How To Give Support Right

Perhaps they put Valentine’s Day in the middle of cold, dank February to remind us of what really makes one’s hearth warm: our friends and loved ones. In particular, when we’re down in our luck or in trouble, being able to count on the support of others can make all the difference. However, giving support the right way can be a trickier proposition than we might think.

You see, providing support to someone, while usually well-intentioned, can have negative consequences: it can make the person getting the support feel like they can’t do things on their own, it can make them feel guilty (for being a burden), and it can hurt their self-esteem. Indeed, research shows that while there are psychological benefits to knowing that one can count on supportive others, actually getting such support is not associated with better outcomes! This begs the question: should we NOT give support to our loved ones?

Rather than asking whether or not one should give support, Niall Bolger and his colleagues (Bolger, Zuckerman, and Kessler, 2000) asked a different question: are there different types of support that are associated with positive or negative outcomes?

Bolger, who is one of the world’s leading experts in using diary studies to tease out important psychological truths, had 68 couples fill out daily diaries for a few weeks around the time one of the members of the couple was about the take the New York Bar Exam. Each member of the couple filled out a brief nightly diary about the emotional support they gave or received from the other. The researchers found an interesting pattern: when they looked at the exam taker’s own reports of the support they got, they found no relatonship between support and levels of depression. At first glance, this would support the idea that receiving support does not help– but the story doesn’t stop there. More interestingly, the researchers found that the partner’s reports of the support they gave to the exam taker were in fact associated with less depression for the exam taker during this stressful time. In other words, when the partners were somehow able to provide support without their partners knowing (or perceiving) that they were being supported, the effectiveness of the support now shone through.

Bolger and colleagues termed such support invisible support– it helps because it gives all the benefits without the risk of making your partner feel that they are somehow deficient or in need of help.

How does one provide invisible support for family, friends, spouses, or significant others? One way, of course, is to do things that make the other person’s life easier without them having to know about it– cleaning up the house, perhaps, doing the laundry. But the authors point to another way, a skillful way of providing support that is directed at the person in need, but that is framed in a way that the person doesn’t interpret it as support per se. It’s a skill that is learned. Bolger and Amarel (2007) provide a good example. They set up an experiment in which a person had to give a very stressful public speech, and then assigned a support giver to give either visilbe support:

“I’d like to say something to [speech giver] if that’s all right. You know, to give a good talk it’s probably most important to summarize what you’re going to say at the beginning, and also to make a strong conclusion at the end.”

or invisible support (directed towards the experimenter):

“I’ve got a question about what we’re supposed to be doing. I thought that for this kind of thing, it’s probably most important to summarie what your’e going to say that the beginning, and also to make a strong conlusion at the end?”

The results were striking: in the visible support condition, the speech givers’ distress increased three times as much as when the support was invisible! I’m always amazed at how small changes in framing and language can have such profound effects on cognition and behavior (other examples are here and here).

You might wonder what a post about invisible support has to do with this blog, which is called Are We Born Racist? The blog started as a blog about the science of intergroup relations, based on the book by the same name that my colleagues and I edited. but it has evolved more broadly into a reflection about nature versus nurture: what are the qualities that we are born with, and what are the things that we can learn? Whether it’s about diet, or learning, or racism, I tend to find strength in the message the we can learn, that we can change. And this post is no different– the message here is that psychological research shows us a path towards learning support giving as a skill– something we can learn to do, selflessly, for the sake of our loved ones. February and beyond.

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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved.