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What are the hidden principles behind why some people are so popular?
Luckily, there’s an entire industry built around popularity: The movie industry. Movie creators know exactly how to make a character popular (or unpopular).
By studying highly popular Hollywood creations like superheroes, we can unveil the secrets on how to be popular and learn how to adapt these principles to ourselves.
What is Popularity?
We define a popular person as someone who is admired, appreciated, loved and is someone who others want to hang out with.
Let’s get started!
1. Be more popular by being helpful while maintaining a high social value
One of the biggest reasons superheroes are so popular is that they always help others out in a high-value way. They offer their help because they are good at what they do and can do things that other people can’t.
Like a superhero, becoming a person who helps others is something that will boost your popularity. You might not be able to fly or shoot spider webs out of your wrists, but there are plenty of things you can do that others will find helpful.
However, there’s a risk involved in being helpful– it has to be done in the right way. We all know at least one person who tries too hard to make friends by going out of their way to offer assistance. So why is doing favors sometimes good and other times almost repulsive?
Well, people notice when someone is being helpful just to make others like them. That person needs something in return (for example, friendship) and this is where the term “needy” comes from. Superheroes don’t help people as a means to an end; they help people out of a genuine concern for their well-being.
Make sure to distinguish between different forms of helpfulness– what are you offering and why? Is your offer conveying that your time is more or less important than the other person’s time? Let’s take a look at two scenarios:
- You are great at computers and help someone out with a technical problem they can’t solve on their own. (High-value help)
- You help someone out with writing a report in a field you both master in hopes that they will ask you to hang out with them. (Low-value help)
In the first scenario, you are showing that you value the other person’s time by offering help with something they can’t do by themselves, or that you can do more easily than they can. This is high-value help.
In the second scenario, however, you are offering to do something the other person could have done with the same effort as you– not because you believe they have a genuine need for your help, but because you want something in return (friendship). The intention behind your offer is what makes this an example of low-value help. This type of offer can result in three potential negative outcomes:
- The person assumes you think you are more capable than they are of writing the report, and may be offended.
- The person assumes your time must not be very valuable (i.e. you don’t have anything better to do) and may try to take advantage of you in the future.
- The person assumes you are desperate for friendship by offering to do something for them that they don’t need help with (i.e. you’re needy) and is uninterested in spending time with you as a result.
Let’s be clear: often, part of being a good friend means offering to do things your friends could do just as easily as an act of kindness or simply to help.
For example, offering to do your friend’s dishes (even though they could easily do their own dishes) because they’ve had a stressful week does not make you needy– it makes you a good friend. It is not necessarily what you are offering, but the intention behind your offer, that determines whether it is of high or low social value.
Read more: How to increase your social value.
2. Be the glue
Do you have friends who don’t know each other? This is a great opportunity for you to tie them together. Now, you have the chance to be the one who connects people, and this will serve to both expand your social circle and position you in the center. The most popular people are often the glue that holds their social circles together.
When you have plans to meet a group of friends for a social outing, make it a habit of inviting someone who hasn’t met everyone in the group yet (but be sure to check with the host of the event first!).
Arrange frequent parties and get-togethers for all of your friends. If you encounter someone you know while spending time with another friend, remember to introduce them to each other; otherwise, your friend will stay quiet and you will come off as socially unskilled.
Not only will your friends appreciate the opportunity to meet new people, but you will also be perceived as a more social person. A psychological principle called social proof tells us that we look at others when we try to evaluate things and people around us. When all of our friends have an iPhone, we will be more inclined towards buying one too because it seems to be the right thing to do.
Likewise, when people see others making friends with you, they will be more inclined towards making friends with you as well because that seems to be the right thing to do.
3. Be genuinely nice (but don’t be a pushover)
At first glance, “being nice” sounds too obvious to even mention as a piece of advice. But this is a tricky subject, as “nice” people often seem to lack friends, while the “cool” people or “bad guys” become the popular ones. How does that happen?
The answer is that we often describe people who are afraid of conflicts as being nice. An example would be a person who notices his friend drinking too much but doesn’t want to bring up the subject. So, he lets the drinking continue, thereby risking the health of his friend. This is not an act of kindness, but one of harmful passivity out of fear of conflict.
What you should do is become genuinely nice. Your life decisions should be based on your moral code and an understanding of what will do the most good for the most people. A legitimately nice person would go through the talk with his friend who drinks too much.
Most superheroes are genuinely nice people. But let’s look at some “nice” things that superheroes don’t do:
- Superheroes don’t do everything people ask them to do just because they are “nice”. There’s a fine line between “nice” and “pushover,” and it’s important to make sure that agreeing to do things for people won’t be a detriment to you or your other obligations before consenting to do them. Superheroes are rarely pushovers, and saying “no” when you need to will not make you less of a genuinely nice person.
- Superheroes don’t avoid tough conversations. Like in the example above, turning a blind eye to a serious problem that could end up bringing harm to someone is not nice, it’s cowardly. And cowardly is one thing superheroes are not. But you don’t have to be rude or insensitive to have a tough conversation with someone; click here to learn how to navigate a difficult conversation.
- Superheroes aren’t afraid to disagree with people. Although some people feel that disagreeing with others is rude, the truth is there’s nothing wrong with having and sharing your own opinions. There are certainly rude ways to disagree, but disagreement in and of itself is not innately rude. Verbally agreeing with everything someone says (when you are mentally disagreeing) will take you from “nice” to “pushover” faster than Superman can save Lois Lane.
If these are things that genuinely nice people don’t do, then what are some characteristics of genuinely nice people?
First, genuinely nice people listen. Has anyone ever asked you how you’re doing, only to act like they’re not paying attention to your response? Or what about when you share a problem or concern you have with someone, and they immediately start talking about themselves? These are some of the easiest ways to tell if someone is “fake nice” and a genuinely nice person does the opposite.
People want to spend time with people who care about them, and this empathy and concern are key to be a popular person. Listening to the things people share with you and paying attention to them are critical components of being genuinely nice.
Here’s an article about 20 ways to spot a fake friend from a good friend.
Ultimately, the biggest difference between a genuinely nice person and a fake nice person is the motivation behind their niceness. If you are nice to someone because you truly care about them, then you are genuinely nice. However, if you are having to constantly try to act nice because you want people to like you, then it may be time to reevaluate your intentions.
4. Be easygoing
As humans, our decisions are determined by the way we balance our natural desires (the things we want and enjoy) and our moral codes (our personal beliefs about right and wrong). We do things like spending time with friends to induce the release of chemicals in our brains that bring us pleasure. It is in our nature to want to have fun and feel loved, needed, and liked. These are the desires that make us social beings.
This explains why you will be more popular if people enjoy spending time with you. True friendships are rarely formed between people who don’t enjoy spending time together.
One way to make sure your friends enjoy spending time with you (thereby increasing your popularity) is to be easygoing. It’s important to have a positive attitude and avoid constant complaining.
Sharing your problems with others is a good thing– it’s actually a cornerstone in making close friends. But there is a time and place to have these serious discussions, and while repeatedly talking about problems people already know about might have a therapeutic effect on you, constant negativity will make it difficult for your friends to enjoy spending time with you.
Other characteristics of an easygoing person include:
- Having a good sense of humor; not becoming easily offended at jokes
- Willingness to try new things; not insisting on following the same routines every single time
- Flexibility in making plans (and changing plans!)
- The ability to have fun even it means looking silly; not refusing to have fun because you might embarrass yourself
If you think of the most popular people you know, you’ll probably notice that none of them are uptight. Being an easygoing person will make people more comfortable around you and allow them to have a good time, and this is sure to boost your popularity.
5. The Importance of Being a Good Listener (And Why You’re Probably Not as Good as You Think)
While the importance of being a good listener is widely known, most people don’t listen very well. Many of us think that we are far better listeners than we really are.
There’s an explanation for this: When your mind is somewhere else, you don’t hear what you don’t hear and you won’t know what you missed. Hence, it feels like you are a better listener than you really are.
The biggest cause of the “bad listener epidemic” is simple: Many people are so busy thinking about how they’re going to respond that they don’t actually pay attention to everything that’s being said. In short, they’re handling the conversation selfishly by focusing more on themselves than the other person.
Even worse, some interrupt their friends while they are talking just because they have to tell them something they relate to. This causes people to feel ignored and can be damaging to a friendship.
If this is something you find yourself doing, it’s okay; this doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad friend, it simply means you need to improve your social listening skills.
Paying attention when other people are speaking (and making an effort to really be present in the conversation instead of in your head planning your response) is the first step toward becoming a good social listener. When you are listening, show them that you are listening by nodding and making affirmatory comments such as “Yeah,” “Mhmm,” “Oh wow,” etc.
It’s also good to use your facial expressions to react appropriately when someone is speaking; for example, frown if they tell you something bad, smile if they tell you something good, laugh if something is funny, etc. This will convey to the other person that you are truly listening to them and will make them more inclined to share things with you in the future. On the other hand, if people get the feeling that you’re not listening when they’re talking to you, there’s very little chance that your social popularity will increase.
Another way to show that you pay attention when people are speaking is to follow up on things people have told you in previous conversations. This requires remembering what people have shared with you so that you can ask about it again in the future.
For example, if the last time you spoke with Lisa she shared with you that her nephew had broken his leg, ask her how her nephew is doing the next time you see her. Not only will this show her you were paying attention during your last conversation, it will also convey that you have a genuine care and concern for her.
Remember, popular people are those who care about their friends and their well-being. Being a good listener is a crucial part of becoming popular.
6. Become Good at Something (It’s easier than most people think)
We are hardwired to admire people who are really good at something. If you think about it, it would be difficult explaining to an alien why there are thousands of people going to concerts, crying and screaming, waiting for hours just to catch a glimpse of someone because he or she is a good singer. Or why we value someone to millions of dollars because that person is good at a sport.
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Undoubtedly, there is a connection between skill and popularity. It seems like the skill can be almost anything; even our favorite superheroes have their own unique areas of expertise.
What do you enjoy doing? Have you ever done something that people have told you that you are good at? It’s time to improve that skill.
Perhaps you can even earn your living on performing what you are good at. In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell suggests that there is no such thing as “being born without a skill,” but it requires thousands of hours of practice to truly become an expert at it. Once you have identified something you like doing and think you can be good at, invest the time to get better at it.
Sometimes it can be difficult to determine what you’re good at it. Often we are blind to our own gifts and abilities, but our family members and close friends can see them clearly. Asking people you are close to what they believe you are good at is a quick way to get a better idea of your gifts and talents.
Once you have decided which skill you would like to improve, the following resources can be very helpful:
- Personal development/self-help books relating to the area you are seeking to improve
- Working with a mentor who is an expert in your area of interest
- Free local or online classes, such as those at Coursera.org
- Paid local tutoring or classes
- Joining a local Facebook group pertaining to your skill/interest
- Set goals using these goal-setting sheets from Develop Good Habits
Not only will your skills, talents, and hobbies increase your popularity in your social sphere, improving your career-related abilities will improve your popularity in your workplace as well.
According to one study, employees’ work-related knowledge, skills, and abilities are directly related to their popularity in the workplace, which is in turn directly related to their career satisfaction.
As you can see, increasing your talents can be beneficial in many ways. Your skills and talents allow you to provide value the people around you, which we will discuss in the next section.
7. The Power of Positivity
Popular people are seldom needy; they don’t need anything from others to be happy. They don’t hang out with friends because they would feel lonely otherwise, they hang out with friends because they want to have fun with them. They give their friends positive energy instead of taking energy from them. They make sure that their friends enjoy their time together and focus on the well-being of others, instead of focusing only on their own needs.
The truth is that people who complain about life and are more pessimistic have fewer friends. Even worse, since people tend to spend time with others who are similar to them, the friends they do have are typically also pessimistic.
As a rule of thumb, make an effort not to say anything negative until you have first said at least five positive things. This can help you prevent others from viewing you as pessimistic and make you a more uplifting person to spend time with.
8. The True Danger of Talking Behind Someone’s Back
Have you ever seen a superhero movie in which the superhero beat the bad guy by whispering something rude about him into someone else’s ear?
This is because talking behind someone’s back won’t make anything better.
The bad guy goes behind the superhero’s back by trying to persuade others to come to his side, but in the end, his efforts are for naught. The superhero, on the other hand, confronts his enemies directly and addresses the problem face-to-face.
This isn’t a coincidence; movie producers and comic book writers know that talking behind someone’s back is an ineffective way of getting what you want. It’s a great way of telling the audience: “This is a bad person.”
Popular people understand that talking behind people’s backs will cause them to quickly lose friends; when you speak negatively about other people, the person you’re talking to can reasonably assume you would speak negatively about them when they’re not around as well. Because relationships grow deeper the more we reveal to each other, it’s important for your friends to be comfortable confiding in you without worrying that you will talk about them to others.
Many people attempt to justify their gossipy behavior by saying “I’m not talking behind anyone’s back, ‘I’m just telling the truth.'” While this may be the case, it is still not an acceptable excuse; some issues need to be addressed with the person in question and that person only. There is a difference between simply explaining a situation to a friend and speaking badly about someone, and it is very important to watch what you’re saying about people behind their backs.
9. Depreciation in general
You should not just avoid talking down on others, you should also avoid talking down on things in general. If you depreciate a TV-series, a part of town, a nationality, or an artist, you risk breaking rapport with the ones that you talk with.
This does not mean you can’t disagree with someone, but it does mean that your disagreement should be respectful. For example, saying, “I’m not a big fan of that show,” is a respectful way to disagree, while saying “That show is so stupid. I don’t see how anyone can watch it,” is a depreciating way to disagree.
If you have a habit of being openly depreciating about things, you will likely find yourself regularly meeting people who don’t share your point of view– and there’ a good chance they will be offended. As a rule of thumb, avoid expressing negative opinions around people you’ve just met.
There’s one exception. According to the rules of interpersonal psychology, you will build rapport with a negative person if you also act negatively. But be careful not to get carried away in negativity, as you will be perceived as a negative person and attract other negative people while simultaneously causing positive people to avoid you.
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When you are around your closest friends, you should express yourself whenever you feel the need to. However, if your negative expressions have become a part of your jargon, you risk tiring even your best friends.
A common fear is that if you don’t express negative opinions, you will be considered to be an opinion-less zombie. However, the reality is quite different. People who are successful at influencing others tend to behave in a different way: They tell stories about experiences without adding their own opinion, to make people make up their own minds.
You can never tell anyone to have the same opinion as you do; you can only give them the foundation to make up their own mind.
10. Build Relationships at Work and School
Many people make the mistake of avoiding social relationships at their school or workplace because those are “places to work, not places to socialize.”
This, however, is a detrimental mindset to have. People now spend more time than ever at their places of work and education, and refusing to build relationships with the people whom you spend so much time around will jip you out of quite a few very beneficial social experiences.
As we mentioned before, the knowledge, skills, and abilities that people possess in relation to their careers directly correlate with their popularity, and their popularity directly correlates with their levels of career satisfaction. This makes it clear that the more popular you are at school or work, the happier you will be when you’re there.
Additionally, experts tell us that people with healthy social relationships at school and work are more likely to perform better and be more successful, further reinforcing the importance of building social relationships with classmates and co-workers (How Much Co-worker Socializing is Good for Your Career? by Jacquelyn Smith).
11. Dealing With Conflicts (And Why Confrontation is OK)
Popular people have a certain way of dealing with conflicts; in other words, they actually deal with them instead of letting everything slide because they’re afraid of confrontation.
(Is someone making fun of you? Click here to learn how to deal with dominating people.)
Popular people understand that confrontation is not actually a bad thing. How many lives would Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Mr. Incredible (I could go on) have saved if they were never willing to confront anyone?
The answer is zero. All of Gotham City (*cough* New York *cough*) would be obliterated.
Although confrontation is often associated with aggression and bullying, when done the right way it is a crucial part of forming–and more importantly, maintaining– healthy, lasting friendships.
Think about the word “peacemaking.” Notice how it is different from the word “peacekeeping.”
Peacekeeping means ignoring every issue that arises so as to avoid conflict, and keep the peace (for now). But the problem with peacekeeping is that it can never be permanent, and often what you consider to be “peace” is actually turmoil underneath a blanket of passivity.
Eventually, all of the little (and big) things that you let slide in the past will add up, and one or both of the people involved will explode. Things will get messy–far, far messier than they would have if you had decided to be a peacemaker instead.
To be a peacemaker requires taking action– after all, you are making peace, which implies that it was not there before and changes must be made for it to occur. Unlike peacekeeping, peacemaking does not result in an explosion; it is the catalyst for a controlled change rather than a cataclysmic one.
In short, confrontation is necessary if you are ever to achieve true peace in your relationships.
Popular people know how important it is to work on their friendships, and they understand that confrontation and conflict resolution is necessary. Read How to Navigate Difficult Conversations to find out how popular people address problems they’re having with their friends.
Popularity is something that most people strive for in their social relationships, and there are plenty of reasons why it can be a beneficial status to hold. Superheroes are the embodiment of popularity, and we can learn a lot about what popularity looks like and how we can achieve it by looking at the things they do (and don’t do).
Which superhero is your favorite, and what aspect of his/her popularity are you working towards the most? Share your popularity goals in the comments!
- Li, Yan. 2016. Does popularity at work matter? Examining the effects on career satisfaction through self-evaluation and abilities. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 44(10). 1601-1612.