Flashback to high school: The so-called cool kids pass you by, floating on a sea of popularity with their absurdly clear skin and sheer awesomeness. They're the pinnacle of teenage glory, and you cannot help but want to be in their place, reveling in their inordinate amount of friends and complaining about the three parties you must attend that Friday. You know it’s silly, and you feel like a huge cliché, but deep down you know that you would kill to be one of them. Turns out you’re not alone; it is human nature to crave high social status, and it extends beyond the superficial politics of high school.

In a recent study published in Psychological Bulletin, researchers are beginning to question the universality of desiring popularity. Professor Cameron Anderson, of the Berkley HAAS School of Business, along with Ph.D. candidates John Angus D. Hildreth and Laura Howland reviewed hundreds of studies on the topic, with a common set of criteria in mind and found the answer was quite simple: Yes, we all want high social standing, even if we don’t really want to admit it.

“I usually study the sexy angle of power and confidence but with this one, it’s about everyone. Everyone cares about status whether they’re aware of it or not,” said Anderson in a recent press release. Anderson believes that studying the universality of our need for popularity is essential because it affects us very deeply, often dictating our behavior, thoughts, and even our emotional health.

“Establishing that desire for status is a fundamental human motive [that] matters because status differences can be demoralizing,” he said. “Whenever you don’t feel valued by others, it hurts, and the lack of status hurts more people than we think.”

As the need to be recognized by our fellow humans is not novel, the potential effects this acknowledgement can have on our health proves to be a new and fascinating area of research. Many theorists link this desire for social standing as a need for prestige or a well-known reputation. Others argue that status has little to no effect on an individual’s psychological well-being. Anderson and his team, however, have faith in the contrary after reviewing a wide range of studies from as far back as 70 years ago. They believe they have discovered a trend, and it seems to suggest that our desire for social confirmation may be more vital to us than we ever thought.

In order to discover the effects of social status on an individual’s self-esteem and overall well-being, Anderson and his team defined what constituted high social status, choosing to exempt factors like financial success and power. They concluded with a concept that comprised three different components essential to social status: respect and admiration, deference from others, and social value. Social value, equated with a sense of prestige, stems from the frequency with which others seek your advice, or how much others defer to you.

After establishing a definition, researchers examined previous accounts of what makes factors both fundamental and innate to individuals. Fundamentality was defined by four factors:

  1. Well-being and health: Status must contribute in some way to long-term psychological and physical health.
  2. Activities: Wanting status motivates goal-oriented or ambitious behavior to attain and maintain status. It also must motivate a preference for certain social environments, as well as yield a strong reaction from individuals if their status diminishes or they lack status altogether.
  3. Status for status’ sake: There are no outside motivations for wanting status other than attaining status itself.
  4. Universality: This want of status is not isolated to one group of people, but transcends gender boundaries, cultures, ages, and personalities.

Researchers find the strongest evidence toward their claim that social status is fundamental to the human experience comes from the notable effects of having low social status. While reviewing studies, researchers found that people with perceptibly low social standing in their communities, peer groups, or work environment were more prone to suffering from depression, chronic anxiety and even non-mental disorders like cardiovascular disease. These individuals also had a tendency to feel less respected and more frequently ignored.

Through his research, Anderson hopes to shed some light on the importance of social standing to health and our subsequent behavior. “The desire for status can drive all kinds of actions, ranging from aggression and violence, altruism and generosity, to conservation behavior that benefits the environment. The more we understand this basic driver, the more we can harness it to guide people’s decisions and actions to more productive paths,” Anderson said.

So if you’re still reliving those awkward days of social ineptitude, regretting your inability to be one of those cool kids, rest assured: You are not the only one. Wanting to be popular seems to be at our very core, and it motivates us more than we may want to admit.

Source: Anderson C, Hildreth J, Howland L, et al. Is the Desire for Status a Fundamental Human Motive? A Review of the Empirical Literature. Psychological Bulletin. 2015.