The Neurobiology of Giving Versus Receiving Support: The Role of Stress-Related and Social Reward-Related Neural Activity

Psychosom Med. 2016 May;78(4):443-53. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000302.


Objectives: There is a strong association between supportive ties and health. However, most research has focused on the health benefits that come from the support one receives while largely ignoring the support giver and how giving may contribute to good health. Moreover, few studies have examined the neural mechanisms associated with support giving or how giving support compares to receiving support.

Method: The current study assessed the relationships: a) between self-reported receiving and giving social support and vulnerability for negative psychological outcomes and b) between receiving and giving social support and neural activity to socially rewarding and stressful tasks. Thirty-six participants (mean [standard deviation] age = 22.36 [3.78] years, 44% female) completed three tasks in the functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner: 1) a stress task (mental arithmetic under evaluative threat), b) an affiliative task (viewing images of close others), and c) a prosocial task.

Results: Both self-reported receiving and giving social support were associated with reduced vulnerability for negative psychological outcomes. However, across the three neuroimaging tasks, giving but not receiving support was related to reduced stress-related activity (dorsal anterior cingulate cortex [r = -0.27], left [r = -0.28] and right anterior insula [r = -0.33], and left [r = -0.32] and right amygdala [r = -0.32]) to a stress task, greater reward-related activity (left [r = 0.42] and right ventral striatum [VS; r = 0.41]) to an affiliative task, and greater caregiving-related activity (left VS [r = 0.31], right VS [r = 0.31], and septal area [r = 0.39]) to a prosocial task.

Conclusions: These results contribute to an emerging literature suggesting that support giving is an overlooked contributor to how social support can benefit health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Female
  • Functional Neuroimaging / methods*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Reward*
  • Social Support*
  • Stress, Psychological / diagnostic imaging
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*
  • Young Adult