PSY322-Buffering Hypothesis

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According to Aronson, Wilson, & Akert buffering hypothesis is the theory that we need social support only when we are under stress because it protects us against the damaging effects of this stress (2007). Buffering hypothesis can help in two ways, first it can help us interpret an event as less stressful than we otherwise would, and secondly social support can help us cope (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2007). Research suggests that social support “buffers” the impact of stress on the individual and thus indirectly affects emotional well-being (Cohen and Wills, 1985). To further define social support one must include the supportive ways that different people behave in the social environment (Helgeson, 2002). The social environment involves structural and functional measures of support. Examples of structural measures can include marital status, how many friends a person has, and the frequency of interaction with friends/family. Functional measures on the other hand refer to the resources, such as emotional or physical support, that people within an individual’s social network provide (Helgeson, 2002). There are numerous classifications of support functions, which consist of three basic functions: emotional support, instrumental support and informational support. Emotional support is having people available to listen, to care, to sympathize, and to make one feel valued and loved for (Helgeson, 2002). Instrumental support or tangible assistance, involves help with household chores, lending money, or running errands (Helgeson, 2002). Lastly, informational support, according to Helgeson, involves the provision of information or guidance.

The main hypothesis evaluated by Cohen and Wills, in a study, tested the ‘main effects’ vs. the ‘stress-buffering’ hypothesis. The main effects hypothesis states that the more social support an individual has, the better the quality of life, regardless of the person’s level of stress (Helgeson, 2002). The stress-buffering hypothesis states that the relation of social support to quality of life depends upon an individual’s level of stress (Helgeson, 2002). For example, under high levels of stress social support acts as a buffer against the unpleasant effects of that stressor. One who faces high stress with support resources is almost as well off as the person who does not experience the stressor (Helgeson, 2002). Resources are needed from people within the social environment when there are high levels of stress to assist with coping. Depending on the stressor or the severity of the stressor one can determine the type of support that would be best to use. For example, if the stressor is controllable, informational support can be the most helpful because people can give you information about what to do to alter the stressor (Helgeson, 2002). According to Helgeson, the simple existence of social relationships can put us in a better mood, provide us with a sense of identity, and be a source of companionship to share activities, which in turn can lead to a better quality of life.

Example - Research

Johnson and Jennison conducted a study that examined the stressful loss and the buffering effect of social support on drinking behavior among African-Americans (2001). The purpose of the study of a sample of African Americans was to present general information on drinking patterns and to test the utilitarian or escape drinking hypothesis. The utilitarian hypothesis is the idea that African Americans increase their alcohol consumption in response to stressful life events involving loss (Johnson and Jennison, 2001). A second hypothesis was also tested; that the effect of stressful life events on excessive drinking may be modified or buffered for African Americans who have sufficient support from various social groups such as immediate or extended family, friends, or other groups (Johnson and Jennison, 2001). The study consisted of a general population subsample of 1,478 African American respondents, 552 men and 926 women, in six pooled surveys drawn from the National Opinion Research Center. Personal interviews were administered to a representative cross section of adults using a standard questionnaire (Johnson and Jennison, 2001). The questionnaire consisted of questions on knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and behavioral report measures. The results indicated that the effects of stressful transitions and losses significantly increased alcohol consumption among African Americans. According to Johnson and Jennison social relationships that are characterized by supportive behavior, can reduce utilitarian drinking (2001). Overall, for African American males, the most significant buffering resources were helpful family members, especially parents, as well as good friends (Johnson and Jennison, 2001). According to Johnson and Jennison, a direct relationship between stress and drinking was found, confirming that drinking among some African Americans may serve to relieve tension and distress, and that social support resources are effective in modifying stress (2001).

Example - Real-life

Among the Hispanic culture the idea of homosexuality is very much a taboo. Due to personal experience, homosexuality is a topic that is rarely talked about in most Hispanic families, many Latino/a’s cope with this stressor in a negative manner due to the lack of social support around them. In a traditional Hispanic family homosexuality is not seen as an optional lifestyle and can cause the family to distance themselves from the particular individual. As a result of such poor social support the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender) person leads to negative coping mechanisms, such as alcohol and drug consumption and even suicide. The buffering hypothesis theory illustrates the idea that we need social support during stressful times because it protects us from the damaging effects of the stressful event. Coming out is an ongoing process that never ends. One is trying to figure out who they are and at the same time trying to cope with the thought of losing the closest person to them. Having a strong social support during this time can ease the stressor and help the individual cope with the whirlwind around them. For example, one who is thinking about telling their parents that he/she is gay/lesbian might have an easier time dealing with such a stressful event if they had a strong social support around them, letting them know that it is going to be ok. The lack of social support could in turn affect the individual going through such a stressful time in their life. Therefore, they can be more likely to turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to cope and escape the reality of the situation. As a result, people who have someone to lean on deal better with life’s problems and show improved health (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2007).


Akert, R. M., Aronson, E, & Wilson, T.D. (2007). Social psychology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Cohen, S. and Wills, T.A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 98, 310-357.

Helgeson, V. (2002). Social support and quality of life. 25-31.

Johnson, K.A., & Jennison, K.M. (2001). Stressful loss and the buffering effect of social support on drinkingbehavior among african americans: results of a national survey. 1-54.

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