Students seek similarities

Postscript explores the nature of friendship among university students

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Despite exposure to a population of more than 20,000 people on campus, Queen’s students may find that their friendships lack diversity.

According to a recent study published in the social psychology journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, large university campuses breed undiversified friendships when compared to smaller institutions.

Due to its student population, Queen’s is considered to be a large university, making it less likely for students to have friendship groups that contain varied attitudes and beliefs.

Angela Bahns, lead author of the study, said on large campuses, students are better able to find friends with whom they share similarities.

“In general, we have found larger campuses are more diverse, in that there are more people to choose from and greater variability of attitudes,” Bahns told the Journal via email. “Compared to smaller campuses in Kingston, I would say that yes, Queen’s friendships are likely to be less diverse.” To conduct the study, researchers surveyed pairs of students in public places about beliefs that could potentially impact a friendship.

In the U.S, researchers surveyed 110 students on the University of Kansas campus, which has a student population of more than 25,000. These results were compared to answers from 158 students at four small colleges in rural Kansas. Each college had an average enrolment of around 1,400 students.

Students were asked to agree or disagree with polarizing questions regarding political, social and religious issues. These included questions on the use of alcohol and drugs, and attitudes towards abortion and the death penalty.

While the friendship initiation process is the same in every setting, a university’s population size determines who students choose to pursue friendships with, Bahns said.

“In diverse environments with lots of choice, students can be ‘pickier’ — if areas of dissimilarity are discovered they may decide that friendship is not worth pursuing.”

Closeness was also measured in the study. Participants had to rate on a scale of one to seven how close they felt to the other person in the pair.

On small campuses, pairs had an average closeness of 5.9 while on large campuses it was 5.2.

Friendships may be formed based on similarities, but that doesn’t ensure their longevity.

“We have found that friendship length is not related to similarity. That means that once a friendship forms, it’s unlikely that friends will become more similar to each other over time,” Bahns said.

“So for less diverse friendships, a certain amount of discrepancy must be tolerated for the whole life of that friendship — it isn’t going to go away as friends influence each other.”

Diverse friendships are often lasting ones, Bahns said, adding that they are beneficial in other ways too.

“There’s good research showing that forming friendships with people from different social groups from your own ... is one of the best ways to reduce prejudice, so there [are] certainly some advantages to befriending people who are not just like you.”

People may ultimately prefer similar friendships because they’re easier.

“People like to be in similar relationships because they are familiar, and because they are more harmonious — agreement reduces conflict,” she said.

Queen’s sociology professor Vincent Sacco said students who are enrolled at large universities like Queen’s still have as many close friends as those at small post-secondary institutions.

“A stereotype is that people in bigger cities have less close friends, but this isn’t true,” Sacco said. “I don’t think the size of the school would matter.

“There’s been a lot of research on social connections in big cities versus small towns, and there isn’t a big difference in how many close friends people have.”

While Queen’s might be a large school, Sacco said it doesn’t have a diverse population because it attracts students from similar socio-economic backgrounds.

“A university that people don’t commute to, where people have to move, attracts people who can spend more on education,” he said. “That automatically introduces homogeneity into the sample.

“Queen’s isn’t as diverse as people want it to be,” he said, adding that universities in a bigger city like Toronto attract a more diverse student body.

But socio-economic factors aren’t the only reason the population of Queen’s isn’t diverse.

“Kingston is a small city. It just isn’t attractive to everyone,” Sacco said. “There are also traditions of people from certain communities and high schools coming here.”

While bigger universities may attract a wider range of personalities and socio-economic backgrounds, Sacco said friendships ultimately form based on similarities.

“People prize diversity in theory more than in practice,” he said. “Do you actually have any 70-year-old male friends?” That being said, friendships based on shared interests aren’t always easy.

“One of the mistakes people make is that friendships are self-maintaining, but they do require maintenance. People that don’t put in the maintenance are seen as free riders,” he said.

“Most of our friends from university will cease to be in our lives because we won’t maintain friendships with them. The energy required isn’t viewed as worth the effort any longer.”

Though people naturally gravitate towards others with similar interests, diverse friendships can still exist, Sacco said.

“It takes a little more effort to make certain kinds of relationships continue,” he said. “It involves tolerance and understanding — people find those things taxing and the rewards may not be worth the effort expended.

“People can absolutely work to have diverse friendships, but there has to be a desire to do that.”

Queen’s psychology professor Jill Jacobson said people pick their friends based on similarity as opposed to diversity because it makes socializing easier.

“With a similar other, you can project your own feelings and opinions without having to worry. This is how similarity wins the day,” she said.

However, Jacobson said Generation Y is willing to be more experimental when choosing friends in university.

”People might be more likely to go to a club meeting they may not normally go to, to see what people there think.”

At Queen’s, Jacobson considers proximity the largest factor to determine burgeoning friendship.

“Maybe the first [friends] you are exposed to are proximal, and then you see what their values, interests, career goals are,” she said. “If they match that’s who you stick with.”

However, just because someone’s proximal doesn’t mean he or she makes for an ideal friend — a frosh’s often hurried selection of future housemates is an example.

“There’s a big push for first years to find housemates early on … you’ll find people making choices based on who’s proximal to them, then saying ‘Gosh, I regret that,’” she said. “What predicts longevity is similarity.”

“With social networking and Facebook you can meet more people with the same interests who aren’t proximal to you,” she said.

While similarity is important for friendship, it’s hard to determine whether an optimal friendship is solely based on shared interests, Jacobson said.

“You want complimentary. You don’t want to be exactly the same and you don’t want to be completely different,” she said.

Merits of diversity

Students on exchange programs have one of the best opportunities to make diverse friendships.

“All students are coming to the institution that is opening itself up to the world. Why would they limit themselves to people with the same experiences?” said Justin Kerr, an international student advisor for Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC).

Kerr offers non-academic support for many students who come to Queen’s on exchange.

He said students on exchange look for shared interests among those who come from different cultures and have had different life experiences.

“We don’t want to pigeonhole people to think their only valid social connection is with someone with a shared heritage. That’s overlooking so much about them,” he said.

“Whether it’s someone who comes from India but really likes Monty Python humour, someone from Kingston could like the same thing.”

Language could present a barrier, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be overcome.

“It absolutely presents a difficulty, but it’s also an opportunity for students to not judge someone based on what they first hear,” he said. “We’ve had people come in for our conversation group who end up making social connections.”

Kerr said students shouldn’t use similarity as the sole criteria for making friends.

“It’s easy for students with a particular regional background to gravitate towards others like them,” he said. “We strongly encourage students to not limit themselves to this.”

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