Some friends make us feel more supported than others, and this may depend on how well they fit into our social network. Researchers have found that people perceive the most support from friends and family members who are also linked to each other socially.
Study lead author David Lee is an assistant professor of Communication at The Ohio State University. He said the findings suggest that having a network of people to lean on is only part of what makes social support so beneficial to us.
“The more cohesive, the more dense this network you have, the more you feel you can rely on them for support,” said Professor Lee. “It matters if your friends can depend on each other, just like you depend on them.”
For the investigation, the researchers conducted two online surveys. In the first study, 339 participants were asked to list eight people they felt supported by in the last six months. The lists were found to contain mostly friends and family members, but also included co-workers, romantic partners, classmates, and roommates.
The participants rated on a scale of 1 to 7 how much support they received from each person. They were also asked to rate the closeness between each possible pair of their eight supporters, with responses ranging from “they don’t know each other” to “extremely close.”
The researchers used the data to calculate the density of each participant’s network – the closer and more interconnected the friends and family, the denser the network. The results showed that individuals with denser networks reported receiving the most support.
“We found that our support networks are more than the sum of their parts,” said study co-author Professor Joseph Bayer. “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.”
A second survey revealed that when participants had an emergency situation and needed someone to lean on, they expected to receive more support from an interconnected group of friends and family than from an unconnected group of friends.
The researchers said the results show that it is not just the number of friends and family you have in your network that is important.
“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.”
“Focus on those friends who are connected to each other,” said Professor Bayer. “That’s where we really perceive the most support.”
The study is published in the journal Social Psychology Quarterly.