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Updated 12:15 PM September 2, 2008
 

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  Research
Compassion key to successful college roommate relationships
Hear ISR researcher Amy Canevello discusses how students can find a roommate they can live with >

Anxious college freshmen can relax. No matter who will be sharing their dorm rooms, they have the power to make the relationship better, research from the Institute for Social Research suggests.

"Roommate relationships can be really good or they can be really bad. And the fear is that they'll go from bad to worse," says Jennifer Crocker, a social psychologist who along with colleague Amy Canevello studies how behavior and attitudes affect the kinds of relationships people experience. "But our study shows that you can create a supportive relationship and turn the stranger who's your roommate into a friend."

Results of the research appears in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Crocker and Canevello studied more than 300 college freshmen assigned to share rooms with other students they didn't know at the start of the first semester. In one study participants were surveyed once a week for 10 weeks about their attitudes toward friendships in general, and about their feelings of loneliness and experiences of conflict. In a second study 65 roommate pairs completed daily reports about their relationships during a three-week period in the middle of the semester.

During the first week of the study, 32 percent reported always or almost always feeling lonely, compared to only about 17 percent in the 10th week of the study.

About 34 percent in the first week said they always or almost always avoided showing weakness in their friendships, compared to only about 13 percent in the 10th week of the study.

Crocker and Canevello found that students who were invested in enhancing and protecting their own self-images were less likely to report that their relationships with their roommates were getting better.

An essential element in reducing loneliness and building a good roommate relationship involves moving away from what Crocker calls an ego-system approach, in which people focus on their own needs and try to shore up their self-image, toward an eco-system approach, in which people are motivated by genuine caring and compassion for another person.

"Basically, people who give support in response to another person's needs and out of concern for another person's welfare are most successful at building close relationships that they find supportive," Canevello says. "We get support, in other words, by being supportive."

"The transition from high school to college is challenging for a variety of reasons," Crocker says. "The academic environment is usually more difficult and more competitive, and moving away from the nuclear family for the first time disrupts established social support networks. Along with meeting academic challenges, creating and maintaining friendships ranks among the most important tasks of the first semester of college.

"So these findings provide some good news — students can be the architects of their roommate relationships, enhancing or undermining the quality of these important relationships."

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