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Social Support

This content is from: Love, Friendship, and Social Support by Debi Brannan and Cynthia D. Mohr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. See: http://nobaproject.com/chapters/love-friendship-and-social-support

When bad things happen, it is important for people to know that others care about them and can help them out. Unsurprisingly, research has found that this is a common thread across cultures (Markus & Kitayma, 1991; Triandis, 1995) and over time (Reis, Sheldon, Gable, Roscoe, & Ryan, 2000); in other words, social support is the active ingredient that makes our relationships particularly beneficial. But what is social support? One way of thinking about social support is that it consists of three discrete conceptual components.

Perceived Social Support

Have you ever thought that when things go wrong, you know you have friends/family members that are there to help you? This is what psychologists call perceived social support or “a psychological sense of support” (Gottlieb, 1985). How powerful is this belief that others will be available in times of need? To examine this question, Dr. Arnberg and colleagues asked 4,600 survivors of the tragic 2004 Indian Ocean (or Boxing Day) Tsunami about their perception of social support provided by friends and family after the event. Those who experienced the most amount of stress found the most benefit from just knowing others were available if they needed anything (i.e., perceived support). In other words, the magnitude of the benefits depended on the extent of the stress, but the bottom line was that for these survivors, knowing that they had people around to support them if they needed it helped them all to some degree.

Perceived support has also been linked to well-being. Brannan and colleagues (2012) found that perceived support predicted each component of well-being (high positive affect, low negative affect, high satisfaction with life) among college students in Iran, Jordan, and the United States. Similarly, Cohen and McKay (1984) found that a high level of perceived support can serve as a buffer against stress. Interestingly enough, Dr. Cohen found that those with higher levels of social support were less likely to catch the common cold. The research is clear—perceived social support increases happiness and well-being and makes our live better in general (Diener & Seligman, 2002; Emmons & Colby, 1995).

Received Social Support

Received support is the actual receipt of support or helping behaviors from others (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Interestingly, unlike perceived support, the benefits of received support have been beset with mixed findings (Stroebe & Stroebe, 1996). Similar to perceived support, receiving support can buffer people from stress and positively influence some individuals—however, others might not want support or think they need it. For example, dating advice from a friend may be considered more helpful than such advice from your mom! Interestingly, research has indicated that regardless of the support-provider’s intentions, the support may not be considered as helpful to the person receiving the support if it is unwanted (Dunkel-Schetter, Blasband, Feinstein, & Herbert, 1992; Cutrona, 1986). Indeed, mentor support was viewed negatively by novice ESOL teachers (those teaching English as a second language in other countries; Brannan & Bleistein, 2012). Yet received support from family was perceived as very positive—the teachers said that their family members cared enough to ask about their jobs and told them how proud they were. Conversely, received mentor support did not meet teachers’ needs, instead making them feel afraid and embarrassed to receive mentor support.

Quality or Quantity?

With so many mixed findings, psychologists have asked whether it is the quality of social support that matters or the quantity (e.g., more people in my support network). Interestingly, research by Friedman and Martin (2011) examining 1,500 Californians over 8 decades found that while quality does matter, individuals with larger social networks lived significantly longer than those with smaller networks. This research suggests we should count the number of our friends / family members—the more, the better, right? Not necessarily: Dunbar (1992; 1993) argued that we have a cognitive limit with regard to how many people with whom we can maintain social relationships. The general consensus is about 150—we can only “really” know (maintain contact and relate to) about 150 people. Finally, research shows that diversity also matters in terms of one’s network, such that individuals with more diverse social networks (i.e., different types of relationships including friends, parents, neighbors, and classmates) were less likely to get the common cold compared to those with fewer and less diverse networks (Cohen, Doyle, Turner, Alper, & Skoner, 2003). In sum, it is important to have quality relationships as well as quantity—and as the Beatles said, “all you need is love—love is all you need.”