Socially Savvy Freshmen

A new Stanford study suggests first-year students can judge who will help them have fun and who can be a shoulder to cry on.  

September 1, 2017

Despite the tendency to write off first-year college students as cell phone-obsessed and relationship oblivious, they’re socially aware to a degree. At least enough to classify which friends they consider their most trusted and those they rely on just for a fun time, according to the results of a new study out of Stanford University.

Researchers at Stanford and University of Illinois at Chicago wanted to pinpoint what traits make an individual popular or central in their college social networks, and so they surveyed more than 190 freshmen across four Stanford dormitories.

They asked students to name up to eight people in the dormitory for different categories – who they spend the most time with, who they turn to for advice, who is the most empathetic, among some of the questions.

Later, the researchers also roped in a new sample group from University of Illinois.

These 86 students were used to confirm the relatively obvious theory that students would feel more comfortable sharing bad news with those they trusted, and that students feeling positive was linked to their friends’ ability to have fun and spark happiness in others.

The findings were published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The study offers an opportunity for college students to examine their own relationships,” the lead author, Sylvia Morelli, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said in a recent Stanford summary of the research. “Especially against the landscape of social media where they can have seemingly countless ‘friends’ across the country and the world. Our work suggests that people will turn to only a small handful of these friends when things get stressful, and that they will trust their friends who show empathy and concern.”

Indeed, in the social circles defined by trust, members of the group deemed most empathetic were the most highly sought after, the study shows. These sorts of friend groups tended to be much less dense, with fewer connections among them.

Conversely, when students were focused more on fun in their friend groups, the friendships tended to be more sprawling, with a desire to seek out those who could encourage a good time.

The study’s results reveal insights into how different individuals tend to their mental health, depending on the type of friend group they cultivate, the researchers say.

“Our findings suggest that empathetic individuals help other network members through stress buffering and individuals high in well-being provide others with opportunities to foster positive experiences,” the study states.

Because starting at a college tends to be a high-stress time for new students, empathetic freshmen tend to attract other students, the authors say.

“Empathic people are the ears and shoulders of these communities,” said Jamil Zaki, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford and another author of the study. 


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