Popular Lessons: An Interview with Author, Psychology Professor Mitch Prinstein

All too often we stop our analysis of customer loyalty and customer experience with marketing principles. Sure, they play a vital role in the field. But there are other fields that can offer a different understand on why customers may or may not be loyal or have a good experience. Behavioral scientists are a good example. Their understanding of human behavior from a psychological standpoint can often shed light on customers that we often don’t see. To get a clearer understanding, we spoke with Mitch Prinstein, the John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, and a member of the Clinical Psychology Program at the University of North Carolina. He is also the author of “Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World (Penguin Random House).”

For more from Mitch Prinstein, listen to our interview podcast here!
How long did it take you to write this book?
Prinstein: To some extent, it took me 20 years to write this book because I’ve been doing work in this area for most of my career. But literally, it took me a year and a half to write. I worked on the proposal for six months and I had a one-year contract, so it was a really fun experience.
What was the main reason for writing the book?
Prinstein: I’ve always thought the research on popularity was cool to begin with. I think it’s a fascinating topic. I think it’s something we all go through. I think it’s something that has some really surprising results. But I think there were two things that made me particularly interested in putting it together in a book. The first was, as I’ve aged, I’ve seen the field evolve, and I’ve been surprised at how much the exact same things that characterize popularity dynamics in high school take on different names and more subtleties in adulthood. The same issues we need to be thinking about with our kids are the same issues we should still paying attention to in the office and in our personal lives. So, one of my main impetuses for writing it was having adults remember that you didn’t leave all of this back in high school. It’s all pretty relevant.

The second thing that really made it feel urgent is that we seem to be in a time that focuses on the wrong kind of popularity, perhaps more than at any time in the history of our species. We are focusing on the kind of popularity that leads to problems rather than the kind that helps us. I felt an urgent need to send up a warning flare in hopes that people would about-face on this damaging trend.
In the book, you look at some of the Far East countries and note that everyone is focused on the success of the society, whereas in the U.S. it’s more of a “me” society. Why is it so different?  What’s driving our “me” culture? Is it getting worse? And can we take it back to the way it may have been in the 40s and 50s when things weren’t that way?
Prinstein: I do think it’s getting worse. There’s something about this culture. We’ve been given this impression that everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame, and that almost makes people feel they’re entitled to having this moment of fame. People also believe they’re not successful and happy unless they have what everyone around them has access to. Back in the day, well before I was born, people thought about those who were the most powerful or famous or influential as a small group. You stuck to the relationships you had with the people you saw every day. Once we broke that wall, that distance we had with those we would never be able to meet was gone. Now we can tweet or have conversations with them. Suddenly that was within our grasp. If you combine that with reality TV and social media and even the way we now talk about the news every day, it’s all based on this immediate power to reach millions with a single mouse click. People in the West are craving that.

I think the reason it might not be catching on the same in the East with the same fervor and passion that it has here is really based on culture. In the East, if you have the opportunity to gain influence or power, you channel that toward immediately doing what’s best for the community and try not to stand out on your own. That’s just automatically the cultural norm. So even though there’s reality TV and social media in these other countries, that idea of getting attention is to immediately give pride and honor to one’s family and community rather than to try to seem separate and better than other people.
Does the fact that those cultures more assimilated and not as diverse play a part?
Prinstein: There is less diversity, and it might be easier to think about working with a collective because you believe everyone shares similar values. That’s not the case here. American today is probably worse than it’s been since maybe the Civil War. We’re really quite divided, and I don’t think people very strongly believe that they share the same values as their neighbors—certainly not with those who live in a different part of the urban or rural environment than they do. It’s really unfortunate because research shows that there are far more similarities than people would think, but in a divisive society, people are led to believe that that’s not true.
It’s not getting better. People have such radical views both left and right where the commonality seems to be going away.
Prinstein: Absolutely. We’re in a culture that’s all trying to pay attention to ourselves, make us feel like we are somehow better than everyone around us. That’s really a bad recipe for any type of cohesion or community or shared goals and teamwork. This is why in an office we might see the kind of leader that’s trying to make themselves seem most powerful, but they’re not good leaders. They might get other people to follow, but they those people are not particularly loyal, not actually interested. It’s just a type of fear and domination way of leading others. When there are leaders who really make everyone feel included and they foster this sense of community, you get the same if not better work ethic, but you also get more buy-in and loyalty and commitment. I think a good example of how these same dynamics are playing out at work are not too different than how we thought about them when we were growing up.
We talk to a number of brands that are trying to create a culture that puts the customer and employee first, that are trying to truly listen to and understand the customer, but they really struggle with that because there’s so much change and disruption. It’s hard for them to keep up. Do you have any suggestions for them because your book is profound in that regard? There’s so much that behavioral scientists and economists can provide to help them understand.
Prinstein: My wife is in marketing, and she has a lot to say about the book and believes there’s a lot of application here. One idea that she’s always talking about is brand essence. There’s been some research about how brands, and products in particular, earn a reputation not so much because they’re better than others but because they engender a sense of warmth and loyalty. There’s talk about Disney’s brand essence being compared to a luxury vehicle based on exclusivity. I think there are people in marketing who are seeing that. I also think that in the workplace, interpersonal dynamics is important, about how people are more likely to buy from a human that they connect to, someone that they like. That ends up being as important if not more important than the idea that they’re trying to market in the first place. If you like the messenger, you like the message.
Is it hard for brands that may not have put the customers first, or can brands still fake it until they make it?
Prinstein: We know from the research for someone to be well liked, it’s not so much based on what they do as the feeling that they give to others. The litmus test is not the things you see that person—or, in this case, a company—doing. They may be going through all the right motions, but it’s whether the recipients feel the way you want them to feel—and what you want them to feel is valued, included and happy. Those are the key ingredients to someone being likable. You can do a thousand different things to make someone feel that way, but it’s not going to be effective until that person truly feels valued. They won’t like you until they feel that way. So, I don’t think you can fake it. You can do all of the things that someone might say will make you seem more customer oriented, but if they don’t actually make the customer feel valued, a little less stressed, a little happier, a little more included and cared for, then it’s not going to work. You really have to deliver.
What would be the one thing from the book that you would give to marketers or brands that would help differentiate them or make them stronger?
Prinstein: That’s hard to say because there are a lot of things that I think would be very relevant. I talked about the idea of leadership and how different leadership styles play a role, and I think people have found that to be really helpful. I think, secondly, people are quite interested in the different kinds of likeable categories—the accepted, the rejected, the neglected, the controversial, the average. Those spell out who should be in what kind of jobs. I think that people who are not paying attention to these are finding this is why people don’t succeed in their careers or the assignments, because that’s not what they’re suited for. I talk in the book about who best fits where.

I think beyond that, I think there are a number of other factors. For instance, the idea that people so fundamentally care about their feeling of connectedness and being liked. That has such remarkable consequences for marketing and for sales. There’s also a study that talks about portraying things as being popular can genuinely make people change their values and interest. People who might hate something, if they see that exact same thing getting a lot of likes, suddenly they don’t hate it as much. They’re not as inhibited about that same value. That has huge marketing potential.
How do you start the conversation? Or is that more challenging than it used to be?
Prinstein: There’s actually been some work that shows that people are really discerning. They don’t just follow like sheep. They ask, “Is this the group that I most want to feel aligned to or not?” And if you have a group that is popular and strongly subscribing to something that you really don’t want to be associated with, then there will actually be an anti-conformity effect. So, it’s really important when you think about market segmenting that you look at the group that made that popular and is that a group that you want to be more like? That becomes really very relevant. For instance, we generally think of iTunes as a place that is still generally where people in the know might go, people whose tastes are similar to my own or they have tastes that are even more cutting edge, so I’m willing to listen to what’s popular from them. But if you went on to a retirement home community and listened to what songs they are listening to, you might decide that whatever they like you automatically don’t like.
One of the things you talked about, with people who are sick or going through cancer treatment, they live longer with a strong support network. Does the group have to be so big? How do you measure that?
Prinstein: There’s no magic number. It seems like having even one very close friend can really buffer even the most negative effects of otherwise feeling rejected or out of the main group. So, there’s a big difference between having zero and one, but beyond that, having 10 or 20 friends there’s no definite research saying there’s a magic number on that.
How do we make it easier for brands to understand or drive the message that these types of behavioral science books can drive unique change within their organization?
Prinstein: There’s a bit of anti-science trend happening in some circles right now, so it’s a little bit hard to think about. I would say that most of the questions that companies are thinking about are questions that we behavioral scientists have spent our entire careers answering for free. It’s our jobs to do that and publish these results. In some ways, the biggest difficulty is for us to figure out how to get the message into the hands of people who can use it, rather than simply publishing it on our own scientific journals and talking to each other. We are an untapped source that’s worth billions of dollars in knowledge and people-hours. People don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We’ve already done it in a far more controlled and stringent way than most companies have the ability to do, because we can do these experiments without having to worry about the bottom line. It’s consequence-free for us, and we can save millions of dollars for people trying to test out ideas that have real consequences for their bottom line.
You also talk about how divisive we are.
Prinstein: Ronald Reagan may have been a tipping point, at least in the modern era, for when we started to confuse who we admired on screen and who thought favorably toward in general. And then we have some slippage, saying that if you’re qualified in one area you must be qualified in another. It’s amazing how susceptible we are to caring about status and looking up to somebody and wanting to follow them, even in areas that they should not be followed. But this is a human instinct. There are literally neurotransmitters in our brains that synthesize differently simply by looking at someone of high status. Just looking at a picture of them changes a chemical reaction in our brains. That’s powerful stuff. We share that with a bunch of other species, but they don’t elect presidents. We have to remember that when we’re letting these animal instincts take over and overpower some of our good human thinking.
With as divisive as we are, extreme left and extreme right and the middle kind of goes away, does it make it more difficult in this day and age?
Prinstein: I can kind of see it both ways. I’ll say that this is a time when all of this can be far more powerful than it ever has been, because the more we’re spending online trying to replicate human interaction through social media the more people are feeling lonely. And the lonelier they feel, the more powerful it can be to engage in some of the good, old-fashioned, real relationship kinds of behaviors. They’re so rare now that they’re even more powerful. Similarly, everything that happens with politics right now, it’s a great example of how you can take a fragmented society, take a group that feels they have unfairly been placed low on the hierarchy of status, and promise them that you will be able to deliver more status. That simple message about increasing the status of a disenfranchised majority can be so powerful that nothing can be more important to that group.
The challenge of listening is something we talk about a great deal. Brands hear their customers but they don’t truly listen. How can we put the amazing insights you have into your book into play?
Prinstein: The more that people feel there’s a group that represents what they don’t believe, the more freedom they can have to not listen, to shut down and say you’re not in my group I don’t believe anything you have to say and just discard the message outright. There needs to be a way for people to communicate that doesn’t feel like it’s hanging on their group memberships.

The more information we have at our disposal the harder it is to consume it all, so we’ve gotten spoiled with soundbites and making a quick decision on things and then moving on. Everything is segmented. There’s really no one source that everyone goes to in order to get a thorough accounting of all the information before they weigh in with a decision. These days we just read a headline, not even read the article, form an opinion and then be immediately bias against any other headline or article. There’s this sense of people being absolutely inundated with information and that any other source of information, any other subsequent information might be contaminated by the other side, whatever the other side may be.
People are worried about how mobile phones are rewiring the brains. Is that something you are concerned with as well?
Prinstein: I think that these innovations are rewiring the brain, or at least they’re reinforcing the very old brain systems in ways that used to grow out of. I think it’s interesting that some of the people who played a very big role in the promotion of social media are now expressing regrets. There’s a sense of awareness that it had an effect far greater than people ever expected. We know scientifically exactly why that’s happening now.
When you started the book, were there things you thought you would see that you didn’t see either from a good or bad or neutral perspective, and if so what were those?
Prinstein: I thought the book would be more about kids. I thought it would be about how adolescents are growing up and what the next generation would be, how millennials were being treated different than their peers. I was shocked that the more I talked to adults and interviewed people and companies and thought about different industries and read about all that research, that we’re all wrong. We all like to pretend this is ancient history for us and the word “popular” is not even relevant to us in adulthood. We are fooling ourselves if we think that these dynamics of how we interact with one another and how much we still fundamentally care about what others think about us is playing a role in our lives now. It is continuing to influence powerfully every interaction we have. That was a huge shock to me.
Are there things corporations can do to use these revelations to evaluate their employees?
Prinstein: I would say most employee evaluations are looking at the individual, and when people look at a team, they often look at the leader of that team, and if a team is successful that has something to do with the individual leader. So, it’s still an ultimate look at the individual. I think that way of thinking about individuals is absolutely the wrong way. If you want a company to be effective, productive, loyal, you have to look in terms of its relationships. Groups are interacting with one another. It’s not a group of individuals. That’s antiquated, and science would say that’s a completely ineffective way of thinking about how to run a company.

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