Why Everyone Loves the Alpha Girl
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 likeability and status approaches zero for girls.” Alpha girls are admired and feared, but they’re not often liked.