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What Do They Get Out Of It? The Emotional Experience Of Providing Social Support

Students and faculty in Western Washington University’s Psychology Department examined the experience of giving social support in two countries (the US and Singapore) using an innovative methodology called the Day Reconstruction Method or DRM, a technique originally developed by Princeton psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. The study was recently published in the journal Public Library of Science One.

“This method allows us to capture daily instances of social support and to gather rich information about the context of each of those episodes of social support,” says Prof. Barbara Lehman, one of the authors of the study and in whose research lab the work was conducted. “It’s a lot more detailed than just asking people a few questions about how much social support they provide to others in general. With the DRM, we can see whom our respondents are giving support to, what kind of support they are giving, and whether the support was requested or not.”

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The researchers studied 88 American and 79 Singaporean undergraduate students. The data in Singapore were collected by Prof. Christie Scollon, who previously worked in Singapore before joining the WWU Psychology Department in 2018. They defined social support as both direct and indirect ways of helping another person. Support can be informational, such as giving someone directions, or emotional, such as giving encouragement or letting the recipient know that you care.

The research is one of the few studies to examine the experience of giving support.

“Mostly, when we think of social support, we focus on the individual receiving the support,” says Zach Willett, a WWU graduate and co-author of the paper. “But support is a mutual relationship that involves two people, and the support provider is also affected by the interaction.”

It’s a topic that’s been underexplored in the scientific literature, and especially with the precision and detailed instrument that Willett and his colleagues used.

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What the researchers found was revealing. There were — as expected — some cultural differences, but also many cultural similarities. People in both the U.S. and Singapore seemed to give support in similar ways. Respondents in both cultures reported feeling more happiness and less anxiety when they provided emotional social support. Interestingly, Americans and Singaporeans provided the same amount of informational support, and participants in both countries experienced similar degrees of requested support.

An intriguing cultural difference emerged that had to do with whether the support was culturally appropriate. In more collectivist cultures such as Singapore, asking for support is generally frowned upon.

“Members of collectivist societies are expected to be sensitive to others’ needs, so asking for support, especially unnecessarily, can violate social expectations.” says Kendall Lawley, 2nd year graduate student in the Experimental Psychology Master’s Program, one of the lead authors of the paper.

The study found that Singaporean support-givers felt more irritation when support was requested. The researchers believe this is because overt requests for support are more likely to be seen as unnecessary within the more collectivistic cultural contexts.

This study takes a deep dive into how the emotional experience of providing social support can vary across culture and provides some clues about the importance of culture in psychologically important social relationships.

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These findings are described in the article entitled Did you really need to ask? Cultural variation in emotional responses to providing solicited social support, recently published in the journal PLOS One.

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