Five to one principle

Picture of street art: person hanging from a heart

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Note: This post includes references to self-harm and suicide. A comprehensive list of mental health services for students can be found on this page. Similar services for faculty, instructors, staff, and their families can be found on this page. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK or via online chat

[This was originally written for an internal Stanford newsletter.]

I was going to write about something else. I was going to write about an important shift in how some are thinking about outcome measures in higher education. The general thesis is that if the “academic social contract” is up for renewal, then different metrics need to be emphasized if universities are to make a compelling case to the government and American people. These efforts are driven by a simple question: Do universities help create upward mobility (in its various forms) for all learners? (As an aside, I would submit that upward mobility is not only a more tractable outcome measure than learning, but it’s just as important. That’s for another conversation, or argument.) If I weren’t compelled to write about something else, I’d talk much more about nascent efforts in this area such as the Working Learners initiative. 

And now for something completely different. I want to use the remaining space to discuss an issue that is much harder to measure and less solvable, but just as important: how we treat and support each other, especially the most vulnerable. The IDEAL survey has helped to illuminate where the Stanford community is at in this regard. The COVID-19 pandemic has also provided a unique view into the health of our community, especially that of our students. Both surveys (see e.g., COVID student survey) and focus groups have revealed that many students did not have what they needed to contend with the disruptions caused by the rapid move to remote learning. For example, nearly twice as many undergraduate first-generation and/or low income (FLI) students reported not having an adequate place to study compared to their non-FLI counterparts. As a result, many campus student support groups mobilized to fill these gaps in admirable and effective ways (see e.g., services provided by the Lathrop Learning Hub). But these findings exposed gaps that have existed long before COVID.  

There have been many attempts to codify what we have learned from the pandemic and highlight practices that should continue. Just last week the Pandemic Pedagogy Research Symposium, which was co-sponsored by Stanford Digital Education, provided many useful findings and ideas for practice. If there’s one lesson from the pandemic that I hope endures, it’s the increased care and empathy I observed in the Stanford community for students that extended well beyond their academic lives. I got a glimpse of this while reviewing student comments on end-term course evaluations from the Winter and Spring 2020 terms. Seemingly every attempt to extend flexibility and humanity to students was received with heartfelt thanksgiving, often effusively so. My team did an ad hoc sentiment analysis of students’ written responses and found that, contrary to our expectations, aggregate sentiment was the same or even slightly higher (though not statistically significantly so) compared to previous terms and historical baselines. On the other hand, we have some anecdotal evidence that suggests some students are struggling with the return to in-person instruction and related reductions in instructional flexibility. (We, of course, have plans to do a more rigorous analysis of this phenomenon this summer.) 

Unfortunately, the pandemic is not over and its effects reach far beyond the classroom. A recent CDC study (PDF) of high-school students found from 2009 to 2021, the proportion of students reporting that they feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” increased from 26 to 44 percent. These findings are similar to those of the Healthy Minds Study (PDF) of US college students. Sadly, the Stanford community has recently experienced the tragic loss and deleterious effects of the ongoing mental health crisis. It has also touched my family and just a few days ago we attended the memorial service for a young, beautiful friend taken from us far too soon. (This experience compelled me to write this post instead of diving into a more benign assessment topic.)

There is a morsel of hope in the CDC study referenced above: students who felt close to others at school were nearly half as likely to report poor mental health during the pandemic. One of my academic heroes, Roy Baumeister*, and colleagues wrote a seminal 2001 literature review titled “Bad is Stronger Good.” (This thesis is the basis for a chapter in the book “Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less” written by Stanford faculty Huggy Rao and Robert Sutton.)  The article systematically outlines empirical support for what it says on the tin, but there’s one thing from the paper that I think about almost every day and it’s the five-to-one principle. Psychologist John Gottman posited that bad social interactions are five times as powerful as good ones. (Gottman’s original work was on romantic relationships, but has since been extended to other relationships.) The upshot is that a person should have at least five good social interactions to offset every one bad interaction in order to have healthy relationships and personal well-being. So if you don’t take anything else away from this post, please try to be one of those five positive interactions for those around you today. And if you’re struggling with a bad experience or feelings, I encourage you to let others know and ask for help. 

*”Roy F. Baumeister did his graduate study at Princeton and Duke, working under the illustrious Edward E. Jones, who eventually concluded that Baumeister’s unorthodox ideas would preclude any meaningful success in social psychology. A lengthy and mostly futile job search was redeemed by chance only because Case Western Reserve University selected its interviewees on the basis of publication record instead of recommendation letters…In 2003, he moved to Florida State University to pursue his long-standing dream of building up a friendly, productive social psychology graduate program where ambitious young people and even some of their unorthodox ideas may flourish.” – Baumeister, Tice, & Twenge, 2007

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