Having friends is always nice, but not all of them are made equal. A new study looks at the traits that make us feel we can rely on our friends for emotional support.
Life is hard enough as it is, there’s really no point in going at it alone and making it even harder. But how much we feel we can rely on our friends for support isn’t completely in our control — how close our friends are with one another matters a lot, according to new research.
The more the merrier
“The more cohesive, the more dense [a friend] network you have, the more you feel you can rely on them for support,” said David Lee, who led the study as a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at The Ohio State University.
People perceive their social network — be it friends or family — as being more supportive when its members knew and had close relationships with each other, rather than those with unlinked relationships, the team explains.
The findings are based on two studies carried out online. The first asked 339 people to list eight people that they asked for support over the last six months, and rate how well they rose to the occasion on a scale of 1 to 7. Most participants listed friends or family members, but some people also named co-workers, romantic partners, classmates, or roommates. Finally, they were also asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 7, how close each possible pair of the eight people they listed were to each other (from “they don’t know each other” to “extremely close”).
From this data, the team calculated how ‘dense’ each participant’s social network was. Higher density meant their friends were more interconnected and closer to each other.
All in all, denser networks were associated with participants saying they would be able to receive more support from them.
“We found that our support networks are more than the sum of their parts,” said 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.”
The second study involved 240 people and tried to determine whether the density of an individual’s social circle mattered in a specific scenario where they require help. Participants were asked to list two groups of four people — one where the members weren’t close to each other, and one where they were.
Then, each participant was asked to imagine that their house had been broken in and that they require help or emotional support. Half of them had to go to the connected group and half to the one with members who weren’t close to each other, and asked to estimate how much support they would likely receive.
Unsurprisingly, those who imagined going to the tight-knit group felt they would fare much better. Later surveys revealed that people tend to think of such groups as single entities, and participants were more likely to identify with the group more (they were perceived as being a larger part of their own identities). Both of these factors, the authors explain, were related to perceiving more support.
“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,” Stahl said.
“Focus on those friends who are connected to each other,” Bayer said. “That’s where we really perceive the most support.”
The paper “Social Resources as Cognitive Structures: Thinking about a Dense Support Network Increases Perceived Support” has been published in the journal Social Psychology Quarterly.