Buffering Effect Definition
A buffering effect is a process in which a psychosocial resource reduces the impact of life stress on psycho-logical well-being. Having such a resource contributes to adjustment because persons are less affected by negative life events. Social support is a known buffering agent: Persons with high support show less adverse impact from negative events.
Buffering Effect History and Modern Usage
The concept of buffering originated from studies on the effects of life stress. Researchers observed that there was considerable variability in individual reactions to major negative events such as illness, unemployment, or bereavement. Some persons were very affected by the events, showing high levels of depression, anxiety, and physical symptoms; but other persons who experienced such events did not show very high levels of symptomatology and recovered more quickly. These observations led to the concept that persons who had certain resources were relatively protected (i.e., buffered) from the adverse impact of life events.
Buffering effects are demonstrated in studies that include measures of major life events experienced during a certain time frame (e.g., the past year), a proposed resource, and psychological and/or physical symptomatology. Persons who have experienced more negative life events have higher levels of symptomatology, but studies show that life events have less impact (sometimes almost no impact) among persons with high levels of psychosocial resources.
The resource most often studied is social support. Persons who have high levels of social support are less affected by negative life events. Buffering effects have been found for aspects including emotional support (being able to confide in a friend or family member when one is having problems) and instrumental support (being able to obtain goods or services, e.g., money, transportation, child care) that help one to deal with stressful events.
Studies of social support have found buffering effects with mortality as the outcome. Life stress increases mortality over 5- to 10-year periods, but persons with larger social networks, more emotional support, and more participation in community activities have relatively lower rates of mortality under high stress, compared with persons having less social support. Social capital, interpersonal trust, and cohesion at the community level, may also have such an effect.
Social relationships are not the only buffering agent. A personality complex termed hardiness, an orientation toward stressors based on feelings of commitment, control, and challenge, has shown such effects: Persons with a hardy personality show fewer symptoms under high stress. Optimism, the belief that things will generally turn out well, is an outcome expectancy that can produce buffering effects for psychological and physical symptomatology.
Research on buffering has helped to delineate pathways through which life stress may bring on health problems. It has also shown that buffering resources influence how people cope with stressors, leading to procedures for training persons in adaptive coping mechanisms so that effects of negative events can be reduced.
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- Kawachi, I., Kennedy, B., Lochner, K., & Prothrow-Stith, D. (1997). Social capital and mortality. American Journal of Public Health, 87, 1491-1498.
- Wills, T. A., & Filer, M. (2001). Social networks and social support. In A. Baum, T. A. Revenson, & J. E. Singer (Eds.), Handbook of health psychology (pp. 209-234). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.