Proximity can induce diverse friendships: A large randomized classroom experiment

August 2021
Tamás Keller's new publication in PlosOne

By Julia M. Rohrer, Tamás Keller, Felix Elwert

Can outside interventions foster socio-culturally diverse friendships? We executed a large field experiment that randomized the seating charts of 182 3rd through 8th grade classrooms (N = 2,966 students) for the duration of one semester. We found that being seated next to each other increased the probability of a mutual friendship from 15% to 22% on average. Furthermore, induced proximity increased the latent propensity toward friendship equally for all students, regardless of students’ dyadic similarity with respect to educational achievement, gender, and ethnicity. However, the probability of a manifest friendship increased more among similar than among dissimilar students—a pattern mainly driven by gender. Our findings demonstrate that a scalable light-touch intervention can affect face-to-face networks and foster diverse friendships in groups that already know each other, but they also highlight that transgressing boundaries, especially those defined by gender, remains an uphill battle.