Social support has been one of the most widely examined constructs in social science research since the 1970s, although the concept originated over a century ago. Social support is defined as those social interactions or relationships that provide individuals with actual assistance or that embed individuals within a social system believed to provide love, caring, or a sense of attachment to a valued social groups or dyad. Social support can provide a conduit to resources beyond those otherwise available to the individual. Studies have illustrated how people’s relationships with others affect both psychological and physical health. The vast majority of social support research focuses on
Conceptual Frameworks of Social Support
Several frameworks have been offered to conceptualize the influence of social support. For example, the stress-buffering hypothesis predicts that social support will buffer, or protect, individuals from the negative effects of stress. Research investigating this hypothesis has found that when stress is high and social support is strong, social support protects against negative mental and physical health outcomes. Conversely, social support does not act as a buffer when stress levels are low.
A second framework is the direct or main effect model of social support. This model posits that social support has a positive effect on health and well-being that is independent of the level of stress. Research on social integration has supported this model. Specifically, individuals who are more socially integrated, or have a larger number of social roles, tend to experience less psychological distress and better physical health than individuals who are less socially integrated or have fewer social roles. Furthermore, individuals who reported stronger social integration also show slower onset and faster recovery from physical disease than those who are less socially integrated. These results reveal potent effects of social support and confirm its direct, positive influence.
Mechanisms by Which Social Support Exerts Its Influence
More recent research has examined the mechanisms that explain the relation between social support and better mental and physical health. Specifically, the models of attachment, ecological congruence, and conservation of resource (COR) theories sought to explain the mediating and moderating factors that influence the relation between social support and positive health outcomes.
Attachment theory refers to the way that human beings form strong emotional bonds with selected others. This strong connection provides a way to understand personality development, emotional distress, and psychopathology. Attachment theorists contend that although attachment characterizes relationships from birth to death, attachment behavior is often most evident during the early childhood phase of life. Attachment patterns emerge in early childhood and develop in relation to the caregiver. People then adopt these patterns (e.g., being secure, being insecure, being dependent) in their relations with others in their life (e.g., their spouse, their own children, friends).
The importance of attachments is both biological and psychological. Positive attachments confer positive self-regard, a sense of value, and the sense that others will be there in times of crisis. This model suggests that social support may operate through sustaining this vital sense of attachment to others. The lack of positive attachment patterns in childhood creates obstacles to obtaining social support as a resource through the life cycle. Therefore, those who do not form a secure attachment in childhood may be less likely to benefit from or obtain social support as adults.
The identification of social support as an essential resource in the process of stress resistance was detailed in several models that emphasized the construct of resource fit or ecological congruence. The ecological congruence model proposes that social support interacts with other resources to foster or inhibit stress resistance. By viewing the ecological context as critical in the relation between social support and stress, the specific conditions under which social support exhibits its beneficial and erosive effects became evident. Specifically, social support influences coping behaviors and recovery processes as a function of the individual’s characteristics, the context in which the individual resides, the time since the event, and the situational demands.
The fit of social support to individuals’ needs is partly a function of the unique characteristics of the individual and partly a product of common values shared by individuals of common social systems (e.g., such as those found in families, subcultures, and shared cultures). This means that in order for a resource to be advantageous, it must meet the individual’s specific needs and inherent situational demands. Furthermore, the model proposes that a lack of fit of resources with situational demands and cultural values may further exacerbate the individual’s distress level.
Conservation of resource (COR) theory has also been used to explain the influence of social support. COR theory posits that people are driven to build and maintain resources. Given this innate drive, the perceived or actual loss of resources, or the failure to gain resources after investment is threatening to them. Four categories of resources are outlined: (1) object resources (e.g., house, car), (2) personal resources (e.g., self-efficacy, self-esteem), (3) energy resources (e.g., time invested in studying for a test), and (4) condition resources (e.g., social skillfulness, family relationships, a good marriage). Resources are interdependent and typically travel in “caravans.” For example, as people accumulate education (an energy resource), they also increase their self-esteem (a personal resource) and their income, which would stabilize their ability to maintain a car and a home (object resources). Resources are also seen as dynamic, changing entities rather than as static and ever-present. Therefore, resources can easily be used up and must be replaced. In addition, resources can be invested to sustain other resources, thereby garnering additional resources or strengthening resource reserves. In some cases, resources of one category can even be substituted for resources of another category.
COR theory suggests that social support is a key resource both because it conveys a sense of attachment and because it provides people with access to resources beyond their personal purview. Social support as a condition resource is additionally important because this act of receiving social support may also build further resources. For example, individuals who can use social support to their own advantage will also benefit from increases in other important personal resources such as self-esteem and self-efficacy. These other personal resources will then travel in the resource caravan and can be used to garner and maintain resource reserves.
COR theory also suggests that resources and resource demands are interrelated on the individual, familial, and community levels. This implies that reciprocity of social support may lead either to building resources beyond the individual or to an additional form of stress and resource depletion. Often, individuals with the greatest need of social support live in communities where others are also in great need of social support. Not only must these individuals satisfactorily obtain the beneficial effects of social support when they are under stress, but they must also be prepared to offer reciprocal benefits to others in need. In this way, individuals may end up needing to provide social support at the same time that they desperately need to conserve their resources. Providing social support to others when the individuals are themselves in need of support or using all their resource reserves may have negative effects on both the individual and the social system.
Negative Impact of Social Support and Social Undermining
The finding that social support has far-reaching beneficial effects was so enthusiastically received that the negative aspects of social interactions and their role in the traumatic stress process were neglected. When psychologists reconceptualized social interactions as a multifaceted construct consisting of both positive and negative aspects, however, they became aware that although social support is beneficial, simultaneous social undermining can occur. Social undermining is less common in sustained personal relationships, but when it occurs its effects are severe and often outweigh the influence of positive interactions.
Intentional negative aspects of social interactions, termed social undermining, social negativity or social conflict, are defined as those behaviors that are deliberate, negative actions directed toward the individual. Social undermining includes displays of negative affect and negative evaluation of the person, arguments, fights, and blame. Also, some perceived supporters may be expected to provide positive support, yet they provide support that is harmful or detrimental by lacing it with demands, violations of privacy, expressions of frustration and disappointment, or criticisms of individuals’ choices. They may openly express blame and other negative affect regarding individuals’ experiences. Often supporters may encourage a negative choice in an attempt to alleviate their own stressors. These aspects erode the ameliorative effects provided by the positive, supportive interactions that individuals have experienced.
In addition, some acts that are intended as supportive may be unintentionally negative. The attempted support may be perceived as negative based on a mix of individual and social-contextual factors. A negative perception of support may arise from the provision of unwanted support, a sense of burden that the support cannot be reciprocated or repaid, or a feeling of helplessness or diminished self-esteem because of feeling weak and incapable. Furthermore, if the relationship has been historically negative, the motivation for the support may be perceived as a further act of undermining. When well-intentioned support is provided beyond the point that it is needed, supporters may be perceived as constraining and oppressive and the support becomes unhelpful. Finally, a supporter who provides too much support may cause individuals to feel incapable of assisting themselves in the stress-resistance process.
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