Tag Archives: Tucson

Social support as a psychological stressor, implications for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head at a political rally in January

By Kevin R. Betts

Some of you will remember my post back in January about Jared Loughner, the 22 year old who shot and killed six people and wounded 14 others at a political rally in Arizona. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was seriously wounded in the shooting by a shot to the head. The story of Giffords has since received extensive attention by major news agencies. Colleagues, political supporters, and perhaps most of all, her husband, have eagerly awaited Gifford’s recovery and hoped for her successful future in politics.  The impact of social support on recovery from such hardships has been studied extensively by social and health psychologists. What effect, if any, might social support have on recovery efforts like those of Giffords?

The intuitive assumption of many laypersons—that social support aids recovery—is not completely accurate. To be sure, recipients of social support often gain strength from the social support they receive during hardships. Yet, social support can also hinder recovery efforts if administered inappropriately. Researchers Rafaeli and Gleason (2009) find that social support can undermine the recipient’s sense of self-efficacy, focus the recipient’s attention on the stressor, and make the recipient feel indebted to the provider. The combination of these factors and others may lead recipients to perceive social support as an additional stressor. Rafaeli and Gleason (2009) emphasize that social support can promote positive health outcomes, but only when the right type of support is provided at the right time. For instance, reassuring a recipient that she is capable of overcoming some stressor may be stressful if she is already confident in her abilities (because it could undermine her sense of self-efficacy). It might make more sense in such cases to speak of the positive outcomes that will result once the stressor is “inevitably” overcome.

Findings like these may be especially relevant to Giffords’ recovery efforts. Supporters of Giffords would like to see her make a complete recovery that allows her to continue work in public office. At a fundraiser in March, supporters raised $125,000 in pledges to sustain her 2012 reelection campaign. The support that Giffords has received from supporters is profound. Yet, expectations set for her may be unrealistic. Neurosurgeon Dr. Dong Kim asks, “If somebody has a severe brain injury, are they ever going to be like they were before? The answer is no.” Given limits to how fast one can recover from such a serious injury, Giffords may perceive these support behaviors as stress inducing. Giffords still has a lot of recovering left to do before returning to office can even be considered. If we wish to see Giffords make the fastest recovery possible, it may be wise for the public to set our expectations aside for a while and just let her recover.

Read more:

What’s really going on with Gabby Giffords? (Newsweek)

Rafaeli, E., & Gleason, M.E.J. (2009). Skilled support within intimate relationships.  Journal of Family Theory and Review, 1, 20-37.

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Did intergroup threat act as a precursor to the Arizona shooting rampage?

Jared Loughner's Pima County booking photo

By Kevin R. Betts

Twenty-two year old Jared Loughner stood in a Phoenix courtroom yesterday faced with federal murder and attempted murder charges. Although much is still being learned about why he targeted Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in a shooting rampage on Saturday, his actions appear politically motivated. At a past political event, he asked Giffords questions along the lines of “What do you think of these people who are working for the government and they can’t describe what they do?” and “What is government if words have no meaning?” Loughner’s political leanings are unclear, but friends say he expressed dissatisfaction with Giffords and her views. Could perceptions of threat posed by the views of Giffords and her constituents have contributed to Loughner’s violent rampage?

The essence of intergroup threat theory is an expectation that future intergroup relations will be harmful in some way to the ingroup (Stephan, Renfro, & Davis, 2008). These threats may be realistic in that they threaten political power, economic power, or well-being, or they may be symbolic in that they threaten values, beliefs, or a worldview.  It is possible that Loughner perceived the views of Giffords and her constituents as threatening in one or more of these ways. He expressed dissatisfaction to his friends and others regarding her views and ability to lead. More importantly, affected individuals react to threats both psychologically and behaviorally. Psychological reactions may include fear, anger, resentment, or helplessness. Behavioral reactions may be avoidant or aggressive in nature. Although avoidant reactions are most common, aggressive reactions become more likely with negative previous interactions and a strong ingroup identity. Loughner’s friends describe contentious interactions between him and Giffords at past political events, but his association with opposing groups is unclear. Nonetheless, his actions were clearly aggressive.

It is probably too soon to draw firm conclusions about whether intergroup threat acted as a precursor to the Arizona shooting rampage. More information about Loughner’s political leanings,  formal or informal associations with any political groups, history of prior contact with Giffords and her constituents, and perceptions of threat posed by the views of  Giffords and her constituents are all needed. Yet, intergroup threat is worth considering as a possible precursor to the incident as the case unfolds.

Read more:

Shooting suspect’s nihilism rose with isolation (AP)

Stephan, W.G., Renfro, C.L., & Davis, M.D. (2008). The role of threat in intergroup relations. In U. Wagner, L.R. Tropp, G. Finchilescu, & C. Tredoux (Eds.), Improving intergroup relations (pp. 55-72). Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.

View other posts by Kevin R. Betts