When students show up at college in the fall, they'll have to deal with new classes, new friends and a new environment. In many cases, they will also have new roommates — and an intriguing new research study suggests this can have important mental health consequences.
At the University of Notre Dame, psychologist Gerald Haeffel has recently obtained results from a natural experiment that unfolds every year at the university. In a paper published recently in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, Haeffel and co-author Jennifer Hames report that roommates can have strong effects — both positive and negative — on one another's mental health.
Like many schools, Notre Dame assigns new students their roommates. Haeffel recruited some of the students for a study and measured their psychological predispositions.
One of the things he was interested in was how different students respond to adversity. Take, for example, two hypothetical young scholars who do poorly on a classroom test: "One student fails the exam and thinks to [herself], 'I'm dumb, I'm worthless. I can't believe I failed this exam,'" Haeffel says. The same student may also engage in catastrophic thinking, imagining that because she failed the exam, she's going to fail the class or even flunk out of college.
By contrast, though the other student also tells herself it was disappointing to fail, she puts it down to a lack of preparation. She tells herself, "I'll work harder next time."
"These two reactions to the very same event can have very real implications for depression," Haeffel says. The student who sees the failure in extremely personal terms and then extrapolates from that failure to a host of other problems down the road is at significantly higher risk of depression, he says, than the student who puts the setback down to circumstances and bounces back from it.
Haeffel and Hames measured the way students in their study tended to frame such situations when they first arrived at Notre Dame. The researchers were then able to track pairs of roommates who had similar thinking styles and see whether and how their thought patterns changed, in comparison to roommate pairs who started out with very different thinking styles.
Haeffel says he was surprised to find that within just three months, the roommates with different styles began to "infect" one another.
"These thinking styles were contagious," he says. "If you came to college and your roommate had a very negative thinking style, your own thinking style became more negative."
Haeffel says that it "seems counterintuitive that you can catch someone's style of thinking like you could catch a cold or the flu." But six months after living with a roommate with a negative thinking style, some formerly cheerful students were showing signs of cognitive vulnerability known to put them at risk for depression.
Interestingly, Haeffel found that the reverse could be true as well. Some students with a gloomy disposition who got a cheerful, upbeat roommate were more likely to be cheerful and upbeat six months later. When confronted by a setback, such as a bad grade or a romantic breakup, these students began demonstrating some of the resilience of their cheerful companions.
Haeffel says the study showed that a widely held model about temperament and behavior might need revision. Researchers have long assumed, he says, that the positive and negative traits he spotted in the college students were more or less fixed after adolescence, in part because those traits seem stable in people over subsequent decades.
But instead, he says, those traits may be more like a language than like a physical characteristic such as height. By adolescence, people get very good at speaking a certain psychological language — responding to adversity in a certain, fixed way. But just as people can learn a new tongue if they're suddenly immersed in a new environment where people around them are speaking a different language, the experience of coming to college might have the same effect on the psychological makeup of young adults, Haeffel says. When gloomy people spend lots of time with someone who has a cheerful outlook, it can change their psychological "language." When cheerful people spend time around gloomy roommates, it can darken their outlook.
The point of the findings, Haeffel says, is not that you have to surround yourself with cheery people all the time — at a practical level, that's impossible. Rather, he says, it's good to know that some internal traits are malleable and, with time and effort, people can teach themselves new "languages."
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In Your Health today: The connection between depression and dementia.
GREENE: But first, freshmen are heading to college this fall and about now they might be getting their roommate assignments. Some colleges allow students to pick their roommates, others assign roommates to students. And there is some new information about the effects that college roommates might have on each other.
NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam regularly comes into to discuss research he finds. And he is in the studios with me. Hey, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: So I'm thinking about my college roommates and the influences they might have had on me.
GREENE: I mean am I going to like what you're about to tell us?
VEDANTAM: So it turns out that your college roommates actually have a pretty big effect on your mental health. And to understand what that effect is, what you need to know is that researchers have found that the risk of depression is connected to something called your cognitive style.
GREENE: Cognitive style, is that just sort of the way we think about things?
VEDANTAM: Exactly, so bad things happen to all of us but we don't all think about those bad things in exactly the same way. I spoke with psychologist Gerry Haeffel, he's at the University of Notre Dame, and he gave me an example. Here he is.
GERALD HAEFFEL: Two people both lose their jobs. The question is why is it that one person becomes depressed and another one doesn't? Some people are people are going to think that losing their job means that they're a failure and they're going to brood about their negative mood. And that person is at risk for depression.
GREENE: OK, so we have two people who might be responding to the same problem. I'm guessing that the person who kind of just brushes it aside might be less likely to get depressed, the person who kind of broods about it is more likely to get depressed.
VEDANTAM: Yeah exactly, so if you're a student you don't think that failing one exam is the same thing as being a failure. You know, you distract yourself, you go out and you tell yourself I'm going to bounce back. I'll start...
GREENE: You get over it.
VEDANTAM: Yeah, exactly. So here's the last: What happens if you suddenly stop spending time with somebody who has a very different cognitive style than you? Now, when students show up at Notre Dame, they are assigned roommates. The students to get to pick who they are roommates are - it's fairly random. Right? So regularly, people who have a positive attitude are going to get paired up with someone who has a negative attitude.
And what Haeffel found is that in just three months, roommates started to infect one another with their cognitive style. Here he is again.
HAEFFEL: What we found is that these thinking styles were contagious. If you came to college and you had a roommate who had a very negative thinking style, your own thinking style became more negative.
GREENE: OK, I don't want to oversimplify it. But I mean are we saying that if we come to college in a good mood, and we end up kind of feeling depressed a few months later, it's all our roommates' fault?
VEDANTAM: Well, on average that is sort of what Haeffel is saying, that having a negative person around you a lot of the time has an effect on you. But it's also important to remember, David, that this actually works both ways. So it's true that the brooders made cheerful kids more, you know, broody. But it's also true that the cheerful kids made the brooders more cheerful. So now, instead of blaming themselves when something went wrong, the brooders started saying, Well, you know, it's just the circumstances and I'll bounce back - I'll start doing better.
So it's almost as if the thinking styles of the two roommates were converging. Right? Haeffel is a depression researcher. And what he finds is that six months after you start spending lots of time with somebody with a more negative attitude, your risk for depression significantly rises.
GREENE: Let's broaden this out, if we can, and get some perspective. I mean if we take this beyond college, how important is it that we find people who are upbeat...
GREENE: ...you know, to spend time with to make sure that we don't get depressed?
VEDANTAM: This is why I like spending time around you, David, because you're always cheerful.
GREENE: Nice of you.
VEDANTAM: But, you know, the truth is in life we can't always surround ourselves with cheerful people. Right? People are going to come in all shapes and sizes. The big take away for me from Haeffel's study, is that these Cognitive Styles are actually quite malleable. It used to be that we thought that the styles were fairly fixed. You know, once your brooder you're always going to be a brooder. Or once your cheerful person, you always stay at cheerful person.
What this experiment is showing us is that our peers and networks have a really powerful effect in shaping us. When we start spending time with somebody who is of very different temperament, it's the psychological equivalent of essentially landing in a new country. And so, our natural cognitive style - this mental language that we've always spoken - doesn't work anymore in this new country. And you have to start learning this new language.
And so, the take away for me is with effort in time we can all change our cognitive styles.
GREENE: It's an upbeat ending to this chat.
VEDANTAM: I think so.
GREENE: It's been great sharing a room with you you've been a wonderful influence, Shankar.
GREENE: Thanks a lot.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.
GREENE: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam and you can follow him on Twitter @hiddenbrain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.