The Negative Effects of Positive Social Support

Social support

A few months ago, I was sitting in a local coffee shop doing some writing. I happened to be seated next to a student of mine, who was having coffee with her friend at an adjacent table. As their meeting came to an end, I heard my student say to her friend, “Good luck on your exam. I know you’ll do really well!” (I wasn’t eavesdropping. I promise!)

At first, I thought to myself, “That’s nice. It’s always good to have supportive friends.” And this particular student happens to be one of the nicest, most supportive, and most genuine people you’ll ever meet, so I expected nothing less from her.

Now, if you’ve been following my blog at all, you’ll know that I recently wrote about how we should try to surround ourselves with positive people. When we do, they make it more likely that we’ll think and act positively.

But as I thought about my coffee shop experience a little more, I started to wonder whether my student’s positive comment might’ve actually had a negative impact on her friend.

After thinking about the issue a bit more, I’ve come to the conclusion that some types of positive social support can actually have highly negative effects. Specifically, certain types of positive social support—although they almost always come from a place of authenticity and good intentions—might actually have the undesired effect of increasing a person’s obsessive passion, which, as I’ll explain in a minute, is a “bad” type of passion that produces numerous negative outcomes.

But before I jump into the issue of positive social support and obsessive passion, let me briefly revisit the topic of passion first.

Passion: A Quick Refresher

As I’ve discussed before, passion occurs when a person loves, values, and spends time on an activity. For instance, I love to play guitar, I find it to be a valuable activity for a number of reasons, and I spend a good chunk of time practicing. (In fact, I’m working at home today, and I spent a good hour or so playing guitar this morning when I probably should’ve been preparing for my classes. But I digress…)

If you look around a little bit (on the Internet, example), you’ll see a lot of people talking about passion. Although there are competing ideas, more often than not, the prevailing belief is that finding and following your passion is the way to a good life. If you’re passionate, supporters claim, you’re more likely to be happy and successful and eventually make a billion dollars. Steve Jobs, for instance, frequently spoke about how important it is to love what to do.

But in reality, it’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that. The truth of the matter is that not all passion is good. In fact, there are times when being passionate about an activity can actually have negative psychological effects and even hurt your performance.

** Harmonious and Obsessive Passion

As Vallerand and his colleagues have shown, there are actually two different types of passion—an important point that is almost always overlooked in “pop psych” discussions of passion (for example, see here).

The first type of passion, harmonious passion, occurs when a person freely chooses to engage in an activity. Because of the freedom involved, she feels as if she’s in control—she can decide when and when not to do the activity. Hence the term “harmonious”—it’s nicely balanced, or in harmony, with other things in her life.

For example, a student who is harmoniously passionate about her academic activities—which she enjoys, values, and spends time on—can study when necessary but is also able to step away when other responsibilities call. She freely chooses when she wants to study and experiences little guilt when she’s not doing so. Although “being a good student” is an important part of her identity, it’s not everything.

Importantly, as numerous studies have shown, the feeling of being in control is associated with positive emotions and even improved performance.

Obsessive passion, in contrast, is a type of passion in which a person feels pressured to engage in an activity. Although he still enjoys, values, and spends time on it, the lack of freedom involved makes it feel like the activity controls him. As a result, he feels compelled to engage in it and often feels guilty because he neglects other responsibilities.

A student who is obsessively passionate about his academic activities feels controlled by it all—by studying, by grades, by going to class, and so on. When he’s studying, he’s good (although he frequently thinks about the other things he needs to do, which interrupts his concentration). But when he finally pulls himself away to do other important things, he feels guilty, conflicted and “pulled” back to studying: “Geez, I really need to be studying right now.” A huge part of his self-image revolves around being a good student.

With obsessive passion, the compulsive feeling of being controlled creates negative emotions and may even negatively impact performance.

How Positive Social Support Can Make You Obsessive

In addition to studying the different outcomes that occur when a person is harmoniously or obsessive passionate, researchers have examined how these different types of passion develop.

Ultimately, what much research has shown is that harmonious passion develops under conditions of autonomy support. Obsessive passion, in contrast, emerges when people are in psychologically controlling environments.

supportAutonomy supportive environments are those where we feel free to make our own choices and receive support for doing so. Specifically, as Mageau and colleagues have shown, autonomy supportive environments are those where other people (a) provide us with (and support our) choices, (b) give us reasons when they ask us to do something, and (c) try to understand our feelings.

In contrast, psychologically controlling environments are those where we receive pressure from others to make certain choices. These environments occur when others (a) tell us that bad things will happen if we make certain choices, (b) try to make us feel guilty for our choices, and (c) pressure us to perform in particular ways.

Unfortunately, many people operate under psychologically controlling environments, thus making it more likely that they’ll become obsessive about a particular activity.

For instance, people who enjoy their work, but who also feel pressure to perform at high levels, might become obsessive about it, unable to pull themselves away (which often creates the feeling of guilt when they finally do).

Similarly, students who feel pressured to pick a particular major or go to graduate school might become obsessive about their academic activities.

Back to the Coffee Shop

And this is where my coffee shop experience comes back into the picture…

If you remember, my student wished her friend good luck and told her she’d do “really well” on her exam.

But what does it mean to do “really well” on an exam?

If you’re like most people (including most of my students), you define “really well” as “getting a good exam grade.”

Unfortunately, trying to get good grades often creates a huge performance pressure—which, as noted above, is one of the components of psychological control.

In fact, in (yet-to-be-published) research conducted in my lab, we found that students whose friends created performance pressure (like when they say, “I know you can get a good grade!”) reported the highest levels of obsessive passion for their academic activities.

As I think about how my students often interact with one another, I see many instances of positive social support that probably function as psychological control:

“I know you’ll get a good grade.”

“I took that class, and it was easy. I’m sure you’ll ace it, too.”

“You’re so smart.” (which is often based on a person’s GPA)

“You’re a shoe-in for graduate school.”

And so on…

Although most “positive” statements like these are well-intentioned and come from a place of caring and genuine concern, unfortunately, they often have a negative effect.

They introduce a type of psychological control that has the unwanted effect of increasing obsessive passion. And as noted above, obsessive passion is associated with negative psychological emotions and, in many cases, even decreased performance.

How to Provide Good Positive Social Support

So if providing positive social support sometimes has the unintended effect of increasing obsessive passion, what can be done instead? How can we continue to provide others with positive social support (which is good!) that is autonomy supportive rather than psychologically controlling?

First, we need to provide autonomy support as much as possible. Specifically, we should:

Support other people’s choices (even if we don’t necessarily agree with them), which gives them the feeling of “being free to choose.”

In addition, we need to “walk a mile in their shoes”—we need to try to understand other people’s feelings, concerns, and perspectives as much as possible.

Second, and maybe more importantly, we need to urge others to pursue mastery goals and to approach their activities with a growth mindset.

Psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that people who believe their IQ and performance are “fixed” (what Dweck calls having a fixed mindset) typically underperform people who believe that their IQ and performance can be improved through hard work (a growth mindset). Thus, if you believe that you can get better through hard work, your performance is likely to improve.

As much as possible, then, we should try to get others to believe that, through hard work, they can reach their goals.

Dweck has also shown that when people receive praise for working hard, they perform better than when they receive praise for “being smart.”

What this means is that we need to stop telling people to focus on things like “getting a good grade” and instead urge them to “work hard and do their best.”

Instead of saying, “I know you’ll get a good grade,” we could say, “I know you’ll do your very best, and I’ll support you regardless of the outcome.”

Instead of saying, “You have a high GPA. You’re so smart,” we could say, “You have a high GPA. You must study a lot and work really hard.”

Importantly, we can’t forget to reward solid effort when we see it happening. As Dweck noted, a little praise for working hard can go a long way.

Positive Social Support: It’s (Almost) All Good

Positive social support is a wonderful thing. We all enjoy the feeling of having good friends who “got our backs” through good times and bad.

But we need to be careful about what kind of positive social support we give to others. If we provide support that unintentionally exerts a psychologically controlling effect, it might have the negative consequence of making others obsessively passionate about their activities.

pete-2If, however, we provide others with positive social support that is autonomy supportive in nature and that encourages the pursuit of hard work and growth, we can help them be more harmoniously passionate about things in their lives, which—as my youngest son’s hero, Pete the Cat, says—is all good.

So the next time you’re having coffee with a friend, let her know you believe in her. Give her a ton of positive social support. Tell her you got her back.

Just make sure your positive social support is authentic, well-intended—and autonomy supportive in nature.


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3 thoughts on “The Negative Effects of Positive Social Support”

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