Social Support

Social Support Definition

In general, social support refers to the various ways in which individuals aid others. Social support has been documented as playing an important and positive role in the health and well-being of individuals. To receive support from another, one must participate in at least one important relationship. However, social support has often been summarized as a network of individuals on whom one can rely for psychological or material support to cope effectively with stress. Social support is theorized to be offered in the form of instrumental support (i.e., material aid), appraisal/informational support (i.e., advice, guidance, feedback), or emotional support (i.e., reassurance of worth, empathy, affection).

Perceived and Conditional Social Support

Social SupportPerceived social support is support that an individual believes to be available, regardless of whether the support is actually available. Perception of support may be a function of the degree of intimacy and affection within one’s relationships. Compared with actual support, perceived support may be just as important (and perhaps more so) in improved health and well-being. Actually, perceived support appears to correlate more closely with health status than does actual social support. Similar to actual support, perceived support may heighten the belief that one is able to cope with current situations, may decrease emotional and physiological responses to events, and may positively alter one’s behavior.

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Conditional support is defined as one’s expectation of receiving support only after fulfilling certain expectations or requirements. Conditionality of support is correlated with actual support. For example, those who offer little support will only be supportive given the fulfillment of certain expectations.

Buffering and Direct Effects Hypotheses

Social support is theorized to affect health through one of two routes: (1) an indirect, buffering, or mediational route and (2) a direct, main-effects route. The stress-buffering hypothesis has been more frequently studied than the main-effects hypothesis. The stress-buffering hypothesis asserts that an individual’s social network supplies the individual with the resources needed to cope with stressful events and situations. Accordingly, the beneficiary aspects of support are only seen during stressful periods. That is, the stress-buffering hypothesis posits that social support tends to attenuate (weaken) the relationships between stressful life events and negative physical or psychological difficulties, such as cardiovascular disorders and depression. In addition, proponents of the stress-buffering model believe that support will only be effective when there is good support-environment fit (i.e., type of support provided matches the situational demands). For example, having someone offer empathy and reassurance will be helpful when a person has lost a loved one, but receiving empathy may be useless when one is facing stresses associated with financial difficulties.

Conversely, the main-effects hypothesis postulates that social support is beneficial whether one is going through a stressful event or not. The main-effects hypothesis asserts that the extent of an individual’s participation in the social network plays a vital role in the degree of social support benefits. In other words, there is a direct monotonic link between social support in one’s social network and well-being (i.e., the more support, the greater one’s well-being).

A related concept to social support is social integration. Social integration is defined as an individual’s involvement in a wide variety of social relationships. Social integration can also refer to the quality of the social relationship. For example, negative social relationships could have negative effects on health, whereas positive social relationships and interactions usually have a beneficial effect on health and well-being. Previous research has demonstrated that social integration tends to be a main effect. That is, one’s relationships with others may provide multiple avenues of information to influence health-related behaviors.

Social Support and Stress

The presence of a support network has been found to reduce the negative effects of stress. The support of one’s social network can act as a buffer to stress in many ways. For example, individuals in one’s support network can offer less threatening explanations for stressful events (e.g., instead of being called into the boss’s office to be fired, perhaps it is to be asked to head a special committee instead). A positive social support network can also increase an individual’s self-esteem and self-efficacy. For example, effective coping strategies may be suggested (e.g., a list of pros and cons or a priority list). In addition, the support network may suggest solutions to current problems or stressors being faced. Having a support group can also alter perceptions of the stressor by decreasing the perceived importance of the stress. Furthermore, having a supportive group of people surrounding a person can result in increased positive behaviors such as more exercise, proper rest, and better eating habits. Likewise, interactions with others may help distract attention from the problem.

Strong social networks can buffer against social pain (e.g., loss of a loved one, betrayal, exclusion) as well as buffer against negative aspects of other relationships. For example, widows with a confidant (someone to talk to about personal things) were less depressed than were widows without a confidant. One caveat to this buffering effect is that for support to buffer the effects of stress, the supporter cannot also be a source of conflict or additional stress. As such, having a strong and stable support network may lessen the negative effects of stress. In addition, support is associated with adaptive coping to stressful events and greater protection from the negative effects of stress.

Social Support and Health

Social support also has important effects on one’s health and well-being. Overall, support has been linked with good health and well-being as well as improved adjustment to specific illnesses, such as cardiovascular disorders and cancer. For example, having a strong support network has been correlated with lower mortality rates, less depression, better adherence to medical treatment, greater health-related behaviors (e.g., lower rates of smoking), maintenance of health behaviors, lower incidences of cardiovascular disorders, and improved adjustment to breast cancer. Furthermore, social support has been linked to adaptation to surgery. That is, patients who had a social support network received lower doses of narcotics, displayed less anxiety, and were released from the hospital sooner than were individuals who had no type of social support.

Conversely, lack of social support has been associated with increased anxiety and depression, an increase in cardiovascular problems, feelings of helplessness, and unhealthy behaviors (e.g., sedentary lifestyle, habitual alcohol use). For example, a lack in parental support predicted potential increases in depressive symptoms and onset of depression in adolescent girls. That is, girls who had very little to no support from their parents were more likely to develop depression than were girls who had parental support. In addition, females reporting low levels of perceived support also have more eating problems than do females reporting high levels of support.

Social Support and Self-Esteem

Researchers have suggested that social support is one of the key elements that influence self-esteem, especially the support of one’s parents early in development. Perceived support, rather than actual support, has been most frequently examined in relation to self-esteem. Researchers have found that the best predictor of self-esteem in adolescents is the amount of perceived social support from their classmates and the degree of parental approval they receive. In other words, an individual’s perceptions of support tend to influence his or her reports of self-esteem. Therefore, the more support one believes he or she is receiving, the higher his or her self-reported self-esteem. Furthermore, social support moderates the level of self-esteem depending on the degree of competence in an area. In other words, people who are highly competent in an area but receive little support report lower levels of self-esteem than do people who are highly competent but receive a lot of social support. In addition, the higher the degree of conditional support, the lower one’s self-esteem will be.

Negative Aspects of Social Support

Although the benefits of social support are well known, there may also be negative aspects. For example, a difference in the desired support and actual support received can result in poorer psychosocial adjustment in breast cancer survivors. Among older adults, too much social support can heighten the negative impact of stress, perhaps by eliciting feelings of incompetency, lower self-esteem, and less self-control. In addition, being the provider of social support may take a toll on the providers’ physical health, psychological well-being, and emotional resources. The act of providing support, especially over a long duration, may be taxing because of the amount of emotional, financial, and mental resources that must be made available to provide such support.

Attachment Style and Social Support

Adult attachment style has been consistently linked to individual differences in actual and perceived social support. The relative quality of support caregivers provide young children is believed to influence how they perceive themselves and others in the future. In other words, internal working models that involve expectations about whether others will provide support develop. Research has found that adults with secure working models are more likely to believe they will receive support when needed and are more satisfied with the support they receive compared with adults with insecure working models. In addition, secure attachment has been positively associated with seeking social support and providing support to others.

Personality and Social Support

Evidence supports a link between Big Five personality traits (i.e., Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, Openness to Experience) and social support. Specifically, there appears to be a reciprocal relationship between personality characteristics and support. Personality traits likely influence relationships (and thus support and perceptions of support). In turn, support will affect relationships. As such, changes in personality characteristics have been positively related to changes in perceptions of support.

Agreeableness and Extraversion are two dimensions that have been previously related to interpersonal behavior. For example, Agreeableness has been linked to interpersonal behaviors reflecting a need to maintain positive relations with others. Consequently, Agreeableness has been found to be most strongly associated with support and perceived support. Research has shown that Agreeableness positively predicts the amount of support received. Furthermore, providing job-related support mediates the relationship between Agreeableness and received job-related support. Similarly, Extraversion has been linked to support in non-job-related and positive job-related events. Extraversion and received job-related support are mediated by job-related support provided. In addition, Extraversion plays a role in the perceived support received by children from parents, but not vice versa.

Gender Differences in Social Support

Much of the early research in gender differences of social support used self-report measures and found that women are more skillful providers of support than are men. For example, wives affirm their husbands at a greater rate than husbands affirm their wives and more frequently offer support in post-stress situations than husbands offer. In addition, wives will complete more household chores (and thus relieve some stress and pressure) when the husband has had a stressful workday. Studies observing support behavior (i.e., observing supportive behavior rather than self-report measures) among marital couples have not found these gender differences and instead find that husbands and wives offer comparable support to one another.

Recent research indicates that the skill of providing social support is similar among husbands and wives. It has been suggested that the key distinction in previously found gender differences lies in when spouses offer support. For example, wives offer greater amounts of support when their husbands are experiencing greater stress whereas when wives experience increased stress, husbands do not necessarily offer greater support. In other words, women are more likely to provide greater support during severely stressful times than are men.

Evidence indicates that social support may differentially affect men and women. For example, widows with support experienced improved quality of life, greater well-being, and increased self-esteem, whereas these elements were negatively correlated with received social support among widowers. Support received by men can be moderated by their desire to be independent. Men who have a strong desire to be independent are more likely to react negatively to social support than are men who do not have a strong desire to be independent or who desire to be dependent. In women, the influence of social support does not appear to be contingent on the desire to be independent.

Culture and Social Support

A possible determinant in the decision to seek or solicit social support may be one’s culture or the norms that govern that culture. For example, individuals in Eastern cultures are less likely to solicit social support from their social network than individuals in Western cultures are. This cultural pattern seems counterintuitive since Eastern cultures tend to be collectivistic and emphasize interdependence, whereas Western cultures tend to be individualistic and emphasize independence. It would seem as though individuals in collectivistic cultures would be the ones to seek and solicit help from their social support network. However, research has shown that the opposite is true. That is, individuals in individualistic cultures are those who are soliciting help from their social support network. The underlying reason for this counterintuitive pattern may be the result of cultural norms, such as cultural norms that discourage the use of a social support network when solving problems and coping with stress.

Workplace Social Support

The amount of social support one receives from others in the workplace depends on numerous factors such as social competence, reciprocity relationships, and job commitment. For example, individuals who are socially competent tend to receive a greater amount of emotional and instrumental support from coworkers than do individuals who are not as socially competent. However, many studies show that an individual’s support network is usually a network of people outside of his or her job such as family members, spouses, and so forth. In any case, support given in the workplace positively predicts support received.

Social support has also been shown to moderate the relationship between long work hours and physical health symptoms. In other words, physical health tends to decrease when an individual has long work hours and lacks social support. Conversely, individuals who have a social support network tend to be buffered against the adverse effects of longer working hours.

Social Support Influences

Perceived social support and actual social support are both influential in a multitude of facets in one’s life. Social support can have either a direct (or main) effect or a buffering (or mediation) effect on one’s health. The influence of social support can be seen widely from an effect in the workplace to intimate relationships. In addition, social support has effects on one’s health, ability to handle stress, and self-esteem level. Furthermore, one’s personality, cultural background, and gender may influence or moderate the effects of stress.


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