June 12, 2014 at 12:03 AM ET
If you ever sat at the edge of the cafeteria longing to sit with the cool kids, take heart: You may wind up happier than they are.
A new study looked at “cool” behaviors adopted by middle-schoolers and found that although they made kids more popular in the short run, that effect wore off quickly and eventually backfired. By early adulthood, the cool kids were more likely to have criminal records, abuse alcohol and drugs and have troubled relationships.
In other words, the world may be one big “Revenge of the Nerds.” University of Virginia psychology professor Joseph P. Allen calls it “the high school reunion effect.”
“The kid who was the class president at the end of middle school may have fallen under the radar a bit by high school, and you get to your reunion and find that person is working a low-level job and they’re not that happy in their relationship,” Allen told TODAY. “And then there’s someone who was not so cool who is very successful.”
Allen and his colleague looked at a cluster of “pseudomature” behaviors — trying to act older than you are — among 184 seventh and eighth-graders. Those behaviors included more romance and “making out,” minor deviance like shoplifting or destroying property, and picking the best-looking classmates as friends.
In middle school, it paid off — kids who engaged in those behaviors were rated as more popular by their peers. But by age 15 or so, they weren’t anymore. And by 22 or 23, they had real problems.
“The concerns are that it’s kind of a fast-track to a dead end,” Allen said.
The kids who fit the “cool” definition as teens had a 45 percent greater rate in early adulthood of problems from alcohol and substance abuse — like drunk-driving, getting into fights or showing up late for work. They were also more likely to have criminal histories, and they were judged by their peers as worse friends.
They even tended to blame their break-ups on status, saying relationships had ended because of their own lack of social clout.
“They’re still preoccupied with status,” Allen said. “They’re either blaming young adult breakups on it falsely or they’re getting into relationships with people who are as concerned with status as they are.”
Rosalind Wiseman, author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes” — the basis for the movie “Mean Girls” — isn’t surprised.
“When you’re in a situation where you’re constantly having to feel like you have to keep up, then it’s harder to put brakes on your own behavior and it’s harder to speak out about things that are going on around you that you don’t like,” she told TODAY.
Kids preoccupied with status convince themselves that they have to do certain things, like buy expensive clothes. “You have to — that’s not being able to control your impulses,” she explained.
So how does the “Rebel Without a Cause” become the rebel without a clue?
One explanation may be an escalation of “cool” over time. The kid who impresses his friends by shoplifting or hitting the teacher’s house with toilet paper may find those friends demanding more serious crime over time. The one who smuggles a beer into a school dance may become the one doing keg stands at frat parties.
The researchers also say “cool” behavior can in effect crowd out more mature development. Kids who have early romantic entanglements may spend less time with friends, for example. And if having “hot” friends makes you popular, you may miss out on developing real interpersonal skills.
Wiseman said she often encounters grown-up “Mean Girls” who seemingly have everything, but confide that they are in miserable marriages and don’t know how to get out because they feel trapped by what they are supposed to have.
So can we look for “Mean Girl” Regina George in prison, or rehab?
Wiseman doesn’t think so. Real queen bees have great impulse control and social intelligence, she says. Instead, Regina George may well be at the head of the board meeting — the kind of person who comes to power through bullying.
“You sit in a meeting and watch a person who has a lot of power texting constantly and not paying attention to the people working for them — that to me is the tell,” she said. “Does this person think they are equal to other people? No, they think their time is more important, and they don’t even care what they look like or what their leadership looks like.”
Allen said only about 20 percent of the kids they studied were precociously “cool.” It’s normal to adopt some of these behaviors in later adolescence, but parents should be concerned if a 13- or 14-year-old is having romantic relationships or shoplifting, for example.
“That’s one of our messages, is not only is this behavior not so cool in the long run it’s also not as common as it seems,” Allen said.
Should the parents who once worried their kids didn’t have enough friends now worry if their kids have too many? Not quite.
“I would rather parents say, no matter where their child sits in the social hierarchy – coming into this culture as an adolescent is really tricky,” Wiseman said. “It’s really important to recognize that conflict is going to happen and that wanting to be part of a group no matter how big the group is, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s actually super important and should be valued. But that also comes with some pretty intense moments, and I think that’s how parents should approach it.”