Social Support

Relationships are among the most rewarding and fulfilling aspects of human experience. One of the most important benefits provided by relationships is social support.

Social support involves the assistance and encouragement that people receive from others as they cope with both everyday living and with tragedy.

One way to think about social support is to identify the types of assistance that are provided in supportive relationships.

When viewed this way, many scholars (e.g., Cohen, Gottlieb, & Underwood, 2000) identify three categories of social support: emotional, informational, and tangible (also called instrumental).

  1. Emotional support involves expressions of caring, affection, acceptance, reassurance, and the like.
  2. Informational support is information, guidance, and advice.
  3. Tangible support means assistance in the form of money, goods, or time.

In an example illustrating these types of support, an individual calls her friend and describes a tough day at work; her boss criticized the quality of her work and a coworker accused her of undermining him.

An individual providing emotional support may listen closely to her friend, validate her feelings, and tell her that everything will be OK. To provide informational support, the friend may talk about how she responded in similar situations, resulting in successful outcomes.

When providing tangible support, the friend may offer to lend her friend a computer program that may improve her work efficiency or bring dinner over to her friend’s house on the weekend to reduce the total amount of work that her friend has to do.

These categories are not necessarily completely distinct; for instance, someone receiving tangible or informational support may also feel that s/he is also being cared for and that she is therefore receiving emotional support.

Another way to view social support is to consider an individual’s social networks (e.g., Cohen et al., 2007). Many researchers have investigated the types of connections that people have with others in which social support may be provided.

For instance, individuals may receive social support from family members, friends, coworkers, neighbors, other community members (such as fellow churchgoers), health providers, therapist, and others. Individuals’ connections with others vary widely, both in terms of quantity and quality.

Benefits of Social Support

Social support can provide significant benefits. The area in which the benefits of social support have been studied most extensively has been physical health.

Seeman and colleagues (2002) found that people who have partners who provide affection have lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and stress hormone levels than people who receive lower levels of affection and encouragement from others. Additionally, evidence is relatively strong that social support boosts immune function, and evidence suggests that social support may decrease mortality from cancer and from HIV/AIDS.

Social support also potentially improves close relationships for the recipients, and possibly for the providers. For example, when an individual provides social support, the recipient feels closer to that individual (Gleason, Iida, Shrout, & Bolger, 2008).

However, support is not always beneficial and may sometimes cause a degree of harm. For instance, people may view a need for support as a sign of weakness or feel burdened because they feel obligated to reciprocate support. Bolger, Zuckerman, and Kessler (2000) have shown that often, the most effective support is invisible. An individual receives invisible support without even being aware that support was provided.

Bolger and colleagues studied this type of support in couples who lived together. All participants kept diaries in which they recorded the support that they provided and received during a period of time when one member of the couple was studying for the bar examination.

The support that most effectively reduced test anxiety was reported by the support provider but not reported by the recipient. In other words, it appears that the recipient did not notice these provisions of support. Bolger and colleagues concluded that if an individual wants to help his family member, friend, or anyone else to cope effectively, it would be best to offer the support with as much subtlety and unobtrusiveness as possible.

Social support has been researched extensively in psychology and other fields, with an acceleration of interest in the 1970s. Other topics studied in relation to social support include gender, culture, stressOpens in new window, mental illnessOpens in new window, and social support in work contexts.