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Study Finds a Key Factor That Makes Some Friends Feel More Supportive Than Others

17 OCTOBER 2020

If your friends are also friends with each other, you might feel more supported when times get tough.

According to a new psychology study, the closer and more interconnected someone thinks a social group is, the more they see that clique as a safety net in life.

 

"You can have two friends who are both very supportive of you, but if they are both friends with each other, that makes you feel even more supported," explains social psychologist Jonathan Stahl from Ohio State University.

Creating and maintaining strong friendships, whether with peers, colleagues, or family members, is one of the most important things a human can do for their health. 

Study upon study has found loneliness is simply not good for you. One meta-analysis from 2015, which included more than 3.4 million people across 70 studies, found an absence of social connection carried the same health risk as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. And that was true for people of all ages.

On the flip side, having strong relationships has been tied to a longer lifespan, and as far as healthy behaviours go, exercising the muscle of friendship appears to rival exercise.

But what sort of relationships bring the most value? Psychologists are still trying to sort that out, and recent research suggests a social group that is more interconnected gives someone a greater sense of support.

 

Delving into this connection further, psychologists conducted two online studies. 

The first was a controlled questionnaire, which asked 339 people to list eight individuals in their lives who they could see going to for support.

Participants were then asked how much support they expected to receive from each friend or family member, on a scale of 1 to 7, and how close their choices were to one another, on a scale of "they don't know each other" to "extremely close".

Calculating the density of these social networks, researchers found those with tighter social groups expected to receive more support from their friends.

This falls in line with previous work, but it also demonstrates that the size of a network isn't necessarily as important as the way it's structured.

"We found that our support networks are more than the sum of their parts," says Joseph Bayer, who studies social cognition at Ohio State University.

"People who feel they have more social support in their lives may be focusing more on the collective support they feel from being part of a strong, cohesive group. It's having a real crew, as opposed to just having a set of friends."

 

Still, this is only a correlation. After all, a person who thinks positively about their friends might also think those members are closer to each other.

To dig a bit deeper, the authors designed a second online study, where 240 participants were asked to list four friends not close to one another and four friends close to one another.

Half the participants were then asked to imagine going to the tight-knit group for help, and half imagined going to the less connected group of friends for help.

In the end, it was the close-knit group that participants thought they would receive the most support from.

"The more cohesive, the more dense this network you have, the more you feel you can rely on them for support," says social psychologist David Lee who now works at the University at Buffalo.

"It matters if your friends can depend on each other, just like you depend on them." 

Of course, this says nothing of the actual support someone would receive in real times of trouble. But strangely enough, psychologists have found a person's perception of support can sometimes be a stronger predictor of their well-being.

 

Instead of the denser networks being more supportive because of their structure, the authors see this as more of a 'psychological' phenomenon: denser networks are only perceived to be more supportive.

The evidence is only preliminary, but researchers have two explanations for how this might work. First, as an individual, we might think of a more close-knit group as one super-supportive entity. Second, it's entirely possible that someone who sees their group as tighter also sees that support network as an important part of their own identity.

The authors think these are both factors that might drive the perception of greater support. At the same time, they could also promote a sense of belonging and commitment to the group, which makes someone feel like they can rely on the group in turn.

"In this vein," they write, "viewing one's support network members as a cohesive entity may serve to frame them as a protective base and in turn enhance the belief that one can rely on them for support."

While it's still unclear what impact this perception actually has on a person's ultimate behaviour, psychologists think this sense of 'supportiveness' could be an important factor when someone is seeking help.

"Focus on those friends who are connected to each other," Bayer advises. "That's where we really perceive the most support."

The study was published in Social Psychology Quarterly.