Meet markets: The psychology of school reunions

I was recently interviewed for a feature in The Observer newspaper about the psychology of school reunions. The journalist that interviewed me wanted to know the different types of people that go to them and why people would go to them in the first place. I have to admit that I’ve never come across any academic research on the topic and I’ve never ever gone to one myself so I had to rely on pure speculation.

Around the time of the interview I also got an email via LinkedIn from someone I was at junior school with and then spent the next week catching up on what she had been up to in the 35 years since I last saw her. The reason I mention this is that the psychology of why someone would correspond with someone else from their junior or secondary school after years of no communication whatsoever is probably similar (or the same) as the reasons for attending school reunions. So here are the reasons I came up with as to why someone might want to attend a school reunion (or catch up with an old class colleague on social media)

To catch up with old friends: Perhaps the most obvious reason for attending school reunions is simply to catch up, talk and socialise with old friends. This may also involve seeing what your old classmates have been up to and/or the see how their lives progressed (or in a minority of cases ended). I think we can all think of cases where we say to ourselves “I wonder what ever happened to [XXX]?” School reunions are perfect for finding some of the answers as none of us knew when we were in junior school what we would end up being later in our lives. Fundamentally, reunions are about reconnecting with others and connection is what many people want and need. As one of the few online articles on the psychology of reunions noted:

“A connection to school was a safe haven for many. Some could submerge themselves in academic life; others could forget about their cares in the reverie of an infatuation. Adolescent friendship may have been the guardian of your self-esteem, or the absence of connection, even if you were in a crowd, may have resulted in loneliness”.

To re-live good times and memories: It’s often said that school days were the best days of our lives and that school was a safe haven (even if it didn’t feel that way at the time). Some people will want to talk with old friends about the japes and pranks they used to get up to and have a laugh. Basically, people may attend school reunions for primarily nostalgic reasons.

To see how people have physically changed: Some people attending school reunions might want to see how people have changed and/or aged. Have your friends gone grey? Do they even still have hair? Have they turned from an ‘ugly duckling’ into a beautiful swan?

To change perceptions of how people remembered you: Another possible reason for attending a school reunion might be to change people’s perceptions of how your classmates remembered you. Maybe you were the class joker, the class bad boy, the class nerd, or the class wallflower. The school reunion might provide the perfect situation to correct people’s views and prejudices. 

To settle scores: For a small minority of individuals, the class reunion may be a way of getting revenge or settling scores. Similarly, it might be about getting closure on events that happened decades ago.

To compare and/or show off: Some people might want to attend school reunions simply as an opportunity to show off (or attempt to show off) how well they’ve done for themselves since leaving school and to engage in a little bit of ‘one-upmanship’ (defined by various dictionaries as “the technique or practice of gaining an advantage or feeling of superiority over another person” or a situation in which someone does or says something in order to prove that they are better than someone else). There may also be an element of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ (i.e., “referring to the comparison to one’s neighbor as a benchmark for social class or the accumulation of material goods”) combined with social comparison theory (SCT). “[SCT], initially proposed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954 centers on the belief that there is a drive within individuals to gain accurate self-evaluations. The theory explains how individuals evaluate their own opinions and abilities by comparing themselves to others in order to reduce uncertainty in these domains, and learn how to define the self” (Wikipedia entry on SCT).

In one of the few online articles I located on the psychology of school reunions noted:

“The problem with school reunions is that there is inevitable anxiety about how your life will compare to others. For some people this this may be about physical appearance; for others educational achievement or maybe financial status. It seems to be one of those things humans can’t resist doing. We need to compare ourselves to others to try to judge how we’re doing. This kind of behaviour is seen across many species as it’s crucial in judging whether you can beat a rival without putting yourself at risk…Simply put we look at those less successful than us and focus on how we are different from them. We then look at those more successful and focus on how we are similar to them”

The article also went on to say that:

“It’s common for high school reunions to trigger anxiety about appearance and status. Most of us want to forget our teenage self-conscious emotions that resulted from hormonal changes and social pressures. But years later, at a class reunion, those old insecurities get triggered. They rear their ugly head in the imagined judgment of peers: What will they think? Will I be successful enough? Will I look good to them? Resurfacing of emotional memories, it’s important to recognize that reunions are not at all about comparisons and judgments”.

I have to concur with much of this speculation as I’ve often had similar thoughts when meeting up with people I’ve not seen for years. Given that school reunion events are commonplace in many parts of the world, the biggest mystery is why there is little in the psychological literature on such social practices.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7(2), 117-140.

Russ (2013). The psychology of school reunions. Virtually Free, June 25. Located at:

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on October 20, 2015, in Adolescence, Case Studies, Gender differences, I.T., Psychology, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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