Positive and Negative Social Exchanges: Weighing Their Effects in

Journal ofGewntology: SOCIAL SCIENCES
1997, Vol. 52B, No. 4. S167-SI69
Copyright 1997 by The Gerontological Society of America
Positive and Negative Social Exchanges: Weighing
Their Effects in Later Life
Karen S. Rook
School of Social Ecology, University of California, Irvine.
NTEREST in how older adults' social relationships influence their health and well-being has a long history and
has inspired a great deal of empirical work. In much of this
work, older adults' informal social networks have been
viewed as a source of support that enhances psychological
well-being and facilitates adaptation to life stress. Central
to this tradition of gerontological research (and to parallel
literatures on other age groups) have been questions about
the dimensions of social support, the effects of different
kinds and sources of support, and the causes of and possible means of compensating for social support deficits.
Without oversimplifying a complex literature, it seems fair
to say that this work has gained credibility and momentum
from studies of diverse age groups and populations that
have converged in suggesting that social relationships often
promote physical health and emotional well-being (House,
Landis, and Umberson, 1988).
More recently, however, researchers have urged greater
attention to the negative, as well as the positive, side of informal social ties. The recognition that social relationships
can be a source of strain is not new, but systematic attention to the nature and impact of conflictual interactions in
the social networks of nonclinical populations is a more recent development. It has given rise to a small but growing
literature that examines both positive and negative aspects
of older adults' social relationships. A central focus of much
of this work has been the question of whether positive or
negative social exchanges have greater impact on older
adults' health and well-being. Again, without oversimplifying the findings from this literature, many studies have
yielded evidence of what has been termed a "negativity effect": evidence that negative social exchanges exhibit
stronger or more reliable associations with well-being than
do positive social exchanges (Rook, 1990). This work, too,
has gained credibility from convergent findings in other literatures that have documented the potent effects of negative information and events (e.g., Cacioppo, Gardner, and
Bernston, 1997; Taylor, 1991). In addition, "negativity effects" have emerged not only in studies of emotional health
outcomes but also in studies of physical health outcomes,
such as cardiovascular and immune functioning (Ewart et
al., 1991; Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 1993).
These different traditions of research thus create a paradox. On the one hand, social relationships appear to make
important, perhaps even essential (Baumeister and Leary,
1995), contributions to emotional and physical health. On
the other hand, when researchers examine both negative
and positive aspects of relationships, the negative aspects
often appear to be more consequential for well-being. Can
these conflicting views be resolved? The article by IngersollDayton, Morgan, and Antonucci in this issue represents
an attempt at exactly such a resolution and illustrates the
kind of thinking that will move us forward in our efforts to
grapple with the complexities of social network involvement in later adulthood.
Ingersoll-Dayton and her colleagues extend previous
analyses by presenting evidence that positive and negative
social exchanges make contributions to congruent dimensions of well-being, or to positive and negative affect, respectively. They note that prior studies often have examined only a single, and typically negative, outcome, such as
depression or negative mood. This may partly explain why
negativity effects have emerged in previous studies. In addition, Ingersoll-Dayton, Morgan, and Antonucci propose
that negative exchanges may be most potent when older
adults are contending with other life stress. When the researchers divided their representative sample into groups of
individuals who had experienced more versus fewer stressful life events, they found that negative exchanges had considerably greater impact on well-being than did positive exchanges among more stressed individuals; among less
stressed individuals, however, the two kinds of exchanges
had roughly comparable impact. Ingersoll-Dayton and her
colleagues note that previous studies that have yielded evidence of negativity effects often have been based on small,
nonrepresentative samples of individuals experiencing life
stress. They conclude that the evidence for negativity effects in prior work has been overstated. This is a useful antidote to what might be viewed as a premature conclusion
emerging from this literature that negative social exchanges
have a greater impact on older adults' well-being (Rook,
Ingersoll-Dayton and her colleagues have called attention to several factors that should be considered in future
research in order to provide a fairer test of the relative significance of positive and negative exchanges. Other factors
warrant consideration as well, several of which are discussed briefly here.
For example, a fair test would involve a comparison of
positive and negative exchanges of roughly equal intensity.
It would not be particularly compelling to find evidence of
a negativity effect based on comparisons of extreme negative exchanges (e.g., public ridicule) and mild positive exchanges (e.g., problem-solving discussions). The intensity,
or extremity, of positive and negative "stimuli" has been a
central concern in other literatures in which negativity effects have emerged, such as the person perception literature
(Wojciszke, Brycz, and Borkenau, 1993), but this has not
been true in the literature on personal relationships.
Similarly, differences in the time frames specified or implied in measures of positive and negative exchanges may
lead to biased comparisons. Positive exchanges are often
assessed in terms of potential transactions (e.g., "Who
could you turn to if you needed to discuss a personal problem?"), whereas negative exchanges are often assessed in
terms of recurring transactions (e.g., "Who upsets you?").
Such asymmetries clearly could inflate the evidence for
negativity effects.
In addition, incomplete sampling of the domains of positive and negative social interaction may compromise the
validity of comparisons undertaken. Many studies assess a
broad array of negative exchanges but a narrower array of
positive exchanges. In particular, the assessment of positive
exchanges often emphasizes emotional and instrumental social support, to the exclusion of shared leisure and simple
companionship. The enjoyable, hedonic forms of social interaction make important contributions to health and
well-being (Rook, 1994), and their omission may yield results that underestimate the effects of positive exchanges.
The stability of the health-related outcomes being studied also may influence the conclusions that emerge about
the significance of positive versus negative social exchanges. Most people exhibit only modest shifts in psychological functioning over time; that is, their psychological
health generally fluctuates modestly around a fairly stable
mean level (Costa et al., 1987; Monroe and Johnson, 1992).
For some, this stable personal mean will be characterized
by few symptoms of psychological distress, whereas for
others this personal mean will be characterized by numerous symptoms of largely chronic distress. Access to reliable
social support in an earlier life stage may well operate, as
attachment theorists (Bowlby, 1969) and others (e.g.,
Sarason, Pierce, and Sarason, 1990) have argued, to help
establish these personal mean levels of psychological
health; negative social exchanges, in contrast, may account
for fluctuations around these mean levels (cf. Berscheid,
1983). If so, then the prevailing research strategies for evaluating the effects of positive versus negative social exchanges may be ill-equipped to detect the developmentally
important role of supportive social bonds.
Similarly, some outcomes of interest, such as depression,
follow trajectories of onset, development, exacerbation, remission, and possible recurrence that may not be reflected
in widely used measures administered at a single point in
time (Monroe and Johnson, 1992). A given score could indicate, for different people, any of several qualitatively distinct states. Positive and negative social exchanges may be
differentially important in the onset versus maintenance of
emotional disorders, but research designs that indiscriminately mix together newly symptomatic and consistently
symptomatic individuals may fail to reveal such differences. Thus, greater attention to the chronicity, or stability,
of the emotional health outcomes under investigation and to
the meaning of shifts in psychological functioning over
time might improve our understanding of the significance
of positive versus negative social exchanges for emotional
The possibility of nonlinear associations between emotional health and either positive or negative social exchanges also warrants greater attention. Some researchers
have argued that the benefits of social support are most apparent when people who lack supportive relationships are
compared with individuals who have at least one such relationship (House, 1981; Kahn and Antonucci, 1980). That is,
a critical threshold may exist beyond which further support
contributes little to a person's psychological well-being. A
similar threshold may (though this is less clear) characterize the association between negative social exchanges and
well-being. The possibility of such nonlinear associations
becomes important in view of the fact that very few elderly
participants in previous studies have reported that they engage in no positive exchanges with others, whereas 25% or
more have reported that they experience no problematic interactions with others (Rook, 1990). As a result, previous
studies may have failed to capture the critical threshold for
positive exchanges but may have captured the critical
threshold for negative exchanges (to the extent that one exists), leading to mistaken inferences that negative social exchanges disproportionately affect well-being.
The emphasis in many studies on comparing regression
coefficients that represent the associations between emotional health and positive versus negative exchanges also
may have produced an incomplete picture of the relative
importance of these two kinds of social interaction.
Comparison of these coefficients provides information
about the average contribution to well-being of each additional positive or negative exchange, but does not take into
account base-rate frequencies of such exchanges (Morgan
and Schuster, 1992). Older adults typically report few negative exchanges and many positive exchanges (Rook, 1990).
Thus, the cumulative effect of (weak but numerous) positive social exchanges may exceed the cumulative effect
of (potent but scarce) negative exchanges (Morgan and
Schuster, 1992).
Finally, the cross-sectional nature of most work in this
area makes it difficult to know whether the effects of positive or negative social exchanges dissipate more rapidly
over time. The duration of negativity effects has received
little attention in previous studies, and it is possible that
such effects are intense but short-lived (Vinokur and van
Ryn, 1992). In an analysis of the effects of positive versus
negative life events over time, Taylor (1991) argued that
negative life events evoke strong initial emotional responses that subsequently become dampened as people
seek ways to minimize or undo the impact of the events.
Positive events, in contrast, do not trigger a comparable
minimization process, and their long-term impact, therefore, may be greater. The available data do not permit conclusions to be drawn about the short-term versus long-term
effects of positive and negative social exchanges, but it is
important to bear in mind that negativity effects have been
documented most often in cross-sectional studies.
Attention to the limitations of previous work identified
here and in the article by Ingersoll-Dayton and her colleagues is unlikely to reverse the conclusion that negative
social exchanges can cause considerable distress and can
detract from older adults' well-being, but it may provide the
basis for more tempered conclusions about the relative importance of positive and negative exchanges. Social relationships have the potential to provide a complex mix of
uplifting and disheartening experiences. Neglecting either
kind of experience will hinder our efforts to develop a comprehensive understanding of how social bonds affect health
and well-being in later life.
Address correspondence to Dr. Karen S. Rook, Department of Psychology and Social Behavior, 3340 Social Ecology II, University of
California, Irvine, CA 92697-7085. E-mail: [email protected]
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