The University Network

College Roommates’ Sensitivity To Each Other’s Distress Can Be Helpful

While college roommates can sense each other’s distress, a recent study by New York University psychology researchers suggests they tend to underestimate the level of distress that each experiences.

Supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, the study is published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Stress in College

College is a time for new experiences, bringing both excitement and stress. According to the 2013 National College Health Assessment, about 33 percent of U.S. college students said they experienced depression, and almost half said they felt overwhelming anxiety.

“Although college is an exciting time, many students feel academic and social pressure, and this can lead to serious distress,” Qi Xu, a doctoral student at NYU and lead researcher, said in a statement.

While conducting a larger project on college students’ emotions, moods and alcohol use, and whether people over-report their own subjective feelings in surveys, the researchers saw significance in how roommates reported about each other’s distress.

“As part of that project, we asked college students to report on their roommates,” said Patrick Shrout, professor of psychology at NYU and senior researcher. “We realized that this was a gold mine of information for learning how well roommates could read the distress of their colleagues, even if they were not best friends.”

The Study

The researchers studied 187 same-sex undergraduate roommate pairs, including Asian, black,

Hispanic, white and biracial students, who reported their own distress as well as the distress they perceived in their roommates in February and then April of the same academic year.

They found that roommates tended to underestimate the level of distress each other was experiencing, but that they were very sensitive to each other’s stress level.

The students believed their roommate’s level of distress was similar to their own. However, while their judgments may have been influenced by their own distress, roommates were accurate enough at detecting stress in each other. Those students judged by their roommates to be most distressed were also the ones who tended to self-report extreme distress as well.

Since the study was conducted over two different months, the researchers were also able to determine which students were becoming more, or less, distressed over time and compare these changes to their roommates’ judgments.

They found that when students reported their roommates were experiencing more distress, those roommates tended to self-report more distress as well.

Tapping Roommates’ Sensitivity

The researchers recognized that the participants, unlike dormitory residential assistants, had not been trained to spot distress. However, given their natural sensitivity to their roommates’ distress, students could be trained to improve their reading of their roommates’ distress and help school counselors provide a safety net for distressed college students.

“Because roommates are often strangers when the students start a school year, the schools might not have known that they would be accurate sources of information about each other’s distress,” Shrout said. “Our findings alert school counselors that there is information that can be gathered from roommates.”

The researchers hope that school counseling services will take note of their findings and try to develop a training program for roommates.



Hyeyeun Jeon is from South Korea and a recent graduate from Carnegie Mellon University with a double major in Professional Writing and International Relations. She is passionate about non-fiction storytelling. She loves reading, watching, writing and producing stories about extraordinary lives of everyday people.