Making friends outside your own ethnic group or race in academic settings can reduce stress, researchers at University of California at Berkeley have found.
Researchers there who paired White and Latino students prone to bias in an accelerated “friendship” process found that members of both groups benefitted from getting to know one another.
According to the study published in the November issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that as the paired “cross-group” students in the study got to know one another better, their cortisol levels dropped significantly. Cortical is a hormone triggered by stress and anxiety.
In another set of US Berkeley findings published in an earlier issue of the journal Psychological Science, Latinos at that school and African Americans at Columbia University in New York who were concerned about being the targets of discrimination reported feeling a greater sense of belonging and satisfaction on campus after making a friend of another race or ethnicity.
“Regardless of students’ majority or minority status, the friendship helped,” said Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, a UC Berkeley psychologist and co-author of the study, whose research examined the relationship between the acceptance of minorities at White-majority campuses and students’ sense of well-being at college.
“Worries about discrimination lead to alienation and can creep into your academic performance,” said Mendoza-Denton. He said the findings make a strong case for boosting diversity on college campuses and increasing the opportunity for interactions across ethnic or racial lines.
Mendoza-Denton teamed with Elizabeth Page-Gould, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, to investigate friendships involving 144 undergraduates, both male and female. Researchers used a method known as the “fast friends” procedure developed by Arthur Aron, a psychologist at Stony Brook University. It involved three weekly one-hour meetings in a lab setting.
To detect which participants held prejudices against other racial and ethnic groups beforehand, researchers administered the Implicit Association Test, which uses word associations to detect automatic biases.
In the first two sessions, participants asked one another questions written on cards that were constructed to foster openness and friendship. In the third session, participants played “Jenga,” a tension-breaker game in which players pull wooden blocks from a tower until it falls. .
Throughout each session, the researchers measured the students’ hormonal responses and asked them to keep a diary about their experiences. At the first meeting, the cortisol levels of participants who had exhibited prejudices dropped when they interacted with members of their own group and rose during interactions with others. However, over the three sessions, participants’ cortisol levels decreased significantly when interacting with students of another group. After completing the sessions, students kept diaries of their experiences in ethnically diverse situations and reported that they had initiated more communications with members of other ethnic and racial groups.
“These findings provide experimental evidence that cross-group friendship is beneficial for people who are likely to experience anxiety in intergroup contexts,” the researchers concluded.
Meanwhile, the Latino participants who were concerned about being discriminated against reported greater ease on campus after making a friend outside their ethnic group.
“People who are least likely to make a cross-race friend are the very ones who benefit the most from such friendships,” said Page-Gould, who co-authored the friendship study with Mendoza-Denton while at UC Berkeley.
The next test is to see whether the arranged friendships last, Mendoza-Denton said.
“I love the idea of fostering friendships to make sure people don’t just meet up for diversity get-togethers, but that they sustain these relationships,” Mendoza-Denton said.
For a copy of the study, see http://psycnet.apa.org
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