Social scientists map the social topology of a school by having students rate their peers on various measures, including likeability. For instance, the question “Who would you most like to hang around with on a Saturday?” quickly reveals a list of those who are considered the best company (potential dates excluded). This is a different measure of popularity from prominence ”” the quarterback and the cutest cheerleader may or may not qualify ”” and identifies a gifted class of a different kind.
Some 15 to 20 percent of high school students fall into this category, according to Mitchell Prinstein, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, and it’s not hard to find them. They tend to have closer friendships, to excel academically and to get on well with most others, including parents ”” their own and their friends’.
In a continuing study of 185 students in a school in Charlottesville, Va., researchers led by Joseph P. Allen of the University of Virginia have concluded that this group is “characterized by a degree of openness to strong emotional experience” and optimism about their relationships, past and future. “These are very, very socially skilled kids who are really able to master the intricacies of diverse social situations,” Dr. Allen said in a phone interview.
Surveys suggest that about 50 percent of students are average ”” that is, they have good friends but are neither especially liked nor disliked by classmates. The remaining 30 to 35 percent are split between low-status or “rejected” students, who are on the bottom of the heap, and neglected ones, who don’t show up on the radar at all.
Yet most youngsters in any school know who their popular, likable peers are, and can learn by observation in a dynamic social situation that, after all, lasts four years. “We have evidence that the neglected kids are the ones most likely to move up, or to move between groups,” Dr. Prinstein said. “These are the ones with no established reputation, they kind of blend into the woodwork, and this can give them a kind of freedom.”
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