College Roommates May Underestimate Each Other's Distress

Although college can be an exciting time, many students feel extreme pressure to succeed both academically and socially, and this can lead to serious distress.

A new study at New York University (NYU) finds that even someone as close as a roommate may not recognize just how stressed their living partner is. With a little training, however, roommates may be in the best position to help detect each other’s distress and offer support.

“College students can detect certain levels of distress in their roommates and spot changes over the course of a semester, but they nonetheless underestimate the absolute level of distress,” said Dr. Patrick Shrout, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and the study’s senior author.

Although the study participants had not been trained to spot distress, the researchers suggest that, with proper training, college roomates are in a good place to help identify students who are struggling with their mental health.

“More universal training on how to identify and respond to the distress of peers might have the benefit of encouraging conversations among roommates about what actions each might take if he or she notices another experiencing extreme distress,” write Shrout and lead author and doctoral student Qi Xu, in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The study involved 187 same-sex undergraduate roommate pairs who included Asian, Black, Hispanic, White, and biracial students. At two points during the academic year — February and April — each roommate in the pair reported his or her own distress level as well as that perceived in the other roommate. Comparing these reports allowed the researchers to quantify accuracy and bias.

The findings show that the roommate pairs systematically underestimated each other’s levels of distress, and that students tended to believe their partner’s distress was similar to their own. Even so, the roommates’ evaluations of one another did reflect a component of truth: The students who were judged to be most distressed were those who tended to self-report extreme distress.

Because the survey was conducted twice, the researchers were able to see which students were becoming more (or less) distressed over time and were able to compare the changes to roommates’ rankings.

The biases found at the separate time points did not carry over to the inferences about distress change. When students’ reports indicated that their roommates were experiencing more distress, the target roommates tended to self-report more distress as well.

The researchers say that with proper training on how to detect distress in others, roommates might be even more accurate in their judgments and could be a helpful in supporting a safety net for college students who are distressed.

Source: New York University