What Mismatched Roommates Teach Each Other

From left to right, David Schwimmer, as Ross, Matt LeBlanc, as Joey, and Matthew Perry as Chandler act in a scene from the television comedy
Photo: NBC/Getty Images

Everyone has a good crazy college roommate story (though it’s odd, isn’t it, that the storyteller always plays the part of the sane one?). But the kids today, used to curated recommendations from Netflix and Amazon, prefer a more personalized roommate-matching process, so a recent New York Times story suggests.

The story focuses on RoomSync, a new app that lets students search for compatible roomies. University administrators around the country hope that easy-to-use roommate-matching services like Roomsync will help to eliminate the first-year discord that sometimes escalates to the point that students actually drop out.

But besides missing out on the fodder for great stories to tell later in life (She never left our room! He peed in his trashcan!), what do students stand to lose when they assume the role of their own roommate matchmaker? Are there benefits to sharing a very small room with a random person? Bruce Sacerdote, an economics professor at Dartmouth College who has studied the lasting benefits of roommate relationships, thinks so.

When assignment is not quasi-random, there is a strong tendency for students to pick roommates who look like themselves,” he said in an email to Science of Us. The Times story also references the human tendency toward “homophily,” or seeking out and liking people who remind us of ourselves. And that can be problematic, he explained, since “there can be big benefits to being randomly or quasi-randomly assigned a roommate who is very different from oneself.” In his work, he’s found that students are much more likely to form friendships with a roommate or hall-mate than with a student across campus. “This suggests that interactions across race or socioeconomic status are greatly enhanced by mixing of rooming groups,” he said.

Specifically, he said, other researchers have shown that having a non-wealthy roommate increases a student’s support for social safety nets. And his own research has suggested that roommates even influence our career choices. “So sharing a room or hall with someone interested in academia or law or entrepreneurship may open doors and possibilities for us,” he said.

Expanding your mind, broadening your horizons — sounds exactly like what college life is supposed to be about. (That, and beer pong. Does RoomSync match you with a compatible partner for beer pong?)