Social Support Processes
Psychological processes related to the perception or experience that one is loved, cared for, and valued as part of a supportive social network of mutual assistance
This entry examines the interaction between individual differences and social support processes: for whom does social support work best, and who may be left behind? The entry details the role of individual differences in received (objective) and perceived (subjective) social support. First, individual differences influence how people receive support: those who are securely attached and who have a more positive self- or worldview are more likely to seek or indirectly elicit support than others. Second, individual differences influence perceptions of support. Dispositions related to positive self- and worldviews increase perceptions of support, whereas negative self- and worldviews increase hypervigilance and self-handicapping behaviors that inhibit positive support perceptions.
Social Support Processes
Participation in group life can be like an inoculation against threats to mental and physical health. This is much cheaper than the pharmaceutical pathway, with far fewer side effects. And as a means of keeping the doctor at bay, it is also likely to prove much more enjoyable (Jetten et al. (2009), Scientific American).
In their book, The Social Cure, Jolanda Jetten and her colleagues (2009) highlight decades of research that converge on a singular notion: social connection with others is crucial for health and well-being. The seemingly boundless benefits of social support range from promoting happiness to conferring immunity against illness and even death. Nevertheless, social support does not benefit everyone equally; some have difficulty perceiving and realizing the benefits of support. This entry examines the question of individual differences and social support: for whom does social support work best, and who may be left behind?
Social Support Terminology
Before exploring the relevant literature, the terms individual differences and social support deserve clarification. Individual differences refer to traits and dispositions that are relatively stable across time and situations (e.g., personality, self-esteem, optimism, attachment style). The term social support refers to the perception or experience that one is loved, cared for, and valued as part of a supportive social network of mutual assistance (Feeney and Collins 2015; Thoits 2013; Uchino 2009). This definition broadly includes psychological forms of support (e.g., providing words of reassurance or reappraisal), physical and tangible forms of support (e.g., financial support, transportation, caretaking), informational support (e.g., advice or instruction), and support via inclusion in a valued group (i.e., social acceptance and belonging).
Of interest to the present endeavor, these types of support come in two forms: received and perceived support. Received support is the objective social support a support-provider gives to a support-recipient. Perceived support is the support-recipient’s mental representation of their received support. Interestingly, perceived and received supports correlate only modestly, and the individual differences that predict received and perceived support differ. Therefore, this entry discusses the role of individual differences separately between received and perceived support.
Individual Differences in Received Support
Between people, the reception of support is primarily influenced by individual differences that affect support seeking and elicitation in response to distress. People must alert potential supporters to their needs, and vague or inconsistent mewls for support can hinder support giving. Research suggests that those higher in individual differences that relate to non-reliance on others (e.g., insecure attachment, introversion) often are poor support seekers in their time of need. For instance, people with avoidant attachment styles are less likely to seek support than their securely attached counterparts. When they do seek support, people high in avoidance often use ineffective methods (e.g., sulking; Feeney and Collins 2015). As a result, avoidantly attached people report less satisfaction with the support they receive and are less effective at leveraging support to cope with stressors. Similarly, compared to extroverts, introverts are slower to ask for help when facing difficulty and thus receive less support (Swickert et al. 2002).
In addition to asking for support, individual differences also predict the extent to which people spontaneously elicit support from others. For instance, to the extent that people are emotionally expressive, they are more likely to convey their distress to others without directly asking for support (Pierce et al. 2013). This indirect expression of distress increases others’ awareness of support needs and opportunities prompting them to initiate support attempts. Similarly, compared to their insecurely attached counterparts, those who are securely attached to their partners naturally elicit objective supportive behaviors from their partners more frequently (e.g., physical contact, positive comments) without specifically asking for support. Naturally educing support in this way can help prevent the potential negative side effects of seeking and receiving support, including admission of one’s incapacity to handle a stressor or feelings of inequity in a relationship (McClure et al. 2014).
Individual Differences in Support Perception
Extensive literature suggests that the benefits of social support stem primarily from perceived, rather than received, social support. That is, feeling supported is more important than actually receiving support in prompting physical and mental health benefits. This paradox of received social support (Maisel and Gable 2009) appears to stem in part from individual differences in how people respond to objective support behaviors.
One category of individual difference that influences how people perceive support: individual differences related to a positive outlook. Those who display more negative self- and worldviews (e.g., those with low self-esteem, pessimists) often perceive less available support (Marigold et al. 2014), even when they have objectively similar support to others. This underreporting of and dissatisfaction with support stems both from hyper-criticism and support-handicapping behaviors. For instance, people who are high in neuroticism (i.e., emotional instability) tend to be more critical of the support they receive (Marigold et al. 2014) and thus show fewer mental health benefits from receiving support (McClure et al. 2014). Additionally, people who are chronically unable to manage their emotions (e.g., those high in trait anxiety) are generally dissatisfied with support as support does little to change their situation or emotions (Marigold et al. 2014). Participants with a negative outlook (e.g., those with low self-esteem) will even rebuff or discredit support from others who attempt to put a positive spin on negative situations. Of course, these negative experiences with social support do not necessarily represent the objective truth of received support. Instead, negative worldviews and behaviors that cripple possible effective support bias these interpretations. These views and behaviors create a self-fulfilling prophecy that impedes possible benefits of social support.
On the other hand, a positive outlook relates to greater perceptions of support. Traits like optimism, trust, and high self-esteem are associated with better memory for and more positive interpretation of others’ supportive actions (Marigold et al. 2014). Interestingly, despite empirical evidence that dispositional optimists receive comparable or even less support than their pessimistic counterparts, optimists nonetheless report more and higher-quality supportive interactions (Vollmann and Renner 2010). Therefore, just as negative self-views can cause underestimation of support, positive self- and worldviews appear to prompt overestimation of objective support. These evident biases have led researchers to propose that perceived social support functions partly as a cognitive personality trait that influences memory and interpretation of supportive interactions (Pierce et al. 2013; Uchino 2009).
Two other individual differences that also influence how people perceive and benefit from social support are self-complexity and personal control. People with greater self-complexity – multiple distinct identities – report greater perceived support as well as better stress responses (Thoits 2013). Those high in self-complexity also typically have more social identities, giving them more support networks to pull from (e.g., their wine club, their sports team, their religious group, their colleagues). A dispositional sense of personal control (e.g., autonomy, high internal locus of control; see Pierce et al. 2013) also influences whether perceived social support affects physical health and mental well-being. That is, people who take charge of their stress response also tend to garner more health and well-being benefit from perceiving a strong support network.
In the quote that opened this entry, Jetten and colleagues (2009) argue that social connection is both a more enjoyable and less risky alternative to traditional medical treatments for health conditions. While their observations may prove broadly true, the present entry provides some important nuance to the assumption that everyone benefits from social connection equally. Indeed, work on social support spanning decades converges on the observation that individual differences influence how people seek and elicit objective supportive behaviors, as well as how people respond to and mentally perceive support from their network. Specifically, individual differences that promote productive support seeking and indirect support elicitation, as well as traits that promote positive self- and worldviews, increase received and perceived support, respectively. Moreover, some people – those who already have traits related to psychological well-being and a sense of personal control – may be particularly able to take advantage of the social cure.
- Feeney, B. C., & Collins, N. L. (2015). A new look at social support: A theoretical perspective on thriving through relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 19(2), 113–147. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868314544222.
- Jetten, J., Haslam, C., Haslam, S. A., & Branscombe, N. R. (2009). The social cure. Scientific American Mind, 20(5), 26–33. https://doi.org/10.1038/scientificamericanmind0909-26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Maisel, N. C., & Gable, S. L. (2009). The paradox of received social support the importance of responsiveness. Psychological Science, 20(8), 928–932. https://doi.org/10.1111/2Fj.1467-9280.2009.02388.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Marigold, D. C., Cavallo, J. V., Holmes, J. G., & Wood, J. V. (2014). You can’t always give what you want: The challenge of providing social support to low self-esteem individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(1), 56–80. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0036554.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Pierce, G. R., Lakey, B., & Sarason, I. G. (Eds.). (2013). Sourcebook of social support and personality. New York: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
- Uchino, B. N. (2009). Understanding the links between social support and physical health: A life-span perspective with emphasis on the separability of perceived and received support. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(3), 236–255. https://doi.org/10.1111/2Fj.1745-6924.2009.01122.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar