Psych and the Dorm Life

Most first-years walk into their dorms knowing little more about their suitemates than their names, who’s bringing the microwave, and the Facebook likes from middle school that still haunt each person’s profile. (A highlight from my freshman suite: “Bring back the word ‘wizard’ as an adjective.”)

The residential college deans are the ones who do the heavy lifting for roommate selection, with the aid of that (very) cursory survey the prefrosh fill out. All I remember from that survey is marking “no country, no metal” under “what music would bother me,” only to wake up on the second day of college with Kenny Chesney’s crooning wafting up into the top bunk. At least it wasn’t Megadeth.

Sometimes it seems like the residential college deans approach putting together suites like piecing together a complicated jigsaw puzzle, and sometimes it’s like they’re playing Dr. Frankenstein. Either way, they do have students’ best interests at heart. It’s just hard to see how people will react to living in close quarters, the same way it’s hard to predict what your roommate will do if you tell them they need new, better deodorant.

Margaret Clark, head of Trumbull College, makes it clear that she doesn’t use Trumbull students in her study of close relationships at the Yale Psychology department, but she can tell you some things about what makes relationships succeed. (She focuses less on what makes relationships fail—for more on that, consult the monograph I’m coauthoring with my former suitemates: The Case of the Missing Oreo-Cheesecake Bars: A Model of Interpersonal Discord vis-à-vis the Macronutrients of a Scarce Resource (Goode, Zevallos, Vernick, and Macey, In Press).

In her previous position at Carnegie Mellon University, Clark worked on a study of the university’s randomly paired freshmen, analyzing the factors that made for a happy dorm. “What we found,” Clark said, “was that people with different academic interests were much more likely to stick with each other the next year.” It turns out that an engineer and an actor won’t compare themselves to each other as much as the suite of kids in Directed Studies who’ll worry all year about who understands Hegel the best. (Spoiler: none of them.)

In another study, punderfully titled “The Positives of Negative Emotions,” Clark and others looked at incoming students’ willingness to express fear, anxiety, and sadness before arriving at college. At the end of the year, the researchers used a questionnaire to determine how many friends each participant had made. Students who were more willing to express their negative emotions made more friends. As Clark explained, you can’t be supportive if your suitemate never tells you that something is wrong.

Because of the complete lack of pressure to put up a façade of success and well being at Yale, I am sure no student here could learn from this study, and we can move along.

My own residential college dean explained to my freshman suite that we’d been placed together because three out of our four had mentioned something vaguely outdoorsy in the incoming survey. Our pursuitsbackpacking, flyfishing, and beekeepingactually have little in common, but they do literally take place out-of-doors, so points there. (You might be wondering about how our fourth suitemate came to be grouped with us; we are too.) Clark confirmed that, in theory, my suite had been well-matched since having a similar interest in outdoor activities gave us something to do together without much room for unhealthy comparison. We never once did anything outdoors together, though, and our only regular group activity was tearing apart the suite looking for  ID when he lost it. But that’s also an activity without much room for unhealthy comparison, so it worked out.

Ultimately, there is only one year of semi-random pairing at Yale. Upperclassman housing affords you more choice, so the odds of living with someone who drunkenly wets the bed and sleeps on a bare mattress rather than laundering the sheets are much lower. As are the odds of your roommate taking a bottle of Febreze Hawaiian Aloha to your guest’s eyes with intent to blind. They probably won’t pee in jars, or put every item you own in condoms while you’re visiting home one weekend (all documented suitemate behavior). A lot of the reduction in roommate craziness happens because you’ll have the chance to cohabitate with someone a bit more compatible. As Clark puts it, “similarity cuts both ways.” Difference decreases comparison, but too much difference can make for interpersonal discord.

I asked Clark what her advice to incoming first-years would be. She said they shouldn’t compare themselves to their suitemates, or to anyone else, for that matter. And if you want to know why your roommate is up into the wee hours doing jumping jacks in the common room, or what they think of the merits of “wizard” as an adjective, or whether you can have one of the Oreo-cheesecake bars stacked bottom to top in the fridge, or how on earth they could enjoy Kenny Chesney—just ask them.

— Noah Macey is a senior in Timothy Dwight College.

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