A Gender Prototypicality Theory of Adolescent Peer Popularity

  • Lara MayeuxEmail author
  • Margaret Kleiser
Narrative Review


Despite its salience to adolescents and its relevance for behavioral adjustment, there are few theories explaining the development of peer popularity. In this article, the authors present a gender prototypicality theory of the development of popularity. Popularity refers to social visibility, power, and prestige among peers. Gender prototypicality theory argues that popularity as a distinct form of peer status emerges at the transition to adolescence, as a byproduct of intensifying cross-sex peer interactions and competition for opposite-sex attention as romantic development intensifies. The theory further argues that popularity will be ascribed disproportionately to young adolescents who conform to gender-typical roles in appearance, behavior, and other features, as these youth are more likely to attract the opposite-sex attention that contributes to social status among peers. Given the salience of emerging romantic interactions at this developmental period, adolescents who are leading the way in spending time with the opposite sex are likely to garner considerable attention from peers. This confluence of events begins the process of consolidation of social power into a relatively small proportion of the peer group.


Popularity Gender Peer relations 



The authors gratefully acknowledge Amy Bellmore and Molly O’Mealey for their helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this manuscript, as well as the comments of two anonymous reviewers.

Authors’ Contributions

LM conceived of the theory presented here and drafted the manuscript; MK contributed to the development of the theory and helped to draft the manuscript. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors report no conflicts of interest.


  1. Adler, P. A., Kless, S. J., & Adler, P. (1992). Socialization to gender roles: Popularity among elementary school boys and girls. Sociology of Education, 65, 169–187. Scholar
  2. Arnocky, S., & Vaillancourt, T. (2012). A multi-informant longitudinal study on the relationship between aggression, peer victimization, and dating status in adolescence. Evolutionary Psychology, 10(2), 147470491201000207.Google Scholar
  3. Bower, A. R., Nishina, A., Witkow, M. R., & Bellmore, A. (2015). Nice guys and gals finish last? not in early adolescence when empathic, accepted, and popular peers are desirable. Journal of Youth and Adolescence., 44(12), 2275–2288.Google Scholar
  4. Bowker, J. C., Adams, R. E., Bowker, M. H., Fisher, C., & Spencer, S. V. (2016). Same-and other-sex popularity and preference during early adolescence. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 36(5), 704–722.Google Scholar
  5. Breslend, N. L., Shoulberg, E. K., McQuade, J. D., & Murray-Close, D. (2018). Social costs for wannabes: Moderating effects of popularity and gender on the links between popularity goals and negative peer experiences. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 47(9), 1894–1906. Scholar
  6. Brown, B. B. (1999). You’re going out with who? Peer group influences on adolescent romantic relationships. In W. Furman, B. B. Brown, & C. Feiring (Eds.), The development of romantic relationships in adolescence (pp. 291–329). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Brown, B. B. (2011). Popularity in peer group perspective: The role of status in adolescent peer systems. In A. H. N. Cillessen, D. Schwartz, & L. Mayeux (Eds.), Popularity in the peer system (pp. 165–192). New York, NY: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  8. Bukowski, W. M., Sippola, L. K., & Newcomb, A. F. (2000). Variations in patterns of attraction of same- and other-sex peers during early adolescence. Developmental Psychology., 36(2), 147–154.Google Scholar
  9. Caravita, S. C., & Cillessen, A. H. (2012). Agentic or communal? Associations between interpersonal goals, popularity, and bullying in middle childhood and early adolescence. Social Development, 21(2), 376–395.Google Scholar
  10. Carver, K., Joyner, K., & Udry, J. R. (2003). National estimates of adolescent romantic relationships. In P. Florsheim (Ed.), Adolescent romantic relations and sexual behavior: Theory, research, and practical implications (pp. 23–56). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.Google Scholar
  11. Cheng JT, Tracy JL (ed) (2014) Toward a unified science of hierarchy: Dominance and prestige are two fundamental pathways to human social rank. The psychology of social status. Springer, New York, p 3–27)Google Scholar
  12. Choukas-Bradley, S., Giletta, M., Neblett, E. W., & Prinstein, M. J. (2015). Ethnic differences in associations among popularity, likability, and trajectories of adolescents’ alcohol use and frequency. Child Development, 86(2), 519–535.Google Scholar
  13. Cillessen, A. H. N. (2011). Toward a theory of popularity. In A. H. N. Cillessen, D. Schwartz, & L. Mayeux (Eds.), Popularity in the peer system (pp. 273–299). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  14. Cillessen, A. H. N., & Borch, C. (2006). Developmental trajectories of adolescent popularity: A growth curve modelling analysis. Journal of Adolescence, 29(6), 935–959. Scholar
  15. Cillessen, A. H. N., & Marks, P. E. L. (2011). Conceptualizing and measuring popularity. In A. H. N. Cillessen, D. Schwartz, & L. Mayeux (Eds.), Popularity in the peer system (pp. 25–56). New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  16. Cillessen, A. H. N., & Mayeux, L. (2004). From censure to reinforcement: Developmental changes in the association between aggression and social status. Child Development, 75, 147–163. Scholar
  17. Cillessen, A. H. N., & Rose, A. J. (2005). Understanding popularity in the peer system. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 102–105. Scholar
  18. Cillessen, A. H., Mayeux, L., Ha, T., de Bruyn, E. H., & LaFontana, K. M. (2014). Aggressive effects of prioritizing popularity in early adolescence. Aggressive Behavior, 40(3), 204–213.Google Scholar
  19. Closson, L. M. (2009). Aggressive and prosocial behaviors within early adolescent friendship cliques: What’s status got to do with it? Merrill-Palmer Quarterly., 55(4), 406–435.Google Scholar
  20. Clutton-Brock, T. (2007). Sexual selection in males and females. Science, 318(5858), 1882–1885.Google Scholar
  21. Collins, W. A., Welsh, D. P., & Furman, W. (2009). Adolescent romantic relationships. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 631–652.Google Scholar
  22. Connell, R. W., & Messerschmidt, J. W. (2005). Hegemonic masculinity: Rethinking the concept. Gender and Society, 19(6), 829–859.Google Scholar
  23. Connolly, J., Craig, W., Goldberg, A., & Pepler, D. (2004). Mixed-gender groups, dating, and romantic relationships in early adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence., 14(2), 185–207.Google Scholar
  24. Dawes, M., & Xie, H. (2014). The role of popularity goal in early adolescents’ behaviors and popularity status. Developmental Psychology., 50(2), 489–497.Google Scholar
  25. de Bruyn, E. H., & Cillessen, A. H. N. (2006). Popularity in early adolescence: Prosocial and antisocial subtypes. Journal of Adolescent Research, 21(6), 607–627. Scholar
  26. De Bruyn, E. H., Cillessen, A. H., & Wissink, I. B. (2009). Associations of peer acceptance and perceived popularity with bullying and victimization in early adolescence. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 30(4), 543–566. Scholar
  27. de Bruyn, E. H., Cillessen, A. H., & Weisfeld, G. E. (2012). Dominance-popularity status, behavior, and the emergence of sexual activity in young adolescents. Evolutionary Psychology, 10(2), 147470491201000209.Google Scholar
  28. Dijkstra, J. K., Cillessen, A. H., Lindenberg, S., & Veenstra, R. (2010). Same-gender and cross-gender likeability: Associations with popularity and status enhancement: The TRAILS study. The Journal of Early Adolescence., 30(6), 773–802.Google Scholar
  29. Eder, D. (1985). The cycle of popularity: Interpersonal relations among female adolescents. Sociology of Education., 58(3), 154–165.Google Scholar
  30. Eder, D., & Parker, S. (1987). The cultural production and reproduction of gender: The effect of extracurricular activities on peer-group culture. Sociology of Education., 60(3), 200–213.Google Scholar
  31. Egan, S. K., & Perry, D. G. (2001). Gender identity: A multidimensional analysis with implications for psychosocial adjustment. Developmental Psychology., 37(4), 451–463.Google Scholar
  32. Friedlander, L., Connolly, J., Pepler, D., & Craig, W. (2007). Biological, familial, and peer influences on dating in early adolescence. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 821–830.Google Scholar
  33. Furman, W. (2002). The emerging field of adolescent romantic relationships. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(5), 177–180.Google Scholar
  34. Gorman, A. H., Schwartz, D., Nakamoto, J., & Mayeux, L. (2011). Unpopularity and disliking among peers: Partially distinct dimensions of adolescents’ social experiences. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 32(4), 208–217.Google Scholar
  35. Hawley, P. H. (1999). The ontogenesis of social dominance: A strategy-based evolutionary perspective. Developmental Review, 19(1), 97–132.Google Scholar
  36. Hawley, P. H. (2003). Prosocial and coercive configurations of resource control in early adolescence: A case for the well-adapted Machiavellian. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly., 49, 279–309. Special issue: Aggression and adaptive functioning: The bright side to bad behavior.Google Scholar
  37. Horn, S. S. (2007). Adolescents’ acceptance of same-sex peers based on sexual orientation and gender expression. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 36(3), 363–371.Google Scholar
  38. Houser, J. J., Mayeux, L., & Cross, C. (2015). Peer status and aggression as predictors of dating popularity in adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence., 44(3), 683–695.Google Scholar
  39. Jamison, R. S., Wilson, T., & Ryan, A. (2015). Too cool for school? The relationship between coolness and academic reputation in early adolescence. Social Development., 24(2), 384–403.Google Scholar
  40. Jewell, J. A., & Brown, C. S. (2014). Relations among gender typicality, peer relations, and mental health during early adolescence. Social Development., 23(1), 137–156.Google Scholar
  41. Johns, M. M., Poteat, V. P., Horn, S. S., Kosciw, J. (2019). Strengthening our schools to promote resilience and health among lgbtq youth: Emerging evidence and research priorities from the state of lgbtq youth health and wellbeing symposium. LGBT Health. Scholar
  42. Kiefer, S. M., & Wang, J. H. (2016). Associations of coolness and social goals with aggression and engagement during adolescence. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 44, 52–62.Google Scholar
  43. LaFontana, K. M., & Cillessen, A. H. (2002). Children’s perceptions of popular and unpopular peers: A multimethod assessment. Developmental Psychology., 38(5), 635–647.Google Scholar
  44. Leaper, C., & Friedman, C. K. (2007). The socialization of gender (pp. 561–587). Handbook of socialization: Theory and research.Google Scholar
  45. Lease, A. M., Musgrove, K. T., & Axelrod, J. L. (2002). Dimensions of social status in preadolescent peer groups: Likability, perceived popularity, and social dominance. Social Development., 11(4), 508–533.Google Scholar
  46. Lee, E. A. E., & Troop-Gordon, W. (2011). Peer processes and gender role development: Changes in gender atypicality related to negative peer treatment and children’s friendships. Sex Roles, 64(1–2), 90–102.Google Scholar
  47. Leenaars, L. S., Dane, A. V., & Marini, Z. A. (2008). Evolutionary perspective on indirect victimization in adolescence: The role of attractiveness, dating and sexual behavior. Aggressive Behavior, 34(4), 404–415. Scholar
  48. Mayeux, L., Sandstrom, M. J., & Cillessen, A. H. N. (2008). Is being popular a risky proposition? Journal of Research on Adolescence, 18, 49–74. Scholar
  49. Mayeux, L., Houser, J. J., & Dyches, K. D. (2011). Social acceptance and popularity: Two distinct forms of peer status. In A. H. N. Cillessen, D. Schwartz, & L. Mayeux (Eds.), Popularity in the peer system; popularity in the peer system (pp. 79–102). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  50. Mazur, A., Halpern, C., & Udry, J. R. (1994). Dominant looking male teenagers copulate earlier. Ethology and Sociobiology, 15(2), 87–94.Google Scholar
  51. McClintock, M. K., & Herdt, G. (1996). Rethinking puberty: The development of sexual attraction. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 5(6), 178–183.Google Scholar
  52. Merten, J. (1997). Facial-affective behavior, mutual gaze, and emotional experience in dyadic interactions. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior., 21(3), 179–201.Google Scholar
  53. Merten, D. E. (2004). I securing her experience: Friendship versus popularity. Feminism and Psychology., 14(3), 361–365.Google Scholar
  54. Moffitt, T. E. (1993). Adolescence-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior: A developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review, 100, 674–701.Google Scholar
  55. Molloy, L. E., Gest, S. D., Feinberg, M. E., & Osgood, D. W. (2014). Emergence of mixed-sex friendship groups during adolescence: Developmental associations with substance use and delinquency. Developmental Psychology, 50(11), 2449.Google Scholar
  56. Owens, L., Shute, R., & Slee, P. (2000). “Guess what I just heard!”: Indirect aggression among teenage girls in Australia. Aggressive Behavior, 26(1), 67–83.Google Scholar
  57. Pellegrini, A. D., & Bartini, M. (2001). Dominance in early adolescent boys: Affiliative and aggressive dimensions and possible functions. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly., 1982, 142–163.Google Scholar
  58. Pellegrini, A. D., & Long, J. D. (2003). A sexual selection theory longitudinal analysis of sexual segregation and integration in early adolescence. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 85(3), 257–278.Google Scholar
  59. Prinstein, M. J., Meade, C. S., & Cohen, G. L. (2003). Adolescent oral sex, peer popularity, and perceptions of best friends’ sexual behavior. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 28(4), 243–249.Google Scholar
  60. Puckett, M. B., Aikins, J. W., & Cillessen, A. H. (2008). Moderators of the association between relational aggression and perceived popularity. Aggressive Behavior., 34(6), 563–576.Google Scholar
  61. Rancourt, D., & Prinstein, M. J. (2010). Peer status and victimization as possible reinforcements of adolescent girls’ and boys’ weight-related behaviors and cognitions. Journal of Pediatric Psychology., 35(4), 354–367.Google Scholar
  62. Rodkin, P. C., Farmer, T. W., Pearl, R., & Van Acker, R. (2000). Heterogeneity of popular boys: Antisocial and prosocial configurations. Developmental Psychology, 36, 14–24. Scholar
  63. Rose, A. J., Swenson, L. P., & Waller, E. M. (2004). Overt and relational aggression and perceived popularity: Developmental differences in concurrent and prospective relations. Developmental Psychology, 40, 378–387. Scholar
  64. Rose, A. J., Carlson, W., & Waller, E. M. (2007). Prospective associations of co-rumination with friendship and emotional adjustment: Considering the socioemotional trade-offs of co-rumination. Developmental Psychology, 43(4), 1019.Google Scholar
  65. Rose, A. J., Glick, G. C., & Smith, R. L. (2011). Popularity and gender: The two cultures of boys and girls. In A. H. N. Cillessen, D. Schwartz, & L. Mayeux (Eds.), Popularity in the peer system; popularity in the peer system (pp. 103–122). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  66. Rubin KH, Bukowski WM, Bowker JC (2015) Children in peer groups. Handbook of child psychology and developmental science. Scholar
  67. Sandstrom, M. J. (2011). The Power of Popularity. In A. H. N. Cillessen, D. Schwartz, & L. Mayeux (Eds.), Popularity in the peer system (pp. 219–244). New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  68. Schwartz, D., & Gorman, A. H. (2011). The high price of high status: Popularity as a mechanism of risk. In A. H. N. Cillessen, D. Schwartz, & L. Mayeux (Eds.), Popularity in the peer system; popularity in the peer system (pp. 245–270). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  69. Smith, T. E., & Leaper, C. (2006). Self-perceived gender typicality and the peer context during adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence., 16(1), 91–103.Google Scholar
  70. Toomey, R. B., Card, N. A., & Casper, D. M. (2014). Peers’ perceptions of gender nonconformity: Associations with overt and relational peer victimization and aggression in early adolescence. The Journal of Early Adolescence., 34(4), 463–485.Google Scholar
  71. Troop-Gordon, W., & Ranney, J. D. (2014). Popularity among same-sex and cross-sex peers: A process-oriented examination of links to aggressive behaviors and depressive affect. Developmental Psychology., 50(6), 1721–1733.Google Scholar
  72. Vaillancourt T (2005) Indirect aggression among humans. Developmental origins of aggression. 158–177Google Scholar
  73. Vaillancourt, T., & Hymel, S. (2006). Aggression and social status: The moderating roles of sex and peer-valued characteristics. Aggressive Behavior, 32, 396–408. Scholar
  74. Vaillancourt, T., & Krems, J. (2018). An evolutionary psychological perspective of indirect aggression in girls and women. The development of relational aggression: Oxford University Press, New York.Google Scholar
  75. Van den Berg, Y. H., Burk, W. J., & Cillessen, A. H. (2015). Identifying subtypes of peer status by combining popularity and preference: A cohort-sequential approach. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 35(8), 1108–1137. Scholar
  76. Volk, A. A., Camilleri, J. A., Dane, A. V., & Marini, Z. A. (2012). Is adolescent bullying an evolutionary adaptation? Aggressive Behavior, 38(3), 222–238.Google Scholar
  77. Volk, A. A., Dane, A. V., Marini, Z. A., & Vaillancourt, T. (2015). Adolescent bullying, dating, and mating: Testing an evolutionary hypothesis. Evolutionary Psychology, 13(4), 1–11. Scholar
  78. Waasdorp, T. E., Baker, C. N., Paskewich, B. S., & Leff, S. S. (2013). The association between forms of aggression, leadership, and social status among urban youth. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42(2), 263–274. Scholar
  79. Weisfeld, G. E., & Woodward, L. (2004). Current evolutionary perspectives on adolescent romantic relations and sexuality. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 43(1), 11–19.Google Scholar
  80. Xie, H., Li, Y., Boucher, S. M., Hutchins, B. C., & Cairns, B. D. (2006). What makes a girl (or a boy) popular (or unpopular)? African American children’s perceptions and developmental differences. Developmental Psychology, 42, 599–612. Scholar
  81. Young, R., & Sweeting, H. (2004). Adolescent bullying, relationships, psychological well-being, and gender-atypical behavior: A gender diagnosticity approach. Sex roles, 50(7–8), 525–537.Google Scholar
  82. Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J., Siebenbrunner, J., & Collins, W. A. (2004). A prospective study of intraindividual and peer influences on adolescents’ heterosexual romantic and sexual behavior. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 33, 381–394.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of OklahomaNormanUSA

Personalised recommendations