The desire to be popular comes from the same psychological place as the desire to be famous. Both can only occur in an individualistic culture, one where you have become poignantly aware of your separateness from the group, of your responsibility to think and act primarily on your own behalf as opposed to happily playing your part as a cog in the larger machine.
Being aware of yourself as a separate entity brings the feeling of existential isolation into clear relief, a state so terrifying and anxiety provoking that people will do just about anything to cover it up. Popularity is one way to accomplish this goal. The desire to be popular is not the desire to be unique, it’s the desire to get recognition and approval from others, and with this recognition and approval your separate existence seems to be validated, you are made real so to speak.
In a communal culture there is no real need for popularity, and in fact the concept doesn’t even exist in conscious awareness, because by identifying with the group at large, the feeling of separateness is not really a problem, the sense of existential isolation doesn’t have the same rich soil in which to grow.
It’s that feeling of being separate, the uncertainty that comes from fully seeing yourself as an individual, that makes you desperate for validation. So really the fervent desire to be popular, while understandable, is a step backwards because you remain dependent on group consensus for your sense of Self. We all need to feel like we are connected, but there is huge difference between the healthy state of belonging and the unhealthy state of being willing to do whatever it takes to be recognized as worthwhile by others. In this sense popularity is a curse because it keeps you stuck in a mold, playing a part, where developing who you really are might never happen since you risk disapproval, and with disapproval your antidote to existential isolation.