Social penetration theory

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The social penetration theory proposes that, as relationships develop, interpersonal communication moves from relatively shallow, non-intimate levels to deeper, more intimate ones.[1] The theory was formulated by psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor[2] in 1973 to provide an understanding of the closeness between two individuals.

The social penetration theory states that this process occurs primarily through self-disclosure and closeness develops if the participants proceed in a gradual and orderly fashion from superficial to intimate levels of exchange as a function of both immediate and forecast outcomes.[3] To self-disclose, one must open up their inner feelings. This could be anything from their personal motives or desires. To self-disclose could bring a relationship to a new level of intimacy. Altman and Taylor believe that only through opening one's self to the main route to social penetration-self-disclosure-by becoming vulnerable to another person can a close relationship develop. Vulnerability can be expressed in a variety of ways, including the giving of anything which is considered to be a personal possession, such as a dresser drawer given to a partner.[4] This psychological theory, as with many others, is applied in the context of interpersonal communication. It can also be defined as the process of developing deeper intimacy with another person through mutual self-disclosure and other forms of vulnerability. The social penetration theory is known as an objective theory, meaning that the theory is based on data drawn from experiments, and not from conclusions based on individuals' specific experiences. This theory is also guided by the assumptions that relationship development is systematic and predictable and also includes deterioration, or growing apart, besides the major four stages.

As for the speed of self-disclosure, Altman and Taylor were convinced that the process of social penetration moves a lot faster in the beginning stages of a relationship and slows considerably. Those who are able to develop a long-term, positive reward/cost outcome are the same people who are able to share important matches of breadth categories. The early reward/cost assessment have a strong impact on the relationship's reactions and involvement, and expectancies in a relationship regarding the future play a major role on the outcome of the relationship.


  • Relationships progress from nonintimate to intimate.
  • Relational development is generally systematic and predictable.
  • Relational development includes depenetration and dissolution.
  • Self-disclosure is at the core of relationship development.[5]

Onion metaphor[edit]

Social penetration is perhaps best known for its onion analogy, and it is sometimes called the "onion theory" of personality. Personality is like a multi-layered onion with public self on the outer layer and private self at the core. As time passes and intimacy grows, the layers of one's personality begin to unfold to reveal the core of the person. Three major factors influence self-revelation and begin the process of the onion theory, which are personal characteristics, reward/cost assessments, and the situational context.[6]

Onion Metaphor - Social Penetration Theory


The self-disclosure theory is a purposeful disclosure of personal information to another person.[7] Disclosure may include sharing both high-risk and low-risk information as well as personal experiences, ideas, attitudes, feelings, values, past facts and life stories, and even future hopes, dreams, ambitions, and goals. In sharing information about themselves, people make choices about what to share and with whom to share it.


  • Orientation stage. In this first stage, we engage in small talk and simple, harmless clichés like, 'Life's like that'. This first stage follows the standards of social desirability and norms of appropriateness.
  • Exploratory affective stage. We now start to reveal ourselves, expressing personal attitudes about moderate topics such as government and education. This may not be the whole truth as we are not yet comfortable to lay ourselves bare. We are still feeling our way forward. This is the stage of casual friendship, and many relationships do not go past this stage.
  • Affective stage. Now we start to talk about private and personal matters. We may use personal idioms. Criticism and arguments may arise. There may be intimate touching and kissing at this stage.
  • Stable stage. The relationship now reaches a plateau in which some of the deepest personal thoughts, beliefs, and values are shared and each can predict the emotional reactions of the other person.
  • Depenetration stage (optional). When the relationship starts to break down and costs exceed benefits, then there is a withdrawal of disclosure which leads to termination of the relationship.[8]

The development of relationship is not automatic but rather occurs through the skills of partners in revealing or disclosing first their attitudes and latter their personalities, inner character, and true selves. This is done in a reciprocal manner. The main factor that acts as a catalyst in the development of relationships is proper self disclosure[9]


The depth of penetration is a degree of intimacy. This does not necessarily refer to sexual activity, but how open and close someone can become with another person despite their anxiety over self-disclosure. Doing this will give the person more trust in the relationship and make them want to talk about deeper things that would be discussed in normal, everyday conversation. This could be through friendship, family relationships, peers, and even romantic relationships with either same-sex or opposite-sex partners.

How do people move to deeper intimacy levels? When talking with one person over time, someone could make more topics to talk about so the other person will start to open up and express what they feel about the different issues and topics. This helps the first person to move closer to getting to know the person and how they react to different things. The is applicable when equal intimacy is involved in friendship, romance, attitudes and families.

These come in four stages outlined by Altman and Taylor in their framework of social penetration:

  1. Peripheral items are exchanged more frequently and sooner than private information – When the sharp edge of the wedge has barely reached the intimate area, the thicker part has a cut path through the outer rings. The relationship is still relating at an interpersonal level.
  2. Self-disclosure is reciprocal, especially in the early stages of relationship development – The theory predicts new acquaintances, when two people show roughly equal levels of openness, but does not explain why. They might also feel a sense of emotional equity, so a disclosure takes place between them.
  3. Penetration is rapid at the start but slows down quickly as the tightly wrapped inner layers are reached – Instant intimacy is a myth. There are societal norms against telling too much too fast. For this, relationships fade or die easily after a separation or strain. A comfortable share of positive and negative reactions is rare. When achieved, relationships become more important to both parties, more meaningful and more enduring.
  4. Depenetration is a gradual process of layer-by-layer withdrawal – A warm friendship between two people will deteriorate if they begin to close off areas of their lives that had earlier been opened. Relational retreat takes back of what has earlier been exchanged in the building of a relationship. Relationships are likely to break down not in an explosive argument but in a gradual cooling off of enjoyment and care.


It is possible to have depth without breadth and even breadth without depth. For instance, depth without breadth could be where only one area of intimacy is accessed. "A relationship that could be depicted from the onion model would be a summer romance. This would be depth without breadth." On the other hand, breadth without depth would be simple everyday conversations. An example would be when passing by an acquaintance and saying, "Hi, how are you?" without ever really expecting to stop and listen to what this person has to say is common. To get to the level of breadth and depth, both parties have to work on their social skills and how they present themselves to people. They have to be willing to open up and talk to each other and express themselves. One person could share some information about their personal life and see how the other person responds. If they do not want to open up the first time, the first person has to keep talking to the second person and have many conversations to get to the point where they both feel comfortable enough for them to want to talk to each other about more personal topics.

Rewards and costs assessment[edit]

Social exchange theory[edit]

Further information: Social exchange theory

Social exchange theory states that humans weigh each relationship and interaction with another human on a reward cost scale without realizing it. If the interaction was satisfactory, then that person or relationship is looked upon favorably. But if an interaction was unsatisfactory, then the relationship will be evaluated for its costs compared to its rewards or benefits. People try to predict the outcome of an interaction before it takes place. Coming from a scientific standpoint, Altman and Taylor were able to assign letters as mathematical representations of costs and rewards. They also borrowed the concepts from Thibaut and Kelley's in order to describe the relation of costs and rewards of relationships. Thibaut and Kelley's key concepts of relational outcome, relational satisfaction, and relational stability serve as the foundation of Irwin and Taylor's rewards minus costs, comparison level, and comparison level of alternatives.

A major factor of disclosure is an individual calculation in direct relation to benefits of the relationship at hand. Each calculation is unique in its own way because every person prefers different things and therefore will give different responses to different questions.

An example of how rewards and costs can influence behaviour is if an individual were to ask another individual on a date. If they say 'yes', then the first individual has gained a reward, making them more likely to repeat this action. However, if they reply with 'No', then they have received a punishment which in turn would stop them from repeating an action like that in the future. The more someone discloses to their partner, the greater the intimacy reward will be. When the individuals involved in the relationship hold positive values in this calculation, intimacy proceeds at an accelerated rate. In the relationship, if both parties are dyad, the cost exceeds the rewards. The relationship then will slow considerably, and future intimacy is less likely to happen. The basic formula in which some can process this in most situations is: Behaviour (profits) = Rewards of interaction – costs of interaction.


This means that people want to maximize their rewards and minimize their costs when they are in a relationship with somebody. According to Altman and Taylor, relationships are sustained when they are relatively rewarding when the outcome is positive and discontinued when they are relatively costly (when the outcome is negative).
Outcome = Rewards – Costs
A positive result will in return result in more disclosure.

Comparison level[edit]

The first standard that we use to evaluate the outcomes of a situation is comparison level. As defined by Thibaut and Kelley, comparison level is the standard by which individuals evaluate the desirability of group membership. A group is defined as "two or more interdependent individuals who influence one another through social interaction." In this instance, the group refers to a dyadic relationship, but it can really be extended to any type of group. "A person's comparison level (CL) is the threshold above which an outcome seems attractive". That is, when groups fall above the CL they are seen as being satisfying to the individual, and when they fall below the CL they are seen as being unsatisfying. We take an average of outcomes from the past as a benchmark to determine what makes us happy or sad so that we may develop the threshold, or comparison level, in which an outcome appears attractive. Past experiences shape one's thoughts and feelings about developing relationships, and in this way, an individual's CL is very much influenced by these previous relationships.

Comparison level of alternatives[edit]

A person's CL is the threshold above which an outcome appears attractive. Comparison level only predicts when we are satisfied with membership in a given relationship, or group. Therefore, Thibaut and Kelley also say that people use a comparison level for alternatives to evaluate their outcomes. Basically, CLalt is determined by "the worst outcome a person will accept and still stay in a relationship." As such, comparison level for alternatives is a better predictor for whether or not a person will join or leave a relationship, or group. However, even if a relationship is unhealthy, a person might choose to remain in it because it is better than what they perceive the real world to be. Trends and sequences are one of the major factors when evaluating a relationship.

Extensive research and applications[edit]

Interpersonal communication[edit]

The value of social penetration theory initially lies in the area of interpersonal communication. Scholars have been using the concepts and onion model to explore the development of counter-sex/romantic relationships, friendships, parent-child relationships, employer-employee relationships, and caregiver-patient relationships and beyond. Some of the key findings are described as follows.

Researchers have found out that in parent-child relationships, information derived from the child's spontaneous disclosure in daily activities was most closely connected to generating and maintaining his/her trust in parents, indicating the importance of developing shallow but broad relationships with children through everyday conversation rather than long-lasting profound lectures (Kerr, Stattin & Trost, 1999). Scholars also use this theory to examine other factors influencing the social penetration process in close friendships. As Mitchell and William (1987) put it, ethnicity and sex do have impact on the friendship foster. The survey results indicates that more breadth of topics occurs in penetration process in black friendship than white.[10] Regarding the caregiver-patient relationship, developing a social penetrated relationship with institution disclosed breadth and depth information and multiple effective penetration strategies is critical to the benefits of the patients (Yin & Lau, 2005). Nurses could apply the theory into daily interactions with patients, as doctors could in their articulations when consulting or announcing.

In addition, the relationship between nonverbal behavior and the social penetration process has been of interest. A study conducted among university drama student actresses discovers that casual acquaintances discussing intimate topics tended to use more intensive nonverbal behaviors than good friends do (Keiser & Altman, 1976).

Organizational communication[edit]

The ideas posited by the theory have been researched and re-examined by scholars when looking at organizational communication. Some scholars explored the arena of company policy making, demonstrating that the effect company policies have on the employees, ranging from slight attitudinal responses (such as dissatisfaction) to radical behavioral reactions (such as conflicts, fights and resignation). In this way, sophisticated implementation of controversial policies is required (Baack, 1991). Social penetration theory offers a framework allowing for an explanation of the potential issues.

Computer-mediated communication[edit]


Computer-mediated communication (CMC) can be thought of as another way in which people can develop relationships. The Internet has been thought to broaden the way people communicate and build relationships by providing a medium in which people could be open-minded and unconventional and circumvent traditional limitations like time and place. (Yum & Hara, 2005)


Some theorists[who?] find this concept impossible and there are barriers to this idea. Since there are risks and there is usually more uncertainty about whether the person on the other side of the computer is being real and truthful, or deceitful and manipulative for one reason or another there is no possible way to build a relationship. A lack of face-to-face communication can cause heightened skepticism and doubt. Since this is possible, there is no chance to make a long-lasting and profound connection.


Social networking[edit]

Self-disclosure has been studied when it comes to face-to-face interactions. Since social networking sites are relatively new phenomena, there are not as many studies done about how people disclose information online compared to a one-on-one interaction. There have been surveys conducted about how social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, hi5, myyearbook, or Friendster affect interactions between human beings. On Facebook, users are able to determine their level and degree of self-disclosure by setting their privacy settings (McCarthy, 2009).[11] People achieve the breadth via posting about their everyday lives and sharing surface information while developing intimate relationships with great depth by sending private Facebook messages and creating closed groups.

There was a study done about the connection on how couples or other romantic relationships have trust, commitment, and affection towards each other and the amount of self-disclosure each person gives to the one another. There are several criteria to the study. One important is how the couple met. If they met before talking over the Internet, they are more likely to reveal personal information due to the higher levels of trust. According to Rempel, Holmes, & Zanna (1985) the best way to be able to trust someone is to be able to foretell or calculate how another person will act or react to any given information. In other words, we are more probable to release information about ourselves if we can predict the behavior of the other person.

"The hyperpersonal perspective suggests that the limited cues in CMC are likely to result in over attribution and exaggerated or idealized perceptions of others and that those who meet and interact via CMC use such limited cues to engage in optimized or selective self-presentation". (Walther, 1996) In other words, there could be deceitful or dishonest intents involved from people on the Internet. There is the possibility that someone could mislead another person because there are more opportunities to build a more desirable identity without fear of persecution. If there is no chance of ever meeting the person on the other end of the computer, then there is a high risk of falsifying information and credentials.

Other theorists such as Rubin and Bargh say that because of the blockade of the computer, it increases how likely people are to be true and honest about themselves. There is also the idea that there will not be any fear of consequences for less than respectable decisions made in the past. Computer-mediated communication has also been thought to even speed up the intimacy process because computers allow individual communication to be more, rather than less, open and accommodating about the characteristics of the person or persons involved. Both ideas and types of theories can be proven and disproven, but it all depends on how an individual uses and or abuses computer-mediated communication.

Online dating[edit]

Some scholars posit that when initiating a romantic relationship, there are important differences between internet dating sites and other spaces, such as the depth and breadth of the self-disclosed information taken place before they go further to one-on-one conversation (Monica, 2007).[12] Studies have shown that in real life, adolescents tend to engage in sexual disclosure according to the level of relationship intimacy, which supports the social penetration model; but in cyberspace, men present a stronger willingness and interest to communicate without regarding the current intimacy status or degree (Yang, Yang & Chiou, 2010).[13] There are also many counter-examples of the theory that exist in romantic relationship development. Some adolescents discuss the most intimate information when they first meet online or have sex without knowing each other thoroughly. Contrary to the path stated by social penetration theory, the relationship would have developed from the core – the highest depth – to the superficial surface of large breadth. In this way, sexual disclosure on the part of adolescents under certain circumstances departs from the perspective of the social penetration theory.

Blogging and online chatting[edit]

With the advent of Internet, blogs and online chatrooms have appeared all over the globe. According to Jih-Hsin Tang, Cheng-Chung Wang, bloggers tend to have significantly different patterns of self-disclosure for different target audiences. The online survey which involved 1027 Taiwanese bloggers examined the depth and breath of what bloggers disclosed to the online audience, best friend and parents as well as nine topics they revealed.[14] Regarding online chat, research conducted by Dietz Uhle, Bishop Clark and Howard shows that "once a norm of self-disclosure forms, it is reinforced by statements supportive of self-disclosures but not of non-self disclosures."[15]


  • The scope of the theory is limited[5]
  • Theory not fully supported by data[citation needed]
  • Highest reciprocity may occur at middle levels; may be cycles of disclosure and reserve[citation needed]
  • Needs take account of gender (males less open)[citation needed]
  • Disclosure can increase as relationship deteriorates[citation needed]
  • Single comparison (CL) index too simplistic[citation needed]
  • In close relationships, self-centeredness lessens[citation needed]
  • Onion metaphor: sexual; disclosure is active, usually symmetrical; self is not simply revealed but is constructed[citation needed]
  • The original theory did not account for gender differences in vulnerability, but later research concludes that males are less open than females.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Griffin, E. (2011). A first look at communication theory. (8th edition). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. ^ "Dalmas Taylor, University Administrator, Dies at 64". Washington Post. January 29, 1998. Retrieved July 3, 2016. 
  3. ^ Altman, I. & Taylor, D. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. New York: Holt. 
  4. ^ Taylor, D. & Altman, I. (1987). "Communication in interpersonal relationships: Social penetration processes". Interpersonal processes: New directions in communication research. 14: 257–277. 
  5. ^ a b West, Richard (2013). Introducing Communication Theory-Analysis and Application, 5th Edition. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0073534282. 
  6. ^ Infante, D. A., Rancer, A. S., & Womack, D. F. (1997). Building Communication Theory. 
  7. ^ Howard, S. (2011). A Primer on Communication and Communicative Disorders. (1st Edition). "a Primer on communication studies, Howard, S. (2001)". 
  8. ^ "Changing Minds, Straker, D (2002-2013)". 
  9. ^ "Social Penetration, Straker, D (2002-2013)". 
  10. ^ Hammer, M. R; Gudykunst, W. B (1987). "Hammer, M. R., & Gudykunst, W. B. (1987). The influence of ethnicity and sex on social penetration in close friendships. Journal of Black Studies, 418-437.". Journal of Black Studies. 17: 418–437. doi:10.1177/002193478701700403. 
  11. ^ McCarthy, A. "Social penetration theory and facebook" (PDF). Retrieved 22 November 2012. 
  12. ^ Whitty (2008). "Revealing the 'real'me, searching for the 'actual'you: Presentations of self on an internet dating site". Computers in Human Behavior. 24 (4): 1707–1723. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2007.07.002. 
  13. ^ Yang, M.L; Yang,C.C; Chiou,W.B (2010). "Differences in Engaging in Sexual Disclosure Between Real Life and Cyberspace Among Adolescents: Social Penetration Model Revisited.". Current Psychology. 29 (2): 144–154. doi:10.1007/s12144-010-9078-6. 
  14. ^ Tang, Jih-Hsin; Cheng-Chung Wang (2012). "Self-Disclosure Among Bloggers: Re-Examination of Social Penetration Theory". Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 5. 15: 245–250. doi:10.1089/cyber.2011.0403. 
  15. ^ B, Dietz-Uhler; Bishop Clark C; Howard E (2005). "Formation of and Adherence to A Self-disclosure Norm in an Online Chat". Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 8: 114–120. doi:10.1089/cpb.2005.8.114. 

Further reading[edit]