The Origins of the Popularity Complex.

“Pistil and Stamen” illustration by badass James Jean, 2017

One of the best representations of ego-syntonic behavior is epitomized by the ultra-hot, rich and popular characters in the 2004 hit film, “Mean Girls.” Regina George is the films absolute Machiavellian Princess, summoning her heroines to the throws of devaluation, hyper-sexualization and omnipotent control. Regina George represents a caustic symbol for the ever-nostalgic and traumatizing relations to popular girls every single one of us might have experienced in adolescence.

And yet, growing up in High School with a group of friends who appeared to possess a seemingly naïve, ambivalence to what Regina’s character trope signified for female identity development, her character, was loosely idealized. So much so, that for field day our senior year of high school, my group of friends made our team name the ‘mean girls.’ Watching from the sidelines as I wore my pink hair bow, tight pink shorts and crop top, I realized that I might have made a terrible choice in who I decided to associate myself with in high school.

Watching the girls bounce around in their cut t-shirts, my stomach dropped to the floor when one of my middle school best friends (who I decided to stop being friends because she was in band) came out with a group of band kids wearing an elf costume from the Lord of the Rings.

 I thought to myself, “I should be standing there, next to Gandalf and the Elf in a white robe.”

It was a day that truly changed my life.

But nonetheless, as an adolescent trying to construct a cohesive narrative and establish a sense of self-worth in a seemingly pre-historic environment like high school,  my actions weren’t so abnormal – In fact, I had essentially won the social lottery. Even so, the delicacy between balancing the mean girl and the nice girl are all developmental maturation processes typical for female adolescent behavior. Think of it as a typical rite of passage in girl world.

However, the rite of passage was learning who I was and who I wasn’t on that day.

In research developed by psychologists, there are debates over how popularity is constructed throughout elementary school to high school. According to Amanda Rose, a psychology researcher at the University of Missouri, “In elementary school, the kids who are really well-liked and who are nice are the kids who are popular.” However, by the time kids get to high school the standards of popularity seem to shift. In high school, there appears to be the development of two kinds of popularity: there are the well-liked students, then there is the emergence of a new group, which researchers call the high-status students. These students may be the individuals who dominate sports teams, exploit their personal wealth, get elected into homecoming court, etc. Mitch Prinstein,  a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of the upcoming book Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World, examines these complexities,

“For boys, a lot of them can be [high-status] and also well-liked at the same time. But that is so not the case for girls. The correlation between likability and status approaches zero for girls.”

It appears that the adoption of the ego-syntonic behavior of Regnia George is a standard coping mechanism for adolescent teenage girls who are looking to survive high school.

According to Prinstein, “[A teenager’s] sense of identity is coming from, If everyone else thinks I’m cool, then I am cool. “They can’t make the distinction between what I think of myself and what everyone else thinks of me — those are synonymous at this age.” 

But what happens to Regina George’s of the world when we graduate High School? And who are the wannabes? What happens when individuals appear to get stuck in the inability to decipher their own sense of self and wanting social validation from the group?

Self-identity and the Construction of the Popularity Complex

In psychodynamic psychotherapy, the construction of a healthy ego identity is developed when we’re able to come to terms with our id, ego and superego. When considering the object-relations of the individual, the human experience is compartmentalized into intrinsically social, embedded matrixes of relationships, which seek to relate, connect and understand our relationships with ourselves and inversely others. These theories explain how certain early experiences in our lives construct the development of  salient and coherent personality structures and a general sense of ‘self-knowing’ or ‘inter-being.’ When we think about how the popular girls have managed to gain a sense of self-knowing and inter-being the traits associated with their relationships to others and themselves have a particular brand of pathological sustenance. It appears that they’re driven by an innate need for competition, omnipotent control and external validation.

Hearing this out loud, it probably elicits a sense of internal denial,

who would behave in such a way? One might think. However, we behave selfishly every day in a competitive solipsistic society, it is a cursed byproduct of a capitalistic system. We’ve all categorized ourselves and others on scales of social currency and value-retribution.

However, for the ‘cool’ kid who grew up, these behaviors might be more readily used as maladaptive, unconscious coping mechanisms than the average individual.

The result is a hunger and need for power to the point that it interferes with our own internal joy and satisfaction. It also creates a highly addictive chemical reaction in our brain’s pleasure center which produces behavioral cravings that are similar to workaholism.

In his book, Prinstein explains these concepts by identifying the neurological implications of popularity on the adolescent brain and how the need for popularity may very well stay with us into adulthood.

During adolescence, our teenage brains appear to be the perfect environment for neural growth and producing chemicals that solidify reward-inducing behavior. For instance, at the beginning of puberty, myelin (which are fatty fibers developed along with our neural axons) is produced at significant amounts creating a burst in neural activity. The result of this neural productivity and the development of new neural networks is integration between brain activity and structural psychosocial development (infantile and oedipal behavior is superseded into logic, empathy and rational decision making in the adolescent brain) – developing a newfound sense of consciousness. It allows the brain to develop parallels connected to social literacy and emotional intelligence.

However, if we’re exposed to maladaptive forms of coping in specific environments like high school, where the main form of social literacy is developed by aggressive behavior. We may conform to narcissistic traits as a means to secure social and personal safety.

When we finally get out of high school, we may have survived, and we may have moved forward but our brain just hasn’t picked up the memo. Take for instance, a study developed tracking the social lives and identity formulation of ‘popular girls’ from their adolescence into adulthood.

According to a study developed by Allen and published in 2014 in the journal Child Developmenttitled: “Whatever happened to the ‘cool’ kids?” information was developed on the current quality of life for individuals who used pseudo-mature behavior in adolescence to gain popularity. In the study, the result for the quest of status over character traits associated with likeability was examined and appeared to have problematic implications for the individuals in adulthood.

Over time, it appeared the early reliance of behavior associated with aggressive tendencies like social stalking, gossiping, minor acts of delinquency and unfulfilling peer relationships were seriously maladaptive when in their adulthood.

Understanding this dilemma through a psychodynamic approach, the basis of the popularity-complex appears to be a regressive defense mechanism picked up in adolescence and if not balanced with a core sense of self could potentially undermine an individual’s sense of purpose, motivation and self-esteem.

So, what does this look like in real life? If you’re a frequent observer of the Bravo hit series, “The Real Housewives” then imagining the drama-induced, provocative and manipulative behaviors of these novelty-seeking women are the silhouettes for the foundational core of these personalities.

Borderline Personality Organization and the Similarities in Popularity

Do you have a popularity complex? If you have an underdeveloped sense of identity and a need for power the answer could be yes.
Illustration by James Jean

In contemporary psychotherapy, psychotherapists acknowledge that object-relations attachment theory is a large predictor for personality organization. If you’re an individual who has fallen prey to the phenomenon of the ‘popularity complex,’ and your brain seems to still be living in high school,  you may or may not have an overly identified attachment with your social peer group growing up as a child. Ever heard of the millennial slang and phenomenon ‘FOMO?’

 In fact, you may still be overly concerned about your relationship to your social group of origin now.

Understanding personality & social identity is essential to the development of identifying one’s own personal self-concept.

According to psychodynamic theorist, Otto Kernberg, the individual with borderline personality organization operates within a world-view or an unconscious relationship with the self, in which two dichotomous states of being operate outside and inside of our conscious awareness. This could be explained by what is called a ‘diffusion of identity.’  A diffusion of identity is a state of development/ being described by the famed psychologist, Erik Erickson, as an essential stage an adolescent goes through on their path to define and create self-autonomy, meaning and purpose. While borderline personality organization is not the same as the neurobiological disorder BPD, with the popularity complex, it appears that individuals get stuck in primitive states of development where social exploitation, superficiality, narcissist tendencies and acute histrionic behavior becomes the norm leaving individuals internal world hollow and void of appropriate social relations.

Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), is a model that represents a new synthesis for how we conceptualize two thinking paradigms: multiplicity of the mind and the operational thinking systems. It functions to help individuals who have maladaptive personality organization integrate their sub-personalities or ‘parts,’ into a coherent healthy identity that can integrate the id, ego and superego or other internal polarizations like the ‘adult’ and the ‘popular girl’ created over time. It helps to cultivate a quality of self that is whole and allows the learned pathological behavior of the popular girl to live a healthier life by increasing their overall sense of self-awareness in relation to themselves and others.

If you feel like you’re working with a popular girl stuck in the developmental stage of an adolescent, Internal Family Systems Therapy may be an important tool to utilize in your practice when dealing with split identity states.


Allen, J. P., Schad, M. M., Oudekerk, B., & Chango, J. (2014). What ever happened to the “cool” kids? Long-term sequelae of early adolescent pseudomature behavior. Child development85(5), 1866-80.

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Prinstein, M. J. (2017). Popular: The power of likability in a status-obsessed world.

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