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A Missed Opportunity for Social Connection

We underestimate the positive impact of expressing social support.

Key points

  • People are often reluctant to express social support because they are worried about saying or doing the wrong thing.
  • People also underestimate the positive benefits of expressing support.
  • These misperceptions may create a barrier to expressing support and strengthening our connection to others.
National Cancer Institute/Unsplash
Source: National Cancer Institute/Unsplash

Consider the following scenarios:

Your friend lost her husband to COVID-19 a year ago. Do you call on the anniversary of his death?

Your co-worker has to take a medical leave from work. Do you offer to drop off a meal?

You see a stranger crying in the public restroom. Do you ask how you can help?

Most of us are inclined to provide social support to those who are struggling. However, new research shows that we often suppress the inclination to reach out because we worry about saying or doing the wrong thing.

In a series of studies soon to be published in Psychological Science, participants sent an email expressing social support to someone they knew who was going through a difficult time. Participants then predicted how the recipient would feel about receiving the email.

The researchers also invited the recipients to fill out a survey about their actual experience of receiving the email, stressing that their responses would be strictly confidential. Willing recipients indicated how awkward they felt and how positive they felt. They also rated the warmth and competence of the email.

Next, the researchers compared the predicted versus actual outcomes of receiving a supportive email and found that participants’ predictions were overly pessimistic. Participants overestimated how awkward recipients would feel, and they underestimated how positive recipients would feel. Participants also expected that the emails would communicate less warmth and seem less competent than they actually did. In short, participants’ concerns about expressing support were overblown.

In another study, participants were asked to express social support to a stranger during an in-person conversation. Once again, participants underestimated the positive consequences of expressing support.

The result of these studies is consistent with other work showing that people tend to underestimate the positive impact of expressing gratitude, giving compliments, and performing random acts of kindness.

Why do we underestimate the benefits of receiving social support?

The researchers argue that this tendency may be due to “a perspective gap whereby expressers [of support] focus relatively more on how competent their support might seem, while recipients focus relatively more on the warmth it conveys.”

This perspective gap might lead people to miss opportunities to provide social support and strengthen their connections to others. As the researchers note, “withholding support due to misguided fears of saying or doing the wrong thing could leave both recipients and expressers of support less happy than they could be.”

Still, it is important to note that receiving social support is not uniformly positive. Earlier research has shown that the effects of receiving support differ across individuals and contexts. If social support is not responsive to the recipient’s needs, for example, it can lead to negative outcomes.

In some cases, asking “What can I do to support you?” may be the best way to show support.

Bottom Line

Having supportive relationships is essential for our health and well-being. We benefit not only from receiving social support, but also from giving it. When we feel inclined to show support, we should not let our fears hold us back. Instead, we should focus less on our competency in expressing support and remember: it's the thought that counts.

References

Dungan, J.M., Munguia Gomez, D.M., & Epley, N. (in press). Too reluctant to reach out: Receiving social support is more positive than expressers expect. Psychological Science.

Kumar, A., & Epley, N. (2018). Undervaluing gratitude: Expressers misunderstand the consequences of showing appreciation. Psychological Science, 29(9), 1423–1435. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797618772506

Kumar, A., & Epley, N. (2020). A little good goes an unexpectedly long way: Underestimating the positive impact of kindness of recipients. In Argo, J., Lowrey, T.M., & Schau, H.,J. (Eds.), North American Advances in Consumer Research, 48, 968-973.

Maisel, N. C., & Gable, S. L. (2009). The paradox of received social support: the importance of responsiveness. Psychological Science, 20(8), 928–932. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02388.x

Zhao, X., & Epley, N. (2021). Insufficiently complimentary?: Underestimating the positive impact of compliments creates a barrier to expressing them. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 121(2), 239–256. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000277

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