How Gender and Cognitive Complexity Influence the Provision of Emotional Support: A Study of Indirect Effects

By Samter, Wendy | Communication Reports, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

How Gender and Cognitive Complexity Influence the Provision of Emotional Support: A Study of Indirect Effects


Samter, Wendy, Communication Reports


The current study examined the extent to which cognitive complexity--a well known predictor of message behavior--mediated sex differences in the production of person-centered comforting messages. Two hundred and eight students (102 men and 106 women) representing a variety of majors at a large midwestern university participated in the study. They responded to Crockett's (1965) Role Category Questionnaire (a measure of cognitive complexity) and three hypothetical situations designed to elicit their levels of comforting ability. Responses to the comforting scenarios were coded for their degree of person-centeredness (Burleson, 1984). Results demonstrated the partial mediating effects of cognitive complexity. However, the effects of sex were large and remained significant even when controlling for complexity.

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* Sex is an important variable underlying the attitudes and behaviors relevant to emotional support. Studies suggest that, compared to men, women are more likely to (a) offer support both spontaneously and when requested (e.g., Trobst, Collins, & Embree, 1994); (b) value skills aimed at the management of others' emotions (e.g., Burleson, Kunkel, Samter, & Werking, 1996); and (c) feel confident in their ability to engage in effective support efforts (e.g., Clark, 1993). Consistent with these broader sex differences, at least three studies (e.g., Borden, 1979; Burleson, 1982; Hale, Tighe, & Mongeau, 1997) have found that women are more inclined than men to use highly "person-centered" messages when seeking to comfort a distressed other.

According to constructivist researchers (e.g., Delia, 1987; O'Keefe & Delia, 1982), person-centered messages demonstrate an awareness of and adaptation to the subjective, affective, and relational aspects of communicative contexts. The primary instrumental goal being pursued by interactants determines the particular manner in which person-centeredness is reflected in message strategies (see Burleson & Caplan, 1998). Within comforting situations, a high degree of person-centeredness occurs when speakers explicitly acknowledge, elaborate, and legitimize a distressed other's feelings; person-centered comforting strategies also encourage extended articulation of affective reactions and attempt to place these reactions in a broader context (see Applegate, 1980a, 1980b; Burleson, 1982, 1983). In contrast, position-centered comforting messages disconfirm the emotions experienced because of a distressful event and fail to provide the target with any sort of broader perspective.

The associations between sex and the use of person-centered comforting strategies tend to be moderate in magnitude. For instance, in a study of first-through twelfth-graders, Burleson (1982) reported a small, but significant difference in the highest level comforting strategy males and females produced (approximate d = .50), with females generating messages exhibiting higher levels of person centeredness. More recently, Hale et al. (1997) observed a correlation of .14 between sex and person-centered comforting ability among adults. While somewhat less than substantial in magnitude, such associations are nonetheless important given that a growing body of research indicates that highly person-centered comforting messages are both perceived as more sensitive and effective than less person-centered messages (e.g., Burleson & Samter, 1985), and actually do a better job of relieving emotional distress (Jones & Guerrero, in press). Moreover, several studies indicate that both men and women view person-centered comforting messages as the most sensitive and effective ways of handling emotional distress (Jones & Burleson, 1997; Kunkel & Burleson, 1999; Samter, Burleson, & Murphy, 1987; Samter, Whaley, Mortenson, & Burleson, 1997).

Thus, there is compelling evidence that both sexes regard the person-centered strategies women more commonly produce in situations calling for emotional support to be better ways of managing distress than the less person-centered strategies men more typically utilize. …

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