First Year Experience Study

Eligibility: Must be an incoming first year student in the class of 2015.

Interested? To learn more about this study or to volunteer to participate, please contact incope@lehigh.edu

Stress is an inevitable part of daily life that has a variety of negative physiological and psychological consequences for individuals. Social support is thought to ameliorate these effects. Specifically, perceived support has been predicted to buffer or reduce the negative impact of stress. This Buffering Hypothesis (Cobb, 1976; Cohen & Wills, 1985) has been examined a great deal since its initial proposal over thirty years ago, but few studies incorporate key mechanisms of the model, such as appraisal, and many use only cross-sectional or correlational designs which lack the ability to analyze within- and between-person effects. This study attempted to provide a thorough examination of stress buffering through a longitudinal study of stress, perceived support, appraisal, and distress across four time-points during the 2010-2011 academic year.

The study examined a major stressful event, the transition from high school to college, as it was occurring. Typically a stress-by-support interaction is the primary criterion for identifying a stress buffering effect (Cohen & Wills, 1985), but the current study also applied a mediated moderation model based on a novel interpretation of the literature. The Buffering Hypothesis was examined using both criteria as well as in models that combined and separated the within- and between-person effects. Much of the work in the current literature does not allow for the separation of these types of effects so combined analyses are meant to mimic such findings. The longitudinal design also enabled us to use a mixed model approach that separated the between- and within-person stress buffering processes.

Overall, there was both stability and variability in stress, appraisal, and social support over the course of the first semester, with students relying heavily on both Home and College support networks. Stress buffering, as defined by the more standard interaction criterion, was supported under certain conditions, but was unsupported under the novel mediated moderation criterion. This suggests that appraisal may not be the mechanism by which perceived support operates to buffer one from stress. Implications for the Buffering Hypothesis and future research are discussed.

This study is being conducted by Christopher T. Burke, Ph.D. through the Lehigh University Department of Psychology.