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Support in Developing Friendships: Why We Give More Than We Receive

Chances are that at some point, you wanted to become closer friends with someone you liked but didn’t know well. How should you go about building the relationship? For example, if you and your potential new friend were going to an event together, do you offer to pick him or her up or should you ask for a ride? What if instead you were going with someone who is already your best friend? How likely is it that your choice to offer versus ask for a ride would change? A study by Yale University researchers on how people provide support in friendships illuminates why the closeness of a friendship may influence people’s likelihood to offer versus request support in everyday situations.1

The researchers recruited participants aged 18 to 65 to complete an online survey examining how often people offer or request support from an existing friend. Researchers randomly assigned participants to think of either a casual or close friend. For each condition, participants indicated how likely they would be to either offer or ask for support from their friend. For example, researchers asked how likely the participant would offer the friend a ride to the train station if he or she needed a ride, and others were asked about their likelihood of asking their friend for a ride.

Supporting predictions, participants were generally more willing to offer support than to seek it; however, the likelihood of seeking support varied depending on whether participants considered a casual versus a close friend. When a casual friend was in mind, participants especially preferred to offer support. In the case of a close friend, however, participants were similarly likely to request and offer support. A second study, which took place in the lab and involved presenting pairs of friends an opportunity to request or offer support, yielded similar results.

Dr. Lindsey Beck, first author of the study, presents insight into people’s overall preference to provide versus seek support. She explains, “When people offer support, they can present themselves as responsive, generous, and capable, which conveys that they will be a good friend. In contrast, when people ask for support they may come across as too needy or entitled to make a good friend.” Once people transition from casual to close friends, however, it makes sense that the imbalance between offering and seeking support should diminish: because close friends are more comfortable with one another, asking for and offering support should be driven by each person’s needs.

This reasoning and the results of the study align with the risk regulation model of close relationships.2 Basically, the model suggests that people worry more about appearing vulnerable and risking rejection during the initial stages of a relationship when trust has not yet been established. When people offer help in an early-stage friendship, they can appear generous and friendship-worthy without revealing vulnerabilities like they do when asking for support. This serves a twofold purpose: (1) promoting the relationship while simultaneously (2) protecting oneself from potential rejection. Once people are comfortable and equally offering support, they can open themselves up to asking for support and developing a closer friendship. In any case—whether giving or receiving—remaining sensitive to the needs of a friend and trusting that he or she will do the same can help promote and sustain a lasting, mutually-satisfying relationship.

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1Beck, L.A., & Clark, M.S. (2009). Offering more support than we seek. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 267-270.

2Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Collins, N. L. (2006). Optimizing assurance: The risk regulation system in relationships. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 641–666.

Jana Lembke - Science Of Relationships articles
Jana's research interests include close relationships and positive emotions. She is most interested in the impact of individual-level variables and interpersonal behavior on personal well-being and optimal relationship functioning.

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the role of the self in romantic relationships with a specific focus on self-expansion. He has authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences and is a member of the Editorial Board for the Journal of Social and Personal RelationshipsRelated Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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