Do Popular People Deserve their Popularity?

“Michael Sandel no Fronteiras do Pensamento São Paulo 2014” by fronteirasweb is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Consider two hypothetical students: On the one hand, we have Nicole, who is likeable, exhibits prosocial and cooperative behaviour by working agreeably, and can be considered trustworthy — all and all, a socially skilled and nice person. Conversely, we have Noah, a well-known athletically build guy, and despite resorting to aggressive behaviour to maintain his higher status, many of his peers look up to him. Noah might act prosocially, but contrary to Nicole, he will do so with the purpose of manipulating others. Despite their differences, both students experience a fair amount of popularity among their peers. The type of popularity is nonetheless distinct from each other.

Popularity might, concerning Nicole and Noah’s case, be best conceptualised along two different dimensions. The first dimension, called sociometric popularity (otherwise known as ‘preference’), is based on likeability and acceptance within a peer group, whereas the second dimension, perceived popularity (otherwise known as ‘popularity’), points to the extent to which individuals are perceived as popular. Nicole and Noah, respectively, realise these different dimensions of popularity. While there is some overlap between the two, there are some larger, more relevant distinctions as well. For example, contrary to the former popularity dimension, perceived popularity, as researchers point out, “reflects their [i.e. students] social visibility.” Meaning that perceived popular individuals tend to show traits and behaviours (including displaying overt and relational aggression) that make them “well known, socially central and emulated” by and within their peer group. Hence, in contrast to their sociometric counterparts, perceived popular individuals are not necessarily well-liked by their peers.

The question that personally arises from these dimensions that are present in most, if not all peer group dynamics, concerns the issue of merit: Do the adolescents who are deemed popular — either sociometrically or perceived — deserving of their position within the social hierarchy? This subsequently draws on the recently released book titled, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by the Harvard political philosophy professor, Michael Sandel. In it, Sandel outlines his argument against the pervasively desired system of distribution known as the meritocratic system — a system that thrives on equality of opportunity, by letting people, as Sandel writes, “truly rise as far as their efforts and talents would take them,” irrespective of their “starting point in life.”

At first and second glance, a society that rewards hard-working and talented people, seems more than fair — and people across the political spectrum agree on this notion. Sandel, however, questions the moral implications of a meritocracy and challenges the fairness that this system presumably advertises as well as the attitudes that result from it.

Objections to a Merit-Based Popularity System

The social environment of adolescents and young adults can, to a certain extent, be characterized as both competitive and cruel. Many researchers describe how “during early adolescence, many activities of students have as their major goal to gain and protect a satisfactory degree of social dominance.” Such an environment produces, almost by definition, a dichotomy consisting of winners and losers. In terms of this essay, we can apply this dichotomy to the subject of discussion; winners come to be popular individuals, and losers are to be considered unpopular ones.

Bear in mind that the fact that some people either gain or lose isn’t necessarily a problem of a meritocracy. The actual issue deals with the extent to which people attribute these gains and losses to their own doing, and how this forms their attitude toward winners and losers. Sandel describes two primary objections to substantiate the issue with the meritocratic system. The objections are, considering our main subject, formulated in relation to popularity.

The first objection argues that having certain features that makes someone popular are, as Sandel writes, “not [your] doing but a matter of good luck, and [you] do not merit or deserve the benefits (or burdens) that derive from luck.” For instance, being attractive — which is a primary correlate of popularity — is mostly a product of luck, based on the genes you inherited. If our degree of popularity is grounded on the extent to which our physical attractiveness conforms to social standards, we mostly can’t thank ourselves for achieving such standards. In the book, as well as in his lectures on Justice, Sandel alludes to the political philosopher, John Rawls, and his most prominent work, A Theory of Justice. While Rawls acknowledges the benefits of a meritocracy compared to a class-based system, for example, he argues that “intuitively it still appears defective.”

For one thing, even if it works to perfection in eliminating the influence of social contingencies, it still permits the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the natural distribution of abilities and talents. Within the limits allowed by the background arrangements, distributive shares are decided by the outcome of the natural lottery; and this outcome is arbitrary from a moral perspective.

In other words, a meritocratic system indeed alleviates us from certain inequalities that are based on social contingencies (i.e. starting point in life is taken to be irrelevant), but it nonetheless allows for the distribution of talents and income — and many traits which contribute to the degree of popularity — to be led by arbitrary factors, dependent on the accident of birth.

The second objection similarly emphasizes the role of luck, by arguing that school environments are places where certain (physical or non-physical) traits happen to be rewarded, namely in the form of reputation and social esteem. I cannot claim credit for traits that I happen to have — something I have previously called coincidental identity. Whether or not you are rewarded because of a trait that you happen to have, arguably does not reflect the extent to which you deserve that reward. As Sandel himself argues:

But is having (or lacking) certain talents [or traits] really our own doing? If not, it is hard to see why those who rise thanks to their talents deserve greater rewards than those who may be equally hardworking but less endowed with the gift a market society happens to prize.

Regardless of the amount of effort someone is willing to exert to fit in and gain popularity, some students will, for reasons beyond anyone’s control, be rejected, ostracized, or left in their original low-status position. This can in particular breed resentment by the disadvantaged, and arrogance by those who actually benefit from this system.

Attitudes Complementing the Meritocratic System

Irrespective of the mentioned objections, adolescents, in particular, express a certain attitude towards their sense of popularity and the degree to which they feel meritorious of their reputation. This gets furthermore embodied in their behaviour, by looking down on those who are perceived as unpopular.

Similar to talents, popular people display what Sandel calls, meritocratic hubris, in the sense that they feel that they are deserving of their position within the social hierarchy, given that they are convinced to have reached such a position by their own doing. “The notion that the system rewards talent and hard work,” Sandel writes, “encourages the winners to consider their success their own doing, a measure of their virtue.” Similarly, less popular individuals – or even unpopular ones– experience what Sandel terms, meritocratic humiliation: they feel that they, similar to the popular individuals, have earned the fate that has bestowed on them regarding their reputation. This goes hand in hand with resentment towards the popular individuals that look down on those less fortunate than themselves.

These attitudes — meritocratic hubris and humiliation — are not without consequences. In The Tyranny of Merit Sandel lays out these consequences on a national and political level. I, however, would like to discuss the possible social and behavioural consequences of experiencing certain attitudes concerning popularity.

Those (namely perceived popular individuals) who experience meritocratic hubris go to a great extent to maintain their popularity, given that they sense to be the rightful placeholders of their position relative to their peers. Bullying and similar behaviour for instance are exerted by the popular individual, with the intention to “intimidate and deter competitors or other youth who in some way threaten their social standing.” In addition, most current research reports the effect of relative differences in popularity on the consumption of alcohol. Among their numerous findings, the researchers discovered that the “association between adolescents’ own popularity and their alcohol use increased with decreasing popularity of all others in the classroom. Alcohol consumption was highest when popular adolescents were surrounded by less popular classmates.”

Further consequences promoted by these attitudes revolve around academic achievements — or, in fact, any kind of behaviour that is believed to be popularity-diminishing. In certain school environments, traits that the unpopular kids possess (such as the tendency to do well at school) might uniformly be considered something the popular kids ought to abstain from, in order to maintain their status. “The most popular students tend to view studying and schoolwork as “nerdy” pursuits,” the researchers Antonius Cillessen, David Schwartz, and Lara Mayeux explain in their book, Popularity in the Peer System, that in turn might warrant social ostracism.” Unpopular students, experiencing humiliation due to the belief that they are to blame for their lack of popularity, could still hold the promising view that by exerting effort (e.g. not attending to their school-related responsibilities) they could climb the social hierarchy.

Popularity: A Worthy or Shallow Ambition?

The superficial nature of popularity could be considered somewhat of a truism — and I wouldn't like to state otherwise. It might however be useful to highlight the actual extent to which popularity can be considered superficial.

As two American researchers have described, perceived popularity is primarily correlated with “attainments, attributes, possessions, positions, and activities conducive to glamour, social prestige, and social influence.” They find that these categories primarily consist of “athletic ability and team membership, being a cheerleader, having money, having good grades, being fashionable, and being physically attractive and well groomed.” Many, if not most, of these correlates, are undeniably a product of luck. Attractiveness, wealth, and athletic ability, just to take a few, are well beyond the control of people, especially adolescents. Only a few kids will be granted a genetic or financial lottery that meets the requirements of being truly popular. Others will have to do with a lot less.

Despite the efforts of many students in trying to present themselves in a socially appropriate manner, their “arbitrary place in the distribution of natural assets,” as Rawls puts it, sets the initial stage for probable failure.

A commonly held resentful assumption — often shared by the less endowed — argues that popular individuals must possess negative traits that compensate for their popularity. Take for example good looks, given that we asserted earlier the relation between good looks and degree of popularity. “Because people are often taught that everyone is equal,” Maria Kouloglou writes in her recent Areo essay, “some resort to mental gymnastics to try to convince themselves that pretty people must be lacking in something.” Empirical research partly challenges this assumption by putting forward an evolutionary psychology theory that “can explain people’s perception, and the extrinsic correlation, between beauty and any other heritable trait that helps men attain higher status.” Kouloglou sees this correlation realised through daily prejudices:

Lookism [that is, prejudice or discrimination based on physical appearance] is one of the most prevalent yet unrecognized causes of social inequality. Good looks — like intelligence and being able-bodied — are largely determined by genetics so, of course, no one should be punished for being attractive.

Kouloglou rightfully understands that a factor such as your physical appearance can be considered arbitrary and therefore shouldn’t be punished. She however fails to explicitly acknowledge that it isn’t to be celebrated either — at least not in a deserving manner. There is little to no merit involved. Pointing to Sandel’s objection mentioned earlier, some people are simply granted traits that are desired by the social market. The market bases these desires either on evolutionary psychology that tells us that certain physical features are more useful in the case of survival or simply on the fact that people own qualities that are generally wanted in a social environment (e.g. appropriate social skills, self-confidence, humour, etc.). Rawls touches on this same issue of moral desert and how a market affects the traits and talents that are wanted by a given society.

[T]he extent of one’s contribution depends upon supply and demand. Surely a person’s moral worth does nog vary according to how many offer similar skills, or happen to want what he can produce. No one supposes that when someone’s abilities are less in demand or have deteriorated his moral deservingness undergoes a similar shift.

Nonetheless, in the typical school environment, the rules argue that those who don’t meet the requirements that reflect popularity or, conversely, display certain behavioural abnormalities, are, by no fault of their own, considered “undesirable” and therefore unpopular.

You might say, in the case of schools, parents can have some influence in choosing a school environment that fits their kids’ qualities, for them to maximally thrive and gain popularity among their peers. Hence, whether or not they socially thrive isn’t contingent on luck anymore, but on the particular school environment that accommodates their qualities. Even so, the kids with less affluent parents will probably have fewer choices at their disposal and, therefore, still depend on some form of luck to grand them social prestige.


In spite of the efforts of many students, trying to present themselves in a socially appropriate manner, their “arbitrary place in the distribution of natural assets,” as Rawls puts it, sets the initial stage for probable failure.

The hypothetical students, Nicole and Noah, that I introduced at the beginning of this essay, both benefit from a system that seemingly prizes effort and the use of proper social skills. Suppose the system actually functions in such a manner where certain traits and effort are rewarded, we are still stuck with the issue that the distribution of these traits is primarily contingent on luck. And as we alluded to earlier, claiming credit for any fate that is derived from these traits is simply off-limits.

Ergo, the answer to the question I initially put forward — Do the adolescents who are deemed popular deserving of their position within the social hierarchy? — rings a resounding ‘no.’ Traits and qualities like agreeableness, cooperation, and trust on the one hand, and aggression, bullying and exploitation on the other, happen to be prized in various environments including schools and are therefore by no means indicative of merit. Not surprisingly, when we substitute “adolescents who are deemed popular” for unpopular ones, we arrive at the same conclusion: these individuals are equally as undeserving of their social reputation.

“All the successful can honestly say is that they have managed — through some unfathomable mix of genius or guile, timing or talent, luck or pluck or grim determination — to cater effectively to the jumble of wants and desires, however weighty or frivolous, that constitute consumer demand at any given moment.” Sandel encapsulates this further by noting that “Satisfying consumer demand is not valuable in itself; its value depends, case by case, on the moral status of the ends it serves.” Needless to say, the task of “satisfying consumer demand” requires a lot less effort than the popular students would like to admit.

At last, we might conclude that the salient reputation popularity has received by students in general lacks humility — a quality that possibly trumps any other trait reflecting contemporary popularity.




A BA in general economics and studying psychology at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Previously written for Areo Magazine and Merion West

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Alessandro van den Berg

Alessandro van den Berg

A BA in general economics and studying psychology at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Previously written for Areo Magazine and Merion West

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