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
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Despite the tendency to write off first-year college students as cellphone-obsessed and face-to-face 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 the 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. Their findings were published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They asked students to name up to eight people in the dormitory in which they lived for different categories -- whom they spend the most time with, whom they turn to for advice and who is the most empathetic, among other classifications.

"When we asked them these questions, if they had said that the same people who they turn to in time of need were the same as fun people, to me that would reflect a lack of granularity, and a lack of self-awareness," said Jamil Zaki, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford and one of the study's authors. "That's not what we found at all. They were much more sparse when figuring out who they turn to for bad news. The relationships that were characterized by trust and intimacy, they nominated less folks compared to outward-facing relationships."

Indeed, in 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 social networks, the friendships tended to be more sprawling, with a desire to seek out those who could encourage a good time.

Later, the researchers also roped in a new sample group from the 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 positively was linked to their friends’ ability to have fun and spark happiness in others.

“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.”

The study’s results could reveal how different individuals tend to their mental health, depending on the type of friend group they cultivate, though that wasn't the researchers' focus. In an interview, Morelli said that students cope with stress in different ways. She noted few students were named as both empathetic and the one students would go to for fun.

Because starting college tends to be stressful, those empathetic freshmen tend to attract other students, the authors say. Zaki was fascinated by the idea of the empathetic students being "social magnets." He said though many tend to think of the incoming generation of college students as socially promiscuous and not particularly deep, evidence from the study suggests students are attuned to the need for and try to find someone with whom to share their problems.

Eventually, the professors would like to examine if installing a certain number of these empathetic students in dormitories could improve the overall climate and mental health of the building's occupants, they said. First, they want to determine if even being proximate to these students does make a marked difference.

"You know, some people question whether college freshmen are really facing these sorts of enormous challenges, or if it's just venting about a breakup," Zaki said. "But freshman year really is a difficult time, and if we can understand the social means [with] which people protect themselves from the sometimes chaos of this life transition, we provide insight on how to weather the storm."


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