By Emma Young
When my 9-year-old has his best friend over to play, the house is filled with the sound of giggles. Yes, this friend plays fair, is outgoing and shares my son’s interests. But he’s also good fun.
Any parent knows that kids this age are obsessed with having fun (something that’s in short supply for many home-schoolers right now). And yet “being fun” has been overlooked as an indicator of a child’s social status, argue the authors of a new paper, published in the Journal of Personality. Their new studies are, they say, the first to establish it as a unique factor important for understanding social hierarchies among kids.
Within groups of children, social status is fluid, note Brett Laursen at Florida Atlantic University and colleagues. So far, researchers have identified and studied two factors that are the main drivers of a child’s potentially fluctuating status: likeability and popularity.
There is some overlap between the two. Both involve being outgoing and prosocial, for instance. But there are also some differences. For example, a popular kid might sometimes be physically aggressive. This can raise their social status while reducing their likeability.
However, being “fun to be with” is conspicuously missing from the list of traits associated with being well-liked or popular, the authors argue. And yet, as they note, having fun is not only intrinsically socially rewarding but could bring other benefits — fun experiences promote creativity, and being perceived as fun could protect a child from peer rejection.
To investigate this, the team devised two studies. The first was conducted on 611 school kids aged 9 to 12 in Colombia. These children were asked to identify up to four same-sex classmates who best fit descriptions of likeability, popularity, and also fun. (Fun was measured with two items: “It is fun to hang out with him/her” and “Someone you can have fun with at a party”.)
The children also named classmates who they thought best fit seven other categories: academic achievement, athleticism, justice (fairness), leadership, physical aggression, prosocial behaviour (eg. being compassionate and caring for others) and relational aggression. These variables are known to correlate with likeablility and popularity, and the team thought they could potentially also correlate with fun.
The results showed positive correlations between fun, likeability and popularity: children who received more likeability nominations, for example, also tended to receive more nominations for being fun and popular. These variables were also positively correlated with all the potential confounding variables, except physical and/or relational aggression, depending on the age group.
The researchers then turned to 662 children of the same ages at two schools in southern Florida, who completed a similar peer-nomination questionnaire to the previous study. To look at changes over time, the team also asked the kids to complete the task again eight weeks later. (Eight weeks might sound like a short period of time to adults, but, at more than half a typical UK term, it’s a substantial amount of time for a kid, the team argues.)
Again, there were positive correlations between fun, likeability and popularity. But the team also found that being perceived as fun at the first time point predicted increases in popularity and likeability eight weeks later: higher initial fun ratings were linked to bigger increases in both these other measures.
In their statistical analysis, the team removed the contribution of the variables already known to influence likeability and popularity (such as pro-social behaviour, leadership, physical attractiveness and relational aggression). And they found that the associations between initial fun ratings and later changes in status remained. Being perceived as fun, then, seems to act an independent factor contributing to social status.
Laursen and colleagues also found that higher likeability and popularity scores at the first time point were linked to higher fun scores at the second, “suggesting that, in the eyes of peers, fun begets status and status begets fun”.
The study didn’t explore what makes for a fun kid. But the team suggests that such children are equipped with a “constellation of traits”. They are likely socially adept and benefit from “ego resilience” (characterised by high levels of extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness, and low neuroticism). They’re also probably enthusiastic and excitable, but able to regulate these traits.
The team would now like to see much more work to explore “being fun”. “Anecdotally, we know that children are intensely focused on having fun,” they write. “Scholars should be similarly focused on understanding the contributions of fun to success in the peer social world.”