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Emerging adulthood is psychosocially marked by the exploration and crystallization of identity (Arnett, 2000; Erikson, 1959), with the first year of college being a particularly strong impetus for identity development. Past work shows that sustained intergroup contact, such as a college roommate pairing, can positively influence a student’s social identity reconfigurations and social perceptions (e.g., Pettigrew, 1998; Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000; Gaither & Sommers, 2013); however, these gains are often accompanied by diminished closeness with one’s roommate (Trail, Shelton, & West, 2009). The majority of this research has centered on racial and sexual identities (e.g., Boisjoly, Duncan, Kremer, Levy, & Eccles, 2006; Rampullo, Castiglione, Licciardello, & Scolla, 2013), while religious identities and interreligious interactions have remained understudied. To address this gap, we investigated the emotional and social outcomes of having a cross-religious roommate, selecting or being randomly assigned that roommate, and if roommate pairing differentially affects religious and non-religious individuals.
A sample of college students (N = 334; ages 18-19; 63.5% female; 64.7% religiously identified) were asked to complete an online survey about their first-year experience before moving out of their dorm. To explore emotional outcomes, two composite scores were created: 1) positive affect (liking roommate, happy with roommate, and comfort with roommate); and 2) authenticity (roommate knows the “real me,” honesty with roommate, and gained self-knowledge from roommate). To assess social outcomes, we measured the self-reported amount of roommate conflict over religion and the individual’s percentage of religiously diverse friends.
Results for emotional outcomes indicated that individuals from same-religion pairings regarded the relationship as more authentic (p < 0.01) and held greater positive affect (p = 0.06). Selecting, rather than being randomly assigned, one’s roommate also enhanced authenticity (p < 0.001) and positive affect (p < 0.01). Pairwise comparisons further revealed that cross-religion pairings had less positive affect than same-religion pairings when roommates were randomly assigned (p = 0.027). Finally, roommate pairing interacted with the participant’s religiousness on both positive affect (p = 0.033) and authenticity (p < 0.01), such that religious individuals rated greater positive affect and authenticity than non-religious individuals in cross-religion pairings.
Results for social outcomes indicated that there was no significant difference in roommate conflict between same- and cross-religion pairings (p = 0.328; n.s.). Yet, cross-religion pairings had a significantly greater percentage of religiously diverse friends (p < 0.001), suggesting that the benefits of cross-religion pairings surpass adverse social consequences. Interestingly, in cross-religion pairings, religious individuals reported a greater percentage of religiously diverse friends than non-religious individuals (p = 0.023), intimating that non-religious individuals are less inclined to have close friendships with those who are not atheist or agnostic.
In sum, cross-religion roommate pairings, like other outgroup roommate experiences, result in disadvantageous emotional outcomes (diminished closeness with roommates), but favorable social outcomes (more diverse friend networks). Most interestingly, non-religious individuals experience fewer emotional and social benefits from cross-religion pairings than religious individuals. These findings highlight the need for additional research to consider the role that religion plays in shaping social identity development in college.