The results of the study were published in the open-access journal Plus One.
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According to recent research, people tend to make friends with people who have similar characteristics, such as gender, age and ethnicity. It is not clear how these two events interact; In particular, whether the similarity between individuals affects the effect of intimacy on friendship.
To explore this question, Julia Rohr and colleagues at the University of Leipzig, Germany, conducted an experiment in which they randomly created classroom seating charts for 2,96 students in grades 8 through through in schools in rural Hungary.
Students stay in their assigned seats for a semester, at the end of which they reveal their friendship in a survey.
Analysis of student population statistics and friendship reports shows that sitting next to each other increases their chances of becoming mutual friends by 15 to 22 percent (an increase of 7 percent).
The tendency towards friendship has increased for all pairs of students, among whom their educational achievement, gender or ethnicity (Roma or non-Roma ethnic identity) is different.
However, the researchers found that the number of friendships increased more for similar vs. different students.
This was because the baseline tendency towards friendship started higher for similar students, so their sitting next to each other pushed many of them beyond a certain threshold towards real friendship rather than sitting different students together. Gender was the main driver of this pattern.
The researchers noted that the effect of students of the Roma and non-Roma ethnic groups sitting together was less specific than that of other student pairs, especially in the small number of Roma students in their sample.
However, overall their research suggests that sitting tasks can be an effective tool for promoting a variety of friendships, which can help increase social skills and improve attitudes toward other demographic groups.
“Friendship is important, for better or for worse. Having friends improves happiness and health; but friendship networks also divide people, because people are often friends with others like them,” says senior author Felix Elvert.
“Significantly, we’ve found that sitting next to each other increases the likelihood of friendship among all children, regardless of gender, class or ethnic background. This shows that simple (‘light-touch’) interventions can effectively diversify friendship networks,” Elwart added.
Co-author Thomas Keller said, “Although teachers have complete control over sorting classroom seating charts, making friends by arranging seating charts is a neglected policy aspect. Our research highlights two specific boundaries: gender and ethnic differences.”
Keller concluded, “Adolescent students make friends with peers of the same sex-a feature that is difficult to change with light-touch sitting chart interventions. Similarly, more intensive interventions may be needed to establish interracial friendships.”
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