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Group Dynamics

Social Support Helps People Grow

James Neill
Last updated:
08 May 2004

What's New?

In a study of 41 adult Outward Bound participants, it was found that the amount of social support strongly predicted changes in participants’ ‘psychological resilience’ (Neill & Dias, 2001).  Resilience refers to an individuals’ capacity to survive and thrive in difficult circumstances.  In this study, there were four measures of social support – overall group support, instructor support, support from the most supportive group member, and support from the least supportive group member. 

Interestingly, it was the support received from the least supportive person that best predicted gains in resilience.  This seems to mean that disruptive, negative individuals may be seriously limiting the potential for other group members’ learning and development.  These research findings support the need for a humanistic approach and suggest the need for leaders to deal proactively with negative group members who may retard te potential growth of other group members.  Early intervention, involving feedback and support to individuals providing low or negative support, as well as to those individuals who are perceiving that they are receiving low support, is recommended. 

Finally, we should explore and encourage a multitude of possible ways for enhancing the social support that can be fostered in outdoor education programs.  For starters, here’s a list of ways to promote social support in groups


Social Support Helps People Grow

In psychological theory and research, it has been known for many years that social support is a key factor which determines people’s level of physical and mental health. 

For example, in group and workplace settings  socially supportive teams are more likely to reach their objectives.

At the heart of this approach is the importance of deep valuing and active support of each individual. 

People who feel good about themselves generally are more productive and effective than those who don't feel good about themselves.

This is consistent with a person-centerd approach to therapy: “As persons are accepted and prized, they tend to develop a more caring attitude towards themselves” (Rogers, 1980: 116).

The person-centered or humanistic approach is based around respect for the dignity and individuality of each member.  This believe in each person's value is seen as a critical ingredient for growth and development.  Effective psychological change processes usually benefit from a humanistic orientation.

Support alone, however, is not enough.  For example, there has recently been criticism of parenting and schooling practices which artificially inflate children's self-esteem without giving the children real skills upon which to base their self-esteem. 

Ideally, support should be paired with appropriately challenging experiences.  The mix of social support and challenge can be a powerful formula for healing and growth.

This may explain, for example, the impressive effects of  outdoor education programs.  Programs such as Outward Bound provide controlled exposure to challenging experiences and emphasize a warm and supportive group atmosphere.

Social support helps people to take positive risks.  However, when there are negative relations with others, people are inclined to adopt defensive or aggressive postures are at not able to create and engage in as many growth opportunities.

Social support can also serve as a salve to pains encountered along the way.  It gives people confidence in 'having a go' and testing their limits when they know they have a community of support.

Social support is freely available.  Create social support yourself - a smile, a compliment, a helping hand - and you start to create your own environment of support.  Love really does make the world go around if we keep passing it around.

Leaders can create social support by demonstrating a caring attitude towards each individual.  In addition, the leader fosters social support amongst the group by providing sequential activities such as:

  • Early on, name games, get-to-know-you activities, and trust experiences

  • Personal and interpersonal exploration activities, such as sharing life stories, diaries, etc.

  • Interpersonal feedback and life review and life planning activities

When the power of social support and challenge are really harnessed, a group can collectively achieve very significant, even transformational growth together.