The Popularity Contest

I took both my kids to a movie night at their school last week. It was great excitement: coming to school in the evening, wearing pajamas, and watching a movie (complete with popcorn and juice) with all your friends. As you can imagine, there was very little watching going on. I was struck by the completely different behaviour of my two children. My son walked into the hall, found a clear spot to sit down, and was immediately immersed in the movie. He hardly noticed what was going on in the hall. My daughter was hauled by some girls, two years her senior, to come sit with them as soon as she walked in. Throughout the movie, I noticed she was mostly with her back to the screen. We went to the same event, but each of my children had a completely different experience.

It got me thinking about what makes kids popular. I was not a popular kid, so I wouldn’t know from experience. So, naturally, I turned to science. And I found this neat meta-analysis, which looked at whether Theory of Mind (reasoning about other people’s mental state) was correlated with popularity.

What they did

A meta-analysis is a study of studies (check out my new glossary for more details, and do let me know if it was helpful!). What I found interesting was that they differentiated between “sociometric popularity” and “perceived popularity”. Or, in non-technical terms, they distinguished between the kids who are well-liked by their peers, and the kids who have a perceived high social status. They also looked at the effects of age, gender, and the valence of the rating (that is, whether the ratings were positive or negative, because there’s a difference between not being liked and being rejected).

What They Found

So, overall there was a significant correlation between Theory of Mind and popularity — children who are better at “reading other people’s minds” were more popular. The relationship was a bit higher for perceived popularity, and a big higher for girls, but these differences were not significant (although in the article’s abstract it almost sounds like they were).

What Does It Mean?

Well, it mostly means that children who have better Theory of Mind are more popular. We cannot conclude, based on this study alone, that these children are popular because they have better Theory of Mind — we can just as easily conclude that these children have better Theory of Mind because they are more popular (they get more practice, for example). There is, however, evidence from different studies that Theory of Mind in preschool predicts later peer acceptance or likability.

This correlation definitely holds in our house: my daughter has been lying to us since she was 2.5 years old. Lying requires quite advanced Theory of Mind (for a preschooler), as you have to understand that other people don’t think what you do, and so mommy doesn’t necessarily knows what’s in your head. However, my daughter also entered school with a big brother, and she knew quite a few kids from her brother’s class, so Theory of Mind is not the whole story.