Do You Really Start With a Clean Slate When You Go to College?



This article is the second edition of the COBE Research Review, a blog series where we translate our scholarly articles into a more digestible format for wider audiences. This week we discuss the topic of friends — do you pick your friends, or do your friends pick you? And how does that impact your opportunities and success as a student?


Make new friends,
but keep the old
One is silver,
the other is gold…

During the transition from high school to college, life changes so profoundly it can be hard to keep up.

This period is also very interesting for researchers, as they can measure different aspects of development in the relatively isolated social bubble of campus life.

For example, one question researchers ask during this time: how do people make new friends, and what are those friends like compared to old friends? And how does this impact their behavior and success in college?

Contrary to what you may expect, most students tend to recreate similar social relationships in college. And that may not seem like a problem for everyone, but what happens when your peers enable and encourage negative behaviors like alcohol and substance misuse?

Researchers at VCU, led by Virginia Institute of Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics Director Dr. Kenneth Kendler and  COBE Director Dr. Danielle Dick, explored the impact of environment and self selection on friend groups in college students in an article entitled “The Stability and Predictors of Peer Group Deviance in University Students” published in February of 2015 with The International Journal for Research in Social and Genetic Epidemiology and Mental Health Services.

“People often think that college is a chance to “start over” – make new friends and form new relationships,” Dr. Dick said. “But who we become friends with isn’t random – we seek out certain types of people based on our own proclivities and personalities.”


Do peers shape or reinforce deviant behaviors? The short answer is a resounding yes.

Peers influence many aspects of human behavior. Peer group deviance (PGD) is a qualitative measure of the mutual relationship of how you and others influence can each other’s decisions in a negative way.

PGD is measured by finding out if one’s peers engage in deviant behavior via questionnaires (Do your friends skip class? Do they get in trouble often? Do they engage in risky drug use? etc.). High levels of PGD can lead to behaviors that undermine personal development and cause harm to others.

Parental monitoring is a strong protective force against risks associated with PGD, so college is an especially vulnerable time because of the loss of direct contact with parents. Because of this, freshmen are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of PGD.

And based on this study by COBE researchers, those social patterns persist over time, even when transitioning from high school to college in a totally new environment. In this way self selection has a larger role in PGD than previously believed.

Researchers used the Spit for Science project as a platform for finding out more about PGD among incoming freshmen across four different classes. Each cohort was given a questionnaire when they first arrived in college focusing on their high school friends, then given another after six months and a year in the Spring of their freshmen and sophomore years about their friends at VCU.


In the end findings suggested that the association between PGD and externalizing behaviors does not arise solely from social influences (social environment → person). Social selection, where individuals prone to externalizing behavior seek out like minded friends, also likely plays an important role.

But in the wake of learning more about these relationships, researchers like Dr. Dick believe there is hope and power in being informed about risk.

“Each of us plays a role in shaping the world around us  – from the people we spend time with, to the places we spend time,” Dr. Dick said. “Paying attention to how your own personality and tendencies plays a role in your environment, and subsequently how that environment influences you, can help people make choices that lead to happier, healthier life outcomes.  

Bottom Line

For Students – As an undergraduate it is important to know that even when your environment changes, you need to be aware of yourself and specific risks you may face. There are many different support services across campus to help mitigate issues before they take control of your life. Also be sure to support your peers as they may be struggling too. Always fight stigma by promoting positive behavior and access to care.

For Parents – Freshmen year is an especially vulnerable time for young adults, especially those who have other risk factors in addition to PGD. If you have ever had issues with substance use or alcohol, having a meaningful dialogue with your children is important to help them mitigate their risk.

For Practitioners/Professionals – For those working with young people with Substance Use Disorders who are high externalizers, connecting them with adventurous peers whose departure from norms is more societally acceptable (mountain biking, kayaking, etc) may be very helpful.  Treatment centers, especially those serving young males, may find adventure programs an appealing alternative.  Likewise those working on harm-reduction may help clients explore peer groups that still like to bend the rules, but do so in safer ways.