Assigned school seats promote unlikely friendships

LEIPZIG, Germany — Assigned classroom seats are one of those childhood memories many students have. While many kids probably think pesky seating charts just keep them from sitting with their friends, a new study finds assigning seats helps children build unlikely friendships between seemingly dissimilar classmates.

Conducted in Hungary, the research reports that students assigned to sit next to one another are more likely to become friends, even if they differ in gender, ethnicity, and educational achievement.

Previous studies show that close proximity often leads to new friendships — for example, your neighbors. Researchers say it’s natural to grow close to the people we see and work with each day. Besides all that, though, people also naturally gravitate toward and build friendships with people who share similar interests or come from a similar background. Researchers from the University of Leipzig in Germany conducted the study in an effort to better understand how these two elements of friendships interact.

Closeness leads to friendship, no matter who you are

Study authors created randomized classroom seating charts for 2,966 students between grades three through six among 40 different Hungarian schools. The students stayed with assigned seating for a full semester and then reported back to researchers on any new friendships they made.

Even after accounting for each student’s background, researchers found that sitting next to an individual increases odds of a friendship blooming by seven percent (from 15% to 22%). This finding held up regardless of gender, ethnicity, and educational achievements.

Friendships matter, for better or worse. Having friends improves happiness and health; but friendship networks also divide people, because humans mostly befriend others that are just like them. Importantly, we found that sitting next to each other increased friendship potential for all children, regardless of their gender, class, or ethnic background. This demonstrates that simple (‘light-touch’) interventions can effectively diversify friendship networks,” senior study author Felix Elwert explains in a media release.

To be fair, the number of friendships did increase among pairs the researchers considered “similar” to one another as opposed to “dissimilar.” Researchers say this is because students with similar interests and backgrounds start out closer to friendship than dissimilar pairs.

“Although teachers have a full control over arranging the classroom seating chart, inducing friendship by seating chart arrangement is an overlooked policy lever. Our research has highlighted two specific boundaries: gender and ethnic differences. Students in early adolescence make friendships with the same sex peers—a feature that is difficult to change with light-touch seating chart interventions. Similarly, the goal to establish inter-ethnic friendship ties might require more intensive interventions,” study co-author Tamás Keller concludes.

The study is published in PLoS ONE.