Alone: A Columbia culture? A study of group habits in Ferris
At Columbia, I often feel a strong sense of isolation. My friends and I are frequently too busy to spend time together, and acquaintances easily fall out of touch. I’d bet that in such a stressful school environment, others experience the same feeling.
It seems Ferris is always rather empty in the middle but packed at the single-seating bar by the walls. My friends and I used to joke, “Oh look, the ‘antisocial’ section is in demand!” Over time, I began to get more curious. Do we actually tend to sit alone more in Ferris? Could this say something about student culture at Columbia?
I decided to observe this behavior one day in Ferris.
What I did: On Wednesday, Feb. 5th, and once an hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., I counted up the number of people sitting alone and together. I selected a random sampling to approach and collected additional data, such as major and year (see more at the end). Only counts from the lower floor are included in this study. There were 98 students selected for the random survey, and 440 students were counted overall.
What I found: At first it seems there are about as many people sitting together as alone. That’s cool, but it doesn’t explain everything.
No significant difference—statistics explained below
Mother Columbia often forces us, for lack of space, to be right next to people even though we don’t know them. What if people were sitting in groups but not interacting, only because they were unable to find seating alone? When looking at how filled each section of seating was, I found significant differences.
This new counting might suggest that at least some of the group seating observed before could be due to spillover from the single-seating section. This makes sense, then, that our earlier numbers may have been misrepresentative. (The reverse, however, is not also true: there were only two instances where a two-person group was observed in the single-seating section—all others were alone.)
I also found some correlations between college major and whether or not you sit alone.
Check out an interactive visualization of majors most likely to sit alone—static visualization shown here:
We found that major is a significant predictor (p = .014) in whether a person is alone or together. Year was not a significant factor (p = .45).
What could cause this? Group dynamics studies in psychological literature offer many explanations, but which ones make sense at Columbia? While one group study shows that sitting alone is predicted by social anxiety, others show that overbearing parents or lack of motivation to socialize can cause such behavior.
I spoke to Scarlett Tohme, CC ’14 and Floyd St Bernard-Springer, CC ’14—among others—while conducting the survey, and they agreed with the “lack of motivation” explanation.
“By senior year,” Springer said, “I’m bored of small talk. I just don’t care enough to chat with people I’m probably never going to speak to again.”
With a class size averaging 1500 students—well in the small-to-medium range of colleges—it seems strange that here at Columbia we should have the perception that we will not bump into each other again.
Approaching others is difficult. Just starting conversations with random students to run the survey was challenging, even though I consistently received pleasant responses. But sometimes, even the most basic interactions help us live happier, be less stressed and even learn better.
Although this is certainly interesting to think about, these results are certainly not conclusive—they are the results of one day’s worth of study. The purpose of this study was to illustratively stimulate discussion rather than to report a conclusive result. Share your thoughts in the comments section!
Fancy talk: Section-seating data is significantly different at α = .01. An F-test was run on linear regressions for each line. Sectional counts were divided by the 32 seats total in the antisocial section and 72 seats in the main section. Major results were obtained by a permutation test. Credit to my brother, Lucas Spangher, for helping me run the tests.
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