When I was in middle school, my gym teacher told me that high school was absolutely brutal. “You’ll wish you never left the 8th grade,” she said. So naturally, on the first day of 9th grade, I walked into my new school with wide eyes and shaky knees, prepared for the worst—only to find that high school wasn’t “brutal” or scary, it was actually quite enjoyable. In fact, I didn’t want to move when it was time to walk across that stage and accept my diploma… but I also didn’t really have a choice. It was time to begin yet another chapter: college.

When it came time to move into my college dorm, I was fully prepared to embark on this new journey—or so I thought. I had all of the books I needed, I knew where all of my classes were, and I even made a few friends in the first week… but my mind wasn’t equipped to handle the aggressive level of stress that came with this journey. And I don’t stand alone in this struggle. Every year, college students take on an enormous amount of pressure and their mental health suffers because of it. And perhaps the worst part about it? Oftentimes, nobody fully observes or understands the level of stress a given college student is experiencing—not even their roommate.

A new study “Accuracy and Bias in Perception of Distress Level and Distress Change Among Same-Sex College Student Roommate Dyads,” published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, says that while college roommates are sensitive to one another’s distress, they often underestimate the true level of distress. “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,” explained Patrick Shrout, senior author of the study and a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology.

To reach these findings, the researchers recruited 187 same-sex undergraduate roommate pairs of varying race including white, black, Asian, and Hispanic. Each individual reported on their levels of distress as well as their roommate’s apparent level of distress, once in February and again in April—this allowed the researchers to determine which students were becoming increasingly distressed and vice versa. The researchers then compared the reports to measure accuracy and bias.

The team found that the subjects regularly underestimated the level of distress their roommate was experiencing; in fact, they tended to believe their roommate’s distress matched their own level of distress. However, the students’ judgments weren’t always wrong—the researchers also found that the students who were judged as the most distressed were often the ones to self-report extreme levels of distress.

Overall, this study sheds light on the fact that college students face extreme academic and social pressure, and it often goes underestimated. But, with the appropriate training, roommates and other peers have the potential to identify distress and support each other, as explained by Shrout: “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.”

New York University. (2018, February 19). College Roommates Underestimate Each Other’s Distress, New Psychology Research Shows. [Press Release] Retrieved on February 22, 2018 from https://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2018/february/college-roommates-underestimate-each-others-distress–new-psycho.html

Xu, Q., & Shrout, P. E. (2018, February 19). Accuracy and Bias in Perception of Distress Level and Change Among Same-Sex College Student Roommate Dyads. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Retrieved on February 22, 2018 from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0146167217754192