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URSI: The Psychological Science behind Social Networks

Why do people become friends with one another, and when it comes to personality traits, do birds of a feather really flock together? Those are some of the questions associate prof. of psychological science Allan Clifton and Laura Townsend ’17 are attempting to answer this summer. Using data collected in a questionnaire sent to members Vassar’s Class of 2016 during the spring semester, Clifton and Townsend are trying to determine how students with various personality traits and social habits formed relationships with others in the class.

Associate Professor of Psychological Science Allan Clifton and URSI fellow Laura Townsend ’17 display an image that represents various social networks in the class of 2016 and their interconnections. Photo by Karl Rabe

Townsend, a neuroscience major from Palo Alto, CA, is working on the project with Clifton under the auspices of Vassar’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI). The analysis of the web of relationships among members of the Class of ’16 will be a component of a larger project on social networking that Clifton is undertaking. He says having Townsend help him analyze data all summer has enabled him to make significant progress in his research. “I’m looking at how various aspects of someone’s personality can predict how many friends they have and who those friends are,” Clifton says.

Townsend says she was interested in Clifton’s work because she wanted to learn more about personality and social psychology to help her decide on her future research and career goals. She says her first task this summer was learning how to use specially designed software to help her arrange and analyze the data. “I hit some bumps early on, but I was able to figure it out,” she says. “When you finally get enough information and you’re able to put it together and get results, it’s really exciting.”

Clifton says about half of the members of the Class of ’16 answered the questionnaire, a large enough sample to draw conclusions. Questions included inquiries about the students’ personality traits – Do they make friends easily? Do they often feel blue? – as well as questions about their use of alcohol. Then they were asked to describe the nature of their relationships with others in the class. By combining all of this information, Townsend and Clifton are able to draw a picture of various “circles of friends” within the class and how students from each group relate to those in other such circles.

Clifton says he’s particularly interested in determining whether there is a correlation between how students describe themselves and how likely they are to have a lot of friends. Those who describe themselves as extroverts, for example, are more likely to have a wider circle of friends, as might be expected. But other related factors, particularly shared attitudes about alcohol use, turn out to be even better predictors of friendship, Clifton says.

Unexpected findings such as these should serve as a reminder to anyone conducting research to check – and then re-check – the data, Clifton says. “Sometimes you think you have good data until you analyze it carefully and realize you’ve made some bad assumptions,” he says. “Only after you make sure you have a valid methodology can you find the truth.” Clifton says he and Townsend expect to complete their analyses this summer in order to write a paper on their findings and submit it for publication in a scholarly journal. 

Townsend says taking part in a complex research project is bound to help her in the classroom and later in future research projects. “It’s really been useful to be able to concentrate, in depth, on one issue and go through the process of discovery: having some setbacks, getting excited and then getting confused before finally figuring it --out,” she says.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, July 27, 2016