News & Features

When the Teenage Brain and “Popularity” Collide

Summer Science Series: As part of the Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI) and other summer endeavors, students are collaborating with faculty advisors on high-level scientific studies—the kind usually reserved for graduate students. What discoveries are they making? This series answers the question.

What does it take to be popular in middle school? What if you’re not as popular as you think you are? And why are “mean girls” mean?

Three Vassar students are working with Associate Professor of Psychology Abigail Baird ’91 this summer, exploring these and other questions about the middle school social scene and the teenage brain. They say some of the answers revealed by their research surprised them—most notably the difference between how boys and girls cope with social acceptance or rejection.

“Girls (who reported they were popular) were more confident and cared less about what others thought of them,” says John Acosta ’15. “Boys, on the other hand, were more likely to (care what others think)—they were more self-conscious and anxious.”

Acosta, Kyndra Adams ’14, and Olivia Westbrook-Gold ’13—working under the auspices of Vassar’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI)—analyzed data Baird had gathered from students at a New Hampshire middle school.

All middle school students nominated peers that they thought were “popular.” For the Vassar study, students who were in the top 20 percent in the number of peer nominations were classified as “popular,” while those in the bottom 20 percent were considered “unpopular.” Data about brain maturation was also examined in approximately 100 of the middle school students, with a particular emphasis on the structure and function of the frontal lobes, the portion of the brain that regulates social behavior, to determine their levels of development. 

Left to right: Olivia Westbrook-Gold '13, John Acosta '15, and Kyndra Adams '14
Left to right: Olivia Westbrook-Gold '13, John Acosta '15, and Kyndra Adams '14

Baird says some of the most popular girls in the school behaved like the “Mean Girls” depicted in Lindsay Lohan’s 2004 movie of the same name—forming cliques that excluded less popular girls from their social circle.

“They’re physically attractive and they know it. They’re liked by boys, disliked by some girls, and they score low on social anxiety—they really don’t care what others think,” she says.

The popular boys rarely demonstrated such traits, the Vassar students found.  Many who were popular didn’t even nominate themselves as such on the questionnaires they filled out for the study, and they were much more concerned than girls about how others felt about them.

The students’ research showed boys who were unpopular but had nominated themselves as popular lacked social and emotional maturity.

Analysis of brain scans revealed that many boys had frontal lobes that appeared to be less mature than their female peers, something commonly seen in studies of development, Baird said. Conversely, many of the girls in the study had relatively more mature frontal lobes and were therefore less vulnerable to social pressures, including the scorn of “mean girls.”

Associate Professor of Psychology Abigail Baird '91
Associate Professor of Psychology Abigail Baird '91

Other findings uncovered by the Vassar study:

  • Students valued competence in athletics far more than academic achievement
  • Girls’ self-confidence and satisfaction with how they looked dropped significantly when they reached eighth grade

Acosta, Adams, and Westbrook-Gold all say their own middle school years had been generally happy ones, but they say the summer research project has been enlightening and inspiring.

“We got to work with data from the very beginning of the process to the very end,” Westbrook-Gold says. “I had never had the opportunity to be so involved in a study, and it made the work so much more enjoyable.”

Acosta agrees.

“Participating in the URSI program was very rewarding,” he says. “The exposure to new facets of psychology will be helpful for me in deciding what to pursue next.”

–Larry Hertz

Top illustration copyright Vassar College / Chris Silverman. Middle image copyright Vassar College / Buck Lewis. Bottom image copyright Vassar College.

Posted Wednesday, August 8, 2012