Stress and the Familiarity of Support Providers
Social support is only helpful from people you know
Researchers at Bowling Green State University recently published a pair of studies that clarify one of the circumstances in which social support is helpful for people in stressful situations. Their studies emphasize the importance of the people providing social support. The people providing social support in their studies were not people who knew the participants. They were complete strangers.
Unlike other research, in which social support was provided by people who the participants knew or had a reasonable opportunity to get acquainted with, the presence of the other person either did not provide any stress relief.
Participants in the studies were asked to prepare and deliver a speech that they were told would be videotaped and evaluated by experts. Depending on the condition, another person was also in the room with the participants to evaluate. In some conditions, the other person also provided social support. Across all the conditions in both studies, the presence of the other person did not change the participants' bodily stress reactions (e.g., blood pressure, heart rate) or self-reported level of stress.
Evidently, for social support to be a source of stress relief, the people providing the support need to be people who are familiar to the person experiencing stress. In these studies, if the support from the other person actually did provide any benefit, it was probably covered up by the additional stress prompted by the other person's role as an evaluator.
Source: Anthony, J. L., & O'Brien, W. H. (1999). An evaluation of the impact of social support manipulations on cardiovascular reactivity to laboratory stressors. Behavioral Medicine, 25, 78-87.