Beautiful, magnetic, terrifying.
Photo: Harry Dempster/Getty Images
An investigation into the joy and pain of fitting in: With this series, we’re exploring the pathologies, hierarchies, and quirks of female socialization from high school to the workplace and beyond.
You know the type. Depending on your age and/or preferred pop-culture reference, you might know her as the Rizzo, the Cher Horowitz, or the Regina George — the high-school alpha girl. She was popular and confident — and certainly beautiful, though looks were only part of her appeal. She was also casually rebellious, tending toward classic cool-kid pastimes: skipping class, smoking, drinking, partying. Her behavior probably horrified your parents and teachers, which is exactly what made being around her so thrilling. For years, social scientists have been studying her power. Just what is it that makes an alpha girl so magnetic? Is she born? Or created? And does she stay that way forever?
According to research, it’s no coincidence that alpha girls all start to come into their own in early adolescence. The very definition of popularity starts to change around that time. “In elementary school, the kids who are really well-liked and who are nice are also the kids who are popular,” said Amanda Rose, a psychology researcher at the University of Missouri. “But in middle school, this starts to change.” By the time high school starts, there are two kinds of popularity: There are the well-liked students, and then there is the emergence of a new group, which researchers call the high-status students — these are the ones who dominate their social groups, who are perhaps voted to the homecoming court, or are captain of the soccer team.
This distinction — between status and likability — is especially important in understanding the alpha girl over her teenage-boy counterpart. Alpha boys tend to be aggressive in physical ways, starting fights or pushing each other around, while alpha girls are more likely to act in relationally aggressive ways, spreading rumors or using the silent treatment. But the behaviors can be interchangeable; sometimes the guys gossip, and the girls fight. The most critical difference in how alpha-like traits manifest in men and women, research suggests, is how the other students react to those acts of aggression.
For girls, “the more aggressive you are, the less likable you will be. But it will make you more popular,” said Mitch Prinstein, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of the upcoming book Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World. “For boys, a lot of them can be [high-status] and also well-liked at the same time. But that is so not the case for girls. The correlation between likability and status approaches zero for girls.” Alpha girls are admired and feared, but they’re not often liked.
Some alpha girls are born that way. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that the research confirms that attractive, athletic girls who come from higher-income families tend also tend to be in that high-status group. But others teach themselves how to become alphas, learning social skills from watching adults, or from their own experiences at a young age. “Even those very initial experiences back in preschool and kindergarten, each time you have a positive social experience, it kind of opens the door to new opportunities to learn increasingly sophisticated skills,” Prinstein said. They learn when to be a little aggressive to secure their status, and when to step back and let others get their way (or, at least, to let others think they’re getting their own way).
But perhaps more importantly, the reason alpha girls have such a hold over their peers may be at least partially explained by the neurological growth teenagers are experiencing. Teenage brains are highly attuned to social rewards, especially receiving positive feedback from their peers, and the popular kids — girls and guys — seem to be swimming in them. “So that makes us want to do whatever we can to be more like them,” Prinstein said. “[A teenager’s] sense of identity is coming from, If everyone else thinks I’m cool, then I am cool,” Prinstein said. “They can’t make the distinction between what I think of myself and what everyone else thinks of me — those are synonymous at this age.” But it’s not just anyone’s opinion that matters. For teenagers, as you’ll no doubt recall, their peers’ opinions mean everything. Their parents’ opinions, on the other hand, mean nothing — less than nothing. The farther they can get from anything adults approve of, the better. “There is even research that adolescent mice prefer to spend time with other adolescent mice before they will adult mice,” Prinstein added.
Hence the allure of the alpha girl. High-status teenagers, the research suggests, tend to behave in ways adults find inappropriate, which other teenagers find exhilarating. “They are on the fast track socially,” Joseph Allen, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, told me. “That means they’re the kids getting involved in romantic relationships earlier than their peers, they are getting involved in minor forms of delinquency.” They skip class, they dabble in drugs, they go to parties. They are, in a word, cool. “That intimidates the other kids,” Allen said. “They make the other kids feel like they’re behind.”
Their daring, adult-like-but-not-adult-approved behavior is the reason they claim the dominant, central role in their friend groups, Allen explained. It goes back to the notion of teenage autonomy. “In adolescence, part of what they’re supposed to be doing is establishing independence from the adult world,” he said. So some of these risky behaviors — cool-kid teenage stuff like sex and drugs and minor offenses like shoplifting — are ways of saying, “these are things little kids don’t do. And I’m doing things my parents don’t like, which means I’m becoming independent,” Allen continued.
One might assume, as I did, that your high school’s alpha girl grew up to be the office alpha girl, too. But every researcher I talked to said the opposite; several of them, for that matter, pointed me toward a fascinating study led by Allen and published in 2014 in the journal Child Development, titled: “What ever happened to the ‘cool’ kids?” For that paper, Allen and his colleagues interviewed a group of teenagers — including the “high-status” ones, otherwise known as the popular kids — when they were seniors in high school, and then tracked them down and reinterviewed them ten years later. “And a decade later,” Allen tells me, “they’re not doing so well. They’re doing less well in romantic relationships, they’re more likely to have problems with alcohol use and criminal behavior.”
If you are an alpha in high school, in other words, you are not necessarily an alpha for life. The social skills the cool girls (and guys) learned in high school tend not to work very well after they leave. “They’ve gotten so much reward for this skill set and this way of acting among others [that] they become fixated on status as a measure of their worth,” Prinstein explained. “They see everything through a lens of status, constantly thinking about their relationships in a hierarchal way — am I dominant, or not?” Even ten years after graduation, he tells me, the cool kids are still “constantly looking for those signs and signals. But the rest of the world has moved on.”