What are Friends For? Effects of Social Network Support

By Alpha to the Omega (Abby Zofchak and Oliver Gladfelter)

Why do we focus so much on “building relationships” here at Denison? President Weinberg tells us time and time again that relationships matter, and that Denison is a place built to foster them (Weinberg 2015). He suggests that the college experience should go beyond the confines of the classroom to tap into how we engage with one another, work through conflict, and find a place to call home because it makes for a more holistic and enriched college experience. Is President Weinberg right, though? Does how many relationships you develop throughout college make any difference one way or another?

In a previous post, we found out that social support networks are strongly yoked to the course of the college experience. Students who are older, more involved, and live closer to others in their same class-year have stronger support networks. Using the same survey data from November 2016, we now want to assess the effects social network support has on a variety of important factors related to student life. Remember, we measured support strength using the number of friends the individual could depend on for: getting a ride to the grocery store, borrowing $20, talking about a breakup, and getting a set of notes from a missed class.

The best of friends help you cope with disappointment (and celebrate success), help you find new interests (and sometimes keep you trapped in old patterns), and help you feel a part of society (and sometimes keep you a part of a subculture). These general categories map onto things students care about at Denison – academic performance, involvement in political life, and feeling like a part of the Denison community.

We’ll start with the surprising: Students are more likely to skip class if they have a stronger support network (see Figure 1). Clearly, the amount of friends a student is able to get notes from is the main driving force here. While the increased likelihood of skipping class might be concerning, students are only missing about one more class on average when their social network is stronger.

 Figure 1 – Social Support – What is it Good For?

potential support effects graph

Note: The shaded portion of the graph represents confidence intervals (CIs) such that, if the CIs for two points do   not overlap, we are 90% confident that the difference is greater than zero (which means there is a statistically significant difference).

Additionally, these students do not seem to be falling behind in their classes – social support helps maintain a higher GPA (see Figure 1). Those who have stronger networks also have higher GPAs than those who have less social support. Even though friends can be a distraction, having a strong group of friends might also bring encouragement, people to study with, and perhaps someone willing to help you learn the material you missed or do not understand. All of these can help students stay motivated and on top of their schoolwork throughout the semester.

In other posts (here and here), we’ve examined how politically active Denison students are and if factors such as gender, risk attitudes, and campus involvement impact political activity. Seeing that political engagement is a fairly risky and social activity, social support might help people get more involved, whether it’s politics or more campus activity. Given that it right before the 2016 election, we asked students if they had worked at a campaign, attended a rally, displayed political signs or messages, posted on social media, discussed candidates, or watched a debate. The stronger a person’s social network is, the more politically active they are (see Figure 1) – those with close to maximal support are twice as active as those with minimal support.

This might be because students with stronger networks feel they will be supported when taking political action. This phenomenon has been found to be true outside of Denison as well – a higher connectivity with those around you leads to greater political mobilization. It could also mean that these individuals have more people they feel comfortable enough with to discuss politics, express their opinions, or go to a rally with – it takes a lot of courage to attend a rally by yourself.

The results also show that there was a significant relationship between strength of support and perception of the extent to which their beliefs align with the majority of other students at Denison. In other words, having a strong support system makes you feel like you are a part of the majority. However, this does not tell us the entire story – this effect might vary depending on political identity.

To check that out, we looked at how majority status changes based on the social support experienced by different kinds of partisans. Figure 2 shows that support networks have a greater effect on perceived majority status the more you lean to the political left. This scaffolding trend across party identification is likely the result of the ideological spread across campus. Since more students on campus identify somewhere in between Independent and Democrat (Nakon 2016), it is more likely that they will meet others who share their opinions as their networks grow.  It is interesting though that Republicans also feel more a part of the majority as their social networks increase because they are actually in the minority at Denison.

 Figure 2 – Support Promotes Integration Best Among Democrats


One explanation here is that students tend to build up their networks out of like-minded people, so as their networks grow, they become more and more engulfed in a political echochamber, contributing to their increased perception of majority status. Another (much more optimistic) explanation is that as students engage with individuals from ‘across the aisle,’ they begin to realize that they aren’t as radically different as assumed and that there are areas of agreement. And as students build their networks, this potential cross-aisle engagement and consequential similarity-finding might lead students to feel more unified.

So what are friends for? Social support is critical to successful navigation of your 127 (credits to graduate). They help you cope with work and relationships, they get you involved in collective action, and they allow you to feel apart of something larger. While we’re past the political moment where we can claim in public that it “takes a village,” never forget that an important part of individual success is a vibrant social infrastructure keeping you going and shaping who you are.

Abby Zofchak and Oliver Gladfelter met one another in the Knapp lab and, ever since that fateful day, have teamed up in order to defend the lab from anxious sophomores who won’t stop asking questions about Analyzing.  


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