A recent study of Duke students has both confirmed and disproved several suspicions about the nature of campus culture.

The Duke Social Relationships Project documents the student experience in personal, academic and social settings. The collaboration between Department of Psychology and Neuroscience researchers and the Office of Student Affairs draws on data collected from 4,225 students over four years and demonstrates a variety of Duke experiences.

According to the research, more than one-third of students reported being in a committed—local or long-distance—long-term relationship, and single students indicated demand for more of a dating scene on campus. Academically engaged students reported a greater sense of belonging, higher levels of friendship quality and other positive factors. A small group of very heavy alcohol users also reported bustling social activity but less academic engagement.

“One of the things that excites me about the research is the opportunity for those students who are at Duke to see that, whatever their norms or values are, there are other people here just like them,” said lead researcher Steven Asher, professor of psychology and neuroscience. “There’s no one dominant Duke culture, and we encourage students to celebrate that part of Duke that’s their Duke.”

Crafting a study

Asher said he originally set out to study college students’ loneliness and attitudes toward friendship. In summer 2006, Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta, who contributed to the design of the research and review of the findings, helped Asher assemble a research team.

The focus of the study began to broaden as the researchers devised extensive questions around the subjects of friendship, dating, hook ups, alcohol use, academic engagement and sense of belonging.

“The study was in many ways informed by the data,” Asher said.

The findings of Asher and study co-author Molly Weeks, a doctoral candidate in psychology, challenge psychology’s conventional views of loneliness and belonging, which see the two as opposite ends of one spectrum, Asher said. Student data indicated that loneliness and belonging are not necessarily correlated.

“Similar things influence them, like having friends and high-quality friendships, [but] there are also a lot of things that seem to be related to feelings of belonging but not to feelings of loneliness,” Weeks noted.

For example, students with a high level of academic engagement—defined in the study as passionate about studies, frequently discussing ideas from class with other students—felt more belonging, though academic engagement was not a predictor of loneliness.

More dating please

Contrary to frequent conceptions of a lack of dating at Duke, more than one-third of students who participated were in a long-term relationship, either local or long-distance, at the time of the survey—36.4 percent of women and 34.5 percent of men. More than half of single men and women had hooked up in the six months prior to the survey. More than half of single men and women reported having no dates in the past six months, but 74.6 percent of single women and 72.4 percent of single men indicated that they would like to date more.

Junior Kyle Jones, president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, said that the dating scene at Duke is not at all adequate.

“It’s not a greek thing or a [selective living group] thing, but it’s mostly just the atmosphere at Duke, especially with the hook-up culture at Duke,” Jones said.

The hook-up culture holds an exaggerated place in Duke campus dialogue, said junior Sarah Van Name, a contributor to Develle Dish—a campus blog about women’s issues. Van Name was not surprised to hear that about 45 percent of single students surveyed had not hooked up in the last six months.

“There’s a perception that the hook-up culture is the only viable way to form relationships or have sex at Duke,” she said. “Actual long-term relationships aren’t talked about much.”

Engage and be satisfied

According to the study, passion for academic pursuits correlated with a high degree of social satisfaction, including increased levels of positive friendship quality and self-esteem, lower levels of conflict with friends and a more powerful sense of belonging at Duke.

“If you love the work, you probably don’t want to drink as much—you have things you want to do,” Asher said.

Senior Olly Wilson asked Asher to present his preliminary findings at a meeting of the Council for Collaborative Action Oct. 3. Wilson, the chair of the council, said the findings reflect Duke students’ passion for their academic pursuits.

“The power of the study comes from backing this up with data and demonstrating all the net positives that come out of high levels of academic engagement, particularly with regards to feeling at home at Duke,” Wilson wrote in an email Wednesday.

The benefits of academic engagement affirm the goals of the University, Moneta said.

“If academic engagement is not the healthiest thing you can do, then why run a university?” he said. “[This finding] reinforces our desire to bring even tighter connectivity between the curricular and co-curricular relationships in our students’ lives so that the recreational activities can be perceived as intellectual.”

Alcohol blanket

The study concludes that about half of students surveyed describe themselves as nondrinkers or very light drinkers—51.1 percent of women and 44.8 percent of men. For the 10.6 percent of men and 5.4 percent of women who self-identify as heavy or very heavy drinkers, the study finds that this behavior seems to be “working.” They had more friends and higher friendship quality than other students, although more conflict in those friendships. They also drank more to deal with social anxiety and subsequently described less anxiety than other students. These heavy drinkers had a lower degree of academic engagement, which Asher said was worrying.

“Our whole approach to wellness is focused on addressing the small but dangerous percentage of students engaged in high-risk behaviors,” Moneta said. “So our efforts at monitoring behavior at Krzyzewskiville or [the Last Day of Classes celebration] or weekly activities has been a result of this.”

The data from the study helps put assumptions about student behavior in context, he added.

“The report has done what we hoped it would do—to discover the reality of the student experience and how we can build a dialogue to improve it,” he said.