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BU researcher connects GPA to social circle

A Binghamton researcher recently completed a study with data confirming what many people already believe: if you surround yourself with intelligent friends, you will reap the benefits.

The study, conducted by Hiroki Sayama, an associate professor of bioengineering, shows academic success may be contagious among groups of friends.

“You will become more similar to your friends over time,” he said. “If you are surrounded by friends who are academically better than you there is a higher chance that your grades will also improve. And in the meantime the opposite is true, if you were surrounded by low achievers, your grades will also go down.”

Sayama, with the help of four high school students, gathered information about Maine-Endwell High School’s junior class, including the juniors’ GPAs, as well as the GPAs of their “acquaintances,” “friends” and “best friends.”

Sayama gathered the same information from the students again one year later, and he said the correlation was clear: smart friends make smarter people.

Although he didn’t gather any data from college students, Sayama believes a similar study would show a correlation consistent with the high school students.

“Based on my own experience teaching at colleges, I assume a similar phenomenon may be happening at college levels too,” he wrote in an email to Pipe Dream.

The study also showed that students’ “friends” had a bigger academic influence on them than their “best friends” did. Sayama said this may be because people and their “best friends” are so similar that the best friend doesn’t exact as strong of an influence on a person as other, more dissimilar, friends.

“If you need to have some sort of influence on others there should be some reasonable amount of difference [between the student and his friend],” Sayama said.

Sayama said that his research is the “first quantitative supporting evidence” of the social environment’s importance in academic success, a trend that educators have already noticed happening.

“This kind of network science and analysis is quite new,” Sayama said. “We try to bring in those cutting edge research topics to high schools so that the students and teachers get more excited about the interdisciplinary approaches to many different subjects.”

But he is still trying to find an appropriate application for the study, he said.

“Obviously, we wouldn’t want to impose any artificial friendship networks on students,” Sayama said. “Friends are friends … But of course educators and teachers do want to use this research result to improve school environment. How we could actually use this kind of knowledge to improve the school environment is the big next question.”

Sayama said he enjoyed working with the students at Maine-Endwell.

“They are probably among the top students in the Maine-Endwell junior or senior class,” Sayama said. “It was a very pleasant experience for me. They were very intelligent and highly motivated.”

Sayama, who is the director of the Collective Dynamics of Complex Systems Research Group, said he next wants to research a very similar topic.

“This research is about the effects of friends on your GPA,” Sayama said. “The other question that could be studied is the effects of GPA on friendship establishment. If you have some sense of who is smarter than you and who is less smart than you may make some decision based on that to determine who you should be friends with. I think that is a very interesting research topic from a scientific viewpoint.”