Cool at 13, not at 23: Why popular kids aren't necessarily successful adults

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Why the Popular Kids Don't Stay Cool


Ever notice that the cool kids from high school seem to still be stuck there? They like to spend a lot of time talking about the good old days, and it's clear that these years were the highlight of their lives thus far. Well, there might be a good reason for that, and it's good news for workers who weren't exactly captain of the football team years ago.

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(Photo Credit: Richard Masoner/Flickr)

A new study, published earlier this summer by Joseph P. Allen, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, in the journal of Child Development, sheds some new light on this age-old phenomenon. Let's take a closer look at a few interesting features of the study.

1. What makes you cool at age 13 may send you adrift by age 23.

"The fast-track kids didn't turn out OK," said Allen about the socially precocious youngsters he followed for a decade.

Allen found that one quality in particular might be highly valued and respected by teenagers, but that same quality can backfire just a decade later if not corrected. Allen studied a community sample of 184 adolescents, following them for 10 years, from age 13 to 23, in order to come to his conclusions. So, what is that trait that makes someone a cool kid but comes back to haunt them down the road? Pseudomature behavior.

2. What is pseudomature behavior?

As teenagers, we are rewarded by our peers for acting more mature than our age suggests we should. Dating earlier than most, going to parties with older kids, even getting into trouble with authority figures can intimidate (but also somehow impress) young teenagers who sense subconsciously that some of these behaviors are in their own futures. But, most people wait until high school to experiment with some of these normative features of adolescence. The "cool kids" from this study start early. And, apparently, that leads to problems for them down the road.

3. It's important to note the different between maturity and pseudomaturity.

Kids who are actually mature in middle school don't seem to firm up the same social rewards that their pseudomature peers do. That's because actual maturity isn't about impressing others – it's more about the behaviors that are valued in the adult world than the ones that mystify youth.

"To be truly mature as an early adolescent means you're able to be a good friend, supportive, hardworking, and responsible," Allen said, "But that doesn't get a lot of airplay on Monday morning in ninth-grade homeroom."

4. Although these behaviors help make kids popular in school, they have problems finding success and happiness later in life.

By age 23, the cool kids had a 45 percent greater rate of problems stemming from alcohol and marijuana use than their peers and a 40 percent higher level of use of those substances. They also presented a 22 percent greater rate of criminal behavior, ranging from theft to assaults. Many also struggled with romantic relationships and with getting along with others in general.

5. But, maybe it isn't the behaviors themselves that lead these kids astray – maybe it's what was behind them.

It's unclear why exactly young people who exhibit pseudomature behavior have trouble later in life, but Allen suggests that while these kids were busy chasing popularity, they missed a critical developmental period. Too much emphasis on social acceptance may have clouded their thinking and, in essence, stunted their growth. Trying so hard to be popular during adolescence caused them to lose sight of other priorities, and, in many cases, they've had to pay a heavy price for that down the road.

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