Some friends make you feel more supported than others, and researchers think they know why

  • Friendships are found to be important to people's health and happiness, especially as they age
  • A new study looked at why we feel more supported by some friends than others
  • According to the findings, people perceive interconnected friendships as safer safety nets

many of us, friendships are just as important as any other form of love. In addition to these bonds increasing our sense of belonging, our self-worth, and happiness, we also turn to our friends for support during dark times.

And the closer and more interconnected we think our friendship group is, the more we’ll see that group as a safety net in life. This is according to researchers of a new study.

"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," explained social psychologist Jonathan Stahl from Ohio State University.

The study was published in Social Psychology Quarterly.

Size versus structure of social network: different impact

For their study, the psychologists conducted two online studies: the first being a controlled questionnaire, which asked 339 participants to list eight people in their lives to whom they could go to for support.

Participants were then asked how much support they expected to receive from each friend or family member listed (on a scale of one to seven), and how close their choices were to each other (from "they don't know each other" to "extremely close").

After analysing these social networks, the researchers found that those with closer social groups expected to receive more support from their friends than those without.

The researchers mentioned that their findings are supported by previous studies on the topic, but more than this, they also show that the size of one’s social network might not be as important as the way it’s structured.

"We found that our support networks are more than the sum of their parts," said Joseph Bayer, who studies social cognition at Ohio State University.

"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."

Second part of the study

To understand this link better, the researchers conducted a second online study with 240 participants who were asked to list four friends who weren’t close to each other, and four friends who were.

Half the participants were then asked to imagine going to the closer group for support, and the other half imagined going to the less connected group of friends for support.

Ultimately, they found that participants felt they would receive a greater level of support from the tight-knit friends group.

"The more cohesive, the more dense this network you have, the more you feel you can rely on them for support," suggested social psychologist, David Lee, who works at the University at Buffalo.

"It matters if your friends can depend on each other, just like you depend on them." 

'Close friendships only perceived to be more supportive'

The findings of this study simply speak to an individual’s perception of support that can sometimes be a stronger predictor of their well-being, the authors wrote.

However, it does not necessarily say anything about the actual support someone would receive, which leads the researchers to believe that this is more of a "psychological" phenomenon in that close-knit social networks are only perceived to be more supportive.

Nevertheless, they could also attribute a sense of belonging and commitment to the group, the researchers added, which makes someone feel like they can rely on the group.

"In this vein, viewing one's support network members as a cohesive entity may serve to frame them as a protective base and in turn enhance the belief that one can rely on them for support," they said.

READ | Friends key to happiness in old age

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