, Volume 20, Issue 4, pp 257-269

Problems and prospects for the social support-reactivity hypothesis

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Social support and integration have been linked to health and longevity in many correlational studies. To explain how social relationship might enhance health, investigators are examining the effects of social support on physiological processes implicated in disease. Much of this research focuses on testing the social support-reactivity hypothesis, which maintains that social support enhances health by reducing psychobiologic reactivity to stressors. This article identifies the basic assumptions, problems, and prospects of this research endeavor. The major problems discussed include: (a) inconsistent findings across studies; (b) unidentified cognitive and emotional mediators; (c) individual differences in response to social support: and (d) a lack of experimental studies on the role of social support in adjustment to chronic stress. Besides raising consciousness about these problems, I offer ideas for advancing research in this area.

I thank Tim Smith, Gary Evans, and Vicki Helgeson for their thoughtful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. I also thank Sheldon Cohen, Tom Kamarck, David Sheffield, Bert Uchino, and Bill Gerin for their contributions to my thinking about the support-reactivity hypothesis through their writings, discussions, and constructive criticisms over the years.