The term social support refers specifically to “aid from significant others that is intended to meet the emotional or material needs of the individual” (Thoits, 1985, p. 458). For some, social support is conceptualized in terms of the degree to which an individual’s needs are met by others, so when social support decreases or is absent, needs necessarily go unmet (Kaplan, Cassel, & Gore, 1977). As such, social support is a vital mechanism by which individuals’ needs are fulfilled.

Research on social support as a communication phenomenon increased exponentially in the 1980s (House, Umberson, & Landis, 1988), and social support research continues to flourish today (e.g., Thoits, 2011; Wang & Eccles, 2012)

Types of Support

Research has primarily focused on three types of social support: informational, emotional, and instrumental (House, 1981).
  • Informational support offers individuals information that they can use for guidance or advice (Helgeson & Cohen, 1996). This type of assistance helps individuals to define or understand their circumstances (Cohen & Wills, 1985), and increases perceptions of control (Helgeson & Cohen, 1996).
  • Emotional support provides expressions of care and concern (Helgeson & Cohen, 1996). It helps individuals to feel loved, accepted, reassured, and encouraged (Thoits, 1995), and aids distressed individuals in understanding their circumstances (Helgeson & Cohen, 1996).
  • Instrumental support extends tangible aid that is aimed at solving a specific problem (Adams, King, & King, 1996), like performing household tasks or providing finances or other resources (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Instrumental support directly fills existing needs, allowing individuals to devote their time to stress resolution (Cohen & Wills, 1985).

Although scholars generally agree that informational, emotional, and instrumental support are the primary types of social support, other types of social support have also been explored (e.g., esteem support, network support; see Xu & Burleson, 2001).

Relevant Contexts

Social support is studied primarily in the context of health outcomes (House et al., 1988). For example, social support has been studied in HIV patients (Edwards, 2006), depression (Lin & Dean, 1984), cancer (Wortman, 1984), and pregnancy (O’Hara, 1986). In all of these contexts, social support decreases the negative effects of health issues.

Although many researchers focus on social support in the context of distressing events, like health issues, other scholars have pushed for a more inclusive view of social support as part of everyday interactions (e.g., Barnes & Duck, 1994). According to this research, social support is part of a routine experience with others with whom we have personal relationships. Everyday discourses construct social support as an ongoing experience in relationships (Barnes & Duck, 1994).

Relevant Theory

Buffering Hypothesis
The buffering hypothesis suggests that social support produces beneficial health outcomes indirectly by buffering the effects of stress on health (Cohen & Wills, 1985). In other words, when stress is present, social support decreases its negative outcomes on health and well-being. Although this perspective has gained widespread support, other scholars suggest that social support has main (i.e., direct) effects on health, such that when social support is present (regardless of the presence or absence of stress), health improves. Whether scholars primarily believe in buffering or main effects of social support on health, overall, the conclusion remains that social support has a causal effect on health, exposure to stress, and the relationship between stress and health (House, 1987). In particular, stress reduces morbidity and mortality rates, lessens exposure to stress, and protects against the impacts of stress (House, 1987).

Matching Hypothesis
The matching hypothesis suggests that social support is most effective when the type of support that is offered (e.g., informational, emotional, instrumental) matches the need of the person receiving the support (Cohen, 1992). For example, if a cancer patient needs a ride to a chemo treatment (i.e., needs instrumental support), emotional support will be less effective than the provision of a tangible good or service.

Perceived vs. Received Support
Perceived support refers to the belief that an individual has access to assistance or empathy when he or she needs it; received support (i.e., enacted support) is the actual support that is provided or administered (Sarason & Sarason, 1985). For the recipient, perceived support can often be more important than enacted support (Aneshensel, 1992; Thoits, 1995). If individuals feel that they are supported, many of their emotional needs are met, regardless of whether there is a difference between the perception of the support and what is actually administered. When individuals perceive emotional support, they believe that they are loved, cared for and understood by significant others (Thoits, 1995). Conversely, perceptions of a lack of social support are linked with feelings of isolation and loneliness (Sarason & Sarason, 1985). Perceptions of social support also have significant influence on support-seeking behaviors, such that individuals with higher perceived support engage in more support-seeking behaviors, and support-seeking has been correlated with decreased depression and distress (Coyne & Downey, 1991; Pearlin & Schooler, 1978; Ross & Mirowsky, 1989). Because perceived support seems to have a more significant impact on health than received support, scholars focus heavily on studying perceptions of support as determinants of health outcomes (e.g., Thoits, 2011).

Written by Erin Basinger (July 2012).

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