If you've ever had a roommate, you know living with another person isn't always a walk in the park. There's the merging of belongings, sharing (but respecting) small spaces, and learning how to compromise so you can successfully blend your lives together. Have you had trouble making it work with a roomie? You're not alone. And one recent study has possibly pinpointed the specific reason why you don't get along with your roommate: you underestimate each other's distress.
The study comes from New York University psychology researchers Qi Xu and Patrick Shrout, and was shared in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. It's a given college students — and humans in general — experience stress. What Xu and Shrout wanted to know, though, is how good people are at perceiving that stress in their roommates. Here's what they did. Using 187 same-sex undergraduates, they analyzed both self-reports and reports from others at two separate times during one semester. They used the truth and bias model, which, according to a paper by Tessa West and David Kenny published in Psychological Review, is a model for the study of how both the truth and our own biases affect human judgement.
Xu and Shrout found that overall, we tend to underestimate our roommates' levels of distress.
Rather, we tend to believe our roommates' levels of stress of similar to our own, shares NYU in their news release for the study. One thing we do more accurately perceive? Changes in levels of distress over time. However, if people living together were better able to understand their roomies' current state of stress — and understand that it might differ vastly from their own — people could possibly live together in much greater harmony.
In our defense, being able to accurately determine someone's level of stress becomes increasingly complicated when you consider how many factors go into how we individually perceive stress. For starters, our genetic makeup affects our behavior, says PsychCentral. For instance, if you have a greater level of arousal in your CNS (central nervous system), you might have a stronger reaction to stress. So, nature likely does play some role.
Nurture does too, though, PsychCentral explains. If, in the past, you've received positive reinforcement when you've expressed your stress — maybe by getting extra attention of some kind — it stands to reason you're likelier to express stress again.
Then, there's the discussion of personality, and how it affects stress. In fact, according to research by Sarah Kim for a course at Bryn Mawr College, personality could be the biggest factor in determining how we all handle stress.
Hardiness (being able to withstand difficult situations) is understandably a personality trait closely related to the ability to handle stress well. Happiness is another personality trait linked with better being able to deal with stress. Conversely, people who are what we refer to as "type A" have been found to have more frequent reactions that are hostile or angry, therefore increasing their stress.
Kim notes even more factors that can influence how well we handle stress, including our personal health habits, and demographic variables like age, ethnicity, occupational status, and socioeconomic status.
It's not wonder then, that when perceiving our roommates' distress, we default to assume theirs is similar to our own. A more accurate assessment would need to involve a look into at least some of the aforementioned factors.
While most of us aren't ever going to be psychology researchers, the authors of the original study note, per the NYU news release, "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."
In other words, learn to read your roomie's stress better, and your relationship will thank you for it.