Buffering Hypothesis: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In this lesson, you will learn the meaning of the buffering hypothesis, examine reasons that it holds true, and consider examples to further your understanding of this concept. A brief quiz to test your new knowledge follows the lesson.

Definition of the Buffering Hypothesis

Ashley and Susan had baby boys on the same day. Ashley's friends and family bought her groceries, cooked dinners, watched the baby so she could sleep, and hired a maid to clean her house once during her first weeks being home. Susan's family and friends, on the other hand, did not offer to help, and her husband was working 12 hours a day. Which of the two women probably coped better with having a new baby? It can be assumed that Ashley coped better, according to the buffering hypothesis.

The buffering hypothesis is a theory holding that the presence of a social support system helps buffer, or shield, an individual from the negative impact of stressful events. The buffering hypothesis has been researched in terms of whether or not social support systems lengthen a person's longevity, health, and wellness.

Studies have shown a positive correlation between a strong social support system and the ability to fight cancer, avoid Alzheimer's disease, and fend off cardiovascular illness. Further, a strong social support system can be a buffer against depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental illnesses. Human beings are social creatures; it makes sense that a strong social support system would have a positive impact on mental and physical health.

Reasons Supporting the Buffering Hypothesis

How can social support improve or maintain good mental and physical health? The primary reason is that such support can lessen an individual's stress level. A heightened stress level creates a hormone called cortisol in the body. Cortisol can suppress the digestive, reproductive, and immune systems. When the immune system is suppressed, there is an increased risk for getting sick. Below are three reasons the buffering hypothesis holds true.

Social supports can:

Lessen the Impact of a Stressful Event

Taking care of a newborn can be exhausting and stressful. Due to help from her family, the stress of caring for a new child was lessened for Ashley. Susan, on the other hand, experienced the full impact of the stress, exhaustion, and fear that comes with raising a newborn.

Lessen the Intensity of a Negative Reaction to a Stressful Event

Ashley was able to vent her frustrations, receive validation for concerns and complaints, and ask questions of her family and friends, thereby decreasing her stress about being a first-time mother. Susan, on the other hand, didn't have anyone to validate her struggles, which caused her significant stress.

Correct Maladaptive Behavior in the Aftermath of a Stressful Event

When Ashley was staying inside too much, and not getting enough fresh air and sunlight, her sister told her to take a walk in the morning and afternoon with the baby in a stroller. And when she wasn't getting enough social interaction, her mother suggested she sign up for a Mommy and Me class. Staying inside and isolating oneself are common maladaptive responses after having a baby. However, Ashley's social supports were able to guide her toward healthier behaviors.

In contrast, Susan's maladaptive behaviors turned into postpartum depression. The social supports to correct these responses were not in place for Susan, as they were for Ashley.

The Roseto Effect--- The Ultimate Buffering Hypothesis Example

There's a little town in Pennsylvania called Roseto. It gets its name from a town in Italy called Roseto Valfortore. In the 1800s, 11 Rosetans from Roseto Valfortore (10 men and 1 boy) immigrated from this Italian town and settled in what is now known as Roseto, Pennsylvania. They came to America to find more opportunity for themselves and their families.

Fast forward to the 1950s. A physician named Stewart Wolf became curious as to why there were hardly any patients under the age of 65 with heart disease from Roseto, PA. Wolf researched this town and looked at their diet, thinking that Italians ate a healthy Mediterranian diet. But Wolf found that many people in Roseto could not afford the healthy olive oil and fresh vegetables that were typical of their home country. Instead, they ate red meat and fried food. This finding stumped Wolf. What was their secret to great health?

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