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Psychological mechanisms of gender differences in social support use under stress

  • Author(s): Larsen, Britta Ann
  • et al.

Social support has been shown to confer health benefits by buffering stress, yet men use support much less than women. It is not known, however, which barriers prevent support use in men, and whether they apply only to seeking help or receiving help in general. The purpose of this dissertation is to explore support seeking, accepting, and effectiveness for men and women, and how gender differences in perceived costs and benefits of support govern these processes. Using an online survey, participants in Study 1a rated the stressfulness and available resources associated with hypothetical stressors when imagining facing them alone or with a friend. Participants perceived more resources available when imagining friends being present, yet for male subjects this was especially true when the friend was female. This gender pattern was more pronounced in Study 1b, which inquired about helpfulness rather than availability of resources. Study 2a investigated actual help seeking behavior during a laboratory stressor and showed that men asked for help more from women than from men, while females requested help equally across genders. Participants in Study 2b were given a survey describing the stressor in Study 2a and estimated costs and benefits of asking for help. While there was no difference in perceived costs, such as embarrassment, men believed that other men would be less likely to give them requested assistance. The gender pattern in support use changed in Study 3, which assessed participants' rates of accepting freely offered help during a laboratory stressor. Females again accepted help equally across supporter genders, while men accepted help equally in one case and more from men in another. Finally, Study 4 examined how gender and social support influenced cardiovascular recovery following an emotional stressor. For both genders, emotional support facilitated greatest recovery, especially when it came from a same-gender source. Overall these studies found little evidence for gender differences in costs or effectiveness of support use, and emphasized gender differences in support seeking based on perceived availability. Overcoming these barriers in support seeking could have important implications for men's health and wellbeing

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