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Understanding Social Support Benefits: Strangers vs. Friends & Family

Social support shows up in our lives in various ways through our social interactions. This could mean interactions with strangers, friends, family, or even colleagues, but it’s important to understand how the type of support and benefits vary. For social support to be truly beneficial social connection has to occur which consists of three dimensions: Intimate, Relational, and Collective.

by | Jan 25, 2022

Social support shows up in our lives in various ways through our social interactions. This could mean interactions with strangers, friends, family, or even colleagues, but it’s important to understand how the type of support and benefits vary. For social support to be truly beneficial social connection has to occur which consists of three dimensions: Intimate, Relational, and Collective.

  • Intimate connection (inner circle): Perceived closeness to a nurturing companion who affirms our values as an individual.
  • Relational connection (middle circle): Perceived presence of friendships or family connections who provide support and mutual aid.
  • Collective connection (outer circle): Perceived presence of a meaningful connection with a group of people.

When considering the social connections we have with strangers, it doesn’t necessarily mean random people we encounter on the street. Strangers can be defined as people we engage within support groups or therapists. Similar to receiving support from friends and family, the goal of connecting with trained professionals is to support our overall well-being. While the goal is the same, the social interaction with a therapist differs as their role is to be an observer, as a coach on the sidelines, providing objective feedback that is grounded in research-backed methods to uncover behavioral patterns or recurring problems that might be playing out in our relationships with friends and family. 

Studies have shown that both strong and weak social ties, whether it be a support group or a close friend, within our social networks contribute to our social connectedness and signal toward living a longer, happy life. When we experience perceived connectedness we’re less at-risk of feeling loneliness, which has been compared to the negative health effects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic, and risks associated with obesity.

Understanding Social Interactions & Type of Social Support

Our brains process social interactions differently depending on our relationship to the person. Consider the depth of information you share with your best friend versus a colleague or a stranger you just met. Are you willing to share only surface-level information or do you feel comfortable enough to share deep emotions? We unconsciously filter our social interactions through the dimensions of social connectedness to determine just how open we’re willing to be. 

Perceived Risk & Vulnerability 

Providing or receiving support from a friend or a stranger often carries a cost, but the benefits can be very positive. There are degrees of perceived risk involved in social interactions that determine how vulnerable we’re able to be in social interactions and the consequences of being vulnerable. The most common risks associated are being seen as weak, needy, and shameful. 

However, the key to giving and receiving social support is the ability to be vulnerable which enables us to foster deeper bonds with another person. Counter to the perceived risks associated with being vulnerable we must understand that it takes courage to be vulnerable, we have basic needs and desires that need to be met (thank you, Maslow) and the only way to grow is by getting out of our comfort zone. 

Perceived Risk & Frequency 

Our brains go through social cognitive processes that affect the depth of social connection. With friends and family, there’s more strategic decision-making that occurs to ensure we sustain goodwill for present and future interactions, which is likely to lead to more frequent connections. Studies have suggested that the strategic decision-making processes that occur resemble a similar aspect of our brain related to self-control (i.e., sacrificing for example money or time) that can lead to increased frequency of connection with friends and family. 

Connection with strangers tends to be more spontaneous or infrequent occurrences where a person may be less likely to cognitively process future interactions. We perceive these subtle interactions with strangers to be a lower risk that produce short-term benefits. While the perceived risk being low may seem appealing, it also translates to less frequent interactions which might not yield a  sustainable, long-term source of social support. 

Perceived Risk & Reciprocation 

For a strong social connection to be developed, because relationships aren’t one-way, it’s essential that there be equal giving and receiving, i.e. reciprocation. This also triggers our strategic thinking process regarding the potential benefits. Not to be confused with a  “tit-for-tat” exchange where supporting someone only with the expectation to receive something in return, reciprocation in this context relates to self-disclosure. 

The connectedness we receive from friends and family is usually sustained only by mutual feelings of affection and love. It’s less dependent on who the other person is and focused on how they make us feel. A study found that social support from a close family member can enhance the level of satisfaction with a person’s social role which serves to maintain our overall sense of well-being. Additionally, it was found that friendships are valued more when we give to the other person rather than receive from them.

We process the experience of reciprocation with strangers quite differently. Our capacity for social cognition is still heightened, but rather than in the context of self-disclosure, our brains take an empathetic-altruistic approach. Meaning, we mentalize the other person’s situation by trying to “put ourselves in the other person’s shoes”, so to speak. There are benefits and potential downsides to this type of connection. Support groups are a well-known resource of support that greatly benefit people facing a major illness, stressful life changes, or in the recovery stages from addiction. It’s a great example of the empathetic approach through shared similar experiences. The potential downside to this type of support is that the risks are low and less likely to trigger cognitive processing about the future reciprocation. The implications of this low-risk connection could result in delayed feedback, short-term participation, or negative comparisons/judgment. 

Which approach is more beneficial?

Both sources of support from strangers, such as a therapist or support group, and from friends and family serve to benefit our well-being in different, yet complementary ways. Friends and family may lack the tools and knowledge of a licensed professional. While in a therapy session we may uncover behaviors and gain insights into what we need to work on in our day-to-day life to help us deepen relationships with friends and family.

Sources

  • Beyond Small Talk: Study Finds People Enjoy Deep Conversations With Strangers, 2022
  • Saulin, Anne, et al. “Frequency of Helping Friends and Helping Strangers Is Explained by Different Neural Signatures.” Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, Springer US, Feb. 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6344399/
  • Rozzell, Bobby, et al. “Notification Pending: Online Social Support from Close and Nonclose Relational Ties via Facebook.” Computers in Human Behavior, Pergamon, 3 July 2014, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0747563214003410?via%3Dihub
  • Wright, Kevin. “Social Networks, Interpersonal Social Support, and Health Outcomes: A Health Communication Perspective.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 1 Jan. 1AD, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcomm.2016.00010/full#B21
  • “Functions of Social Support and Self-Verification in Association with Loneliness, Depression, and Stress.” Taylor & Francis, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10810730.2013.798385
  • Social Learning in Networks of … – Tsinghua University. http://mis.sem.tsinghua.edu.cn/UploadFiles/File/201508/20150811172137694.pdf

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