s senior author. “The prognosis for bi-strategic popular youth is mixed. Their well-adjusted social and emotional profile coupled with a moderate propensity for social dominance and rule breaking may prove good or bad depending on the environment, thus providing hope for positive long-term adjustment and concern for the same.”

The study is published in the scientific journal Child Development.

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