Some friends make you feel more supported than others

October 11, 2020

Listen to this article

Some friends make you feel more supported than others

We are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness affecting all ages. It’s probably the single most pressing issue in mental and physical health and with COVID-19, in most countries it’s getting worse. When we feel lonely, or unsupported, our system begins the process of dying. Very little research has been done into the connection between loneliness and the lack of a sense of being supported.

I have theorized for a long time that what human beings need most is not company per se but a sense of being supported and they will do what it takes to get that support.

A new series of studies finds that it’s good to have friends and family to back you up when you need it—but your sense of being supported is even greater if they are close to each other.

The researchers found that people perceived they had more support from a group of friends or family who all knew and liked each other than from an identical number of close relationships who were not linked.

The results suggest that having a network of people to lean on is only part of what makes social support so beneficial to us. It’s also important that they belong, in a sense, to the same tribe.

What the researchers say: “The more cohesive, the denser the network you have, the more you feel you can rely on them for support,” said the lead author. “It matters if your friends can depend on each other, just like you depend on them.”

The research was published in the journal Social Psychology Quarterly.

In one of the studies, 339 people were asked to list eight people in their lives that they could go to for support in the last six months. Participants rated on a scale of 1 to 7 how much support they received from each person. (Most were listed as friends or family members, but some people also named co-workers, romantic partners, classmates or roommates).

Crucially for this study, participants were also asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 how close each possible pair of their eight supporters were to each other (from “they don’t know each other” to “extremely close.”)

Based on those answers, the researchers calculated the density of each participant’s network—the closer and more interconnected their friends and family were to each other, the denser the network. Results showed that the denser the networks, the more support that participants said they would be able to receive from them.

“We found that our support networks are more than the sum of their parts,” said the researchers. “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 study, involving 240 people, examined whether the density of a social network mattered in a specific situation where people needed help. In this case, participants were asked to list two different groups of four people they could go to if they needed support. One group comprised four people who were not close to one another and the other group consisted of four people who were close with each other.

Participants were then asked to imagine a scenario in which their house had been broken into and they went to their network for support.

Half the people were told to think about going to the four people who were not close to one another, while the other half imagined reaching out to their four connected supporters. Results showed that those who imagined going to their tight-knit group of friends or family perceived that they would receive more support than did participants who thought about going to their unconnected friends.

The results also offered preliminary evidence of two psychological mechanisms that could help explain why people feel better supported by a tight-knit group of friends.

In answers to survey questions, participants suggested that they thought of their group of close friends or family as one entity. They also were more likely to see a closer-knit group as part of their own identities. Both of these factors were related to perceiving more support, results showed.

The researchers said the results of both studies show it isn’t 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,” said the lead author.

On a practical level, that means it’s important which friends we think about when we most need help or when we are feeling lonely in the midst of daily life.

“Focus on those friends who are connected to each other,” he said. “That’s where we really perceive the most support.”

So, what? The study reaffirms a ton of other research which shows that we are fundamentally small-tribe animals. We evolved to live in relatively small (maximum +/- 100 individuals) hunter-gatherer bands. These were very close knit and, in order to survive on the open savannah, had to be highly mutually supportive.

In the workplace and in the community this is important. Businesses fare best when they realize that it’s important to create teams of employees who actually like each other and relate well to each other and to keep these teams in place. The same is true in the community—neighbors who like each other and who socialize with each other will offer more support than those who don’t.

Organizations spent decades trying to destroy silos. Many are now realizing that, perhaps, silos were not a bad thing after all. As the great poet W.B. Yates wrote “They gyres turn.”

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

Join the discussion

Join our tribe

Subscribe to Dr. Bob Murray’s Today’s Research, a free weekly roundup of the latest research in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Explore leadership, strategy, culture, business and social trends, and executive health.

Thank you for subscribing.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Check your details and try again.