Social penetration theory

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The social penetration theory (SPT) 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 understand relationship development between individuals. Altman and Taylor notes that relationships "involve different levels of intimacy of exchange or degree of social penetration."[3] 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.

The social penetration theory states that the relationship development occurs primarily through self-disclosure, or intentionally revealing personal information such as personal motives or desires, feelings, thoughts, and experiences to others. This theory is also guided by the assumptions that relationship development is systematic and predictable. Through self-disclosure, relationships development follows particular trajectory, moving from superficial layers of exchanges to more intimate ones.[3] Self-disclosure is the major way to bring a relationship to a new level of intimacy.


Social penetration theory is based on four basic assumptions.[4] First, relationship development moves from superficial layers to intimate ones. For instance, on a first date, people tend to present their outer images only, talking about hobbies. As the relational development progresses, wider and more controversial topics such as political views are included in the conversations. Second, interpersonal relationships develop in a generally systematic and predictable manner. This assumption indicates the predicability of relationship development. Although it is impossible to foresee the exact and precise path of relational development, there is certain trajectory to follow. As Altman and Taylor note, "People seem to possess very sensitive tuning mechanisms which enable them to program carefully their interpersonal relationships."[3] Third, relational development could move backward, resulting in de-penetration and dissolution. For example, after prolonged and fierce fights, a couple who originally planned to get married may decide to break up and turn to be strangers ultimately. Fourth, self-disclosure is the key to facilitate relationship development. Self-disclosure means disclosing and sharing personal information to others. It enables individuals to know each other and plays a crucial role in determining how far a relationship can go, because gradual exploration of mutual selves is essential in the process of social penetration.[3]


The self-disclosure is a purposeful disclosure of personal information to another person.[5] 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. Altman and Taylor believe that opening inner self to other is the main route to reach to intimate relationships.

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. In other words, penetration is rapid at the start but slows down quickly as the tightly wrapped inner layers are reached. 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.

Disclosure reciprocity[edit]

Self-disclosure is reciprocal, especially in the early stages of relationship development. Disclosure reciprocity is an indispensable component in SPT.[4] Disclosure reciprocity is a process in which when one person reveals personal information of a certain intimacy level, the other person will in turn disclose information of the same level.[6] It is two-way disclosure, or mutual disclosure. Disclosure reciprocity can induce positive and satisfactory feelings and drive forward relational development. This is because as mutual disclosure take place between individuals, they might feel a sense of emotional equity. Disclosure reciprocity occurs when the openness of one person is reciprocated with the same degree of the openness from the other person.[4] For instance, when an individual shares his or her thoughts regarding to sky-rocketing rents in New York City, the other individual expresses his or her views as well.

Onion metaphor[edit]

Social penetration is known for its onion analogy, which implies that self-disclosure is the process of tearing layers or concentric circles away.[4] The onion denotes various layers of personality. 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.[7]

Onion Metaphor - Social Penetration Theory


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. Altman and Taylor proposes that there are four major stages in social penetration:

  1. Orientation stage: In this first stage, individuals 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.[3] The outer images are presented and peripheral information are exchanged.
  2. Exploratory affective stage: Individuals start to reveal the inner self bit by bit, expressing personal attitudes about moderate topics such as government and education. This may not be the whole truth as individuals are not yet comfortable to lay themselves bare. This is the stage of casual friendship, and many relationships do not go past this stage.
  3. Affective stage: Individuals are getting more comfortable to talk about private and personal matter, and there are some forms of commitment in this stage. Personal idioms, or words and phrases that embody unique meanings between individuals, are used in conversations. Criticism and arguments may arise. A comfortable share of positive and negative reactions occurs in this stage. Relationships become more important to both parties, more meaningful and more enduring. It is a stage of close friendships and intimate partners.[4]
  4. 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. This stage is characterized with complete openness, raw honesty and a high degree of spontaneity.[4]
  5. De-penetration 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]


De-penetration is a gradual process of layer-by-layer withdrawal and it cause relationship and intimacy level to move backward and to fade away. According to Altman and Taylor, when de-penetration occurs, "interpersonal exchange should proceed backwards from more to less intimate areas, should decrease in breadth or volume, and, as a result, the total cumulative wedge of exchange should shrink."[3] 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. What is worth noting is that Tolstedt and Stokes finds that in the de-penetration process, the self-disclosure breadth reduces, while self-disclosure depth increases.[9] It is because when intimate relationship is dissolving, a wide range of judgements, feelings and evaluations, particularly the negative ones, are involved in conversations.[9]

Breadth and depth[edit]

Both depth and breadth are related to the onion model. As the wedge penetrates the layers of the onion, the degree of intimacy (depth) and the range of areas in an individual's life that an individual chooses to share (breadth) increases.

(1) Breadth[edit]

The breadth of penetration is the range of areas in an individual's life being disclosed, or the range of topics discussed. For instance, one segment could be family, a specific romantic relationship, or academic studies. Each of these segments or areas are not always accessed at the same time. One could be completely open about a family relationship while hiding an aspect of a romantic relationship for various reasons such as abuse or disapproval from family or friends. It takes genuine intimacy with all segments to be able to access all areas of breadth at all times.[10]

(2) Depth[edit]

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. This is applicable when equal intimacy is involved in friendship, romance, attitudes and families.

(3) Relationship between depth and breadth[edit]

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.


Several factors can affect the amount of self-disclosure between partners: gender, race, religion, personality, social status and ethnic background. For example, some cultures, like the Japanese, value personal privacy more than others. Therefore, a Japanese person may not self-disclose nearly as much or as enthusiastically as, say, a French person. Partners who come from different religious backgrounds may hesitate to share thoughts or attitudes that concern matters of faith. Men often refrain from expressing deep emotions out of fear of social stigma. Such barriers can slow the rate of self-disclosure and even prevent relationships from forming. In theory, the more dissimilar two people are, the more difficult or unlikely self-disclosure becomes.

Stranger-on-the-train phenomenon[edit]

Most of the time individuals engage in self-disclosure strategically, carefully evaluating what to disclose and what to be reserved, since disclosing too much in the early stage of relationship is generally considered as inappropriate, which can end or suffocate a relationship. Whereas, in certain contexts, self-disclosure does not follow the pattern. This exception is known as "stranger-on-the-train (or plane or bus)" phenomenon, in which individuals reveal personal information with complete strangers in public spaces rapidly.[4] For instance, on a night couch from London to Paris, two individuals sitting next to each other may start conversation very soon, and somehow a wide range of topics including controversial and very personal ones may be discussed. In such situations, self-disclosure is spontaneous rather than strategic. It is still a puzzle why such instant intimacy could occur. Some researchers argue that revealing our inner self to complete strangers is deemed as "cathartic exercise" or "service of confession", which allows individuals to unload emotions and express deeper thoughts without being haunted by the potential unfavorable comments or judgements.[11] This is because people tend to take lightly and dismiss responses from strangers, who do not really matter in their lives. Some researcher suggests that this phenomenon occurs because individuals feel less vulnerable to open up to strangers who they are not expected to see again.[12]

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.


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.[13] 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).

Gender-based difference in self-disclosure[edit]

Research demonstrates that there are significant gender differences in self-disclosure, particularly emotional self-disclosure, or expressing personal feelings and emotions, such as "Sometimes, I feel lonely to study abroad and to be away from my family."[6] Emotional self-disclosure is at core of intimate relationship developments, because unlike factual (descriptive) self-disclosure, or sharing superficial self-relevant facts, such as "I'm studying abroad in Japan", it is more personal and more effective to cultivate intimacy.[14] Emotional self-disclosure makes individuals "transparent" and vulnerable to others.[6] According to previous studies, females are more socially oriented, whereas males are more task-oriented, and thus females are believed to be more socially interdependent than males.[15] This is one of the reasons that contributes to the gender difference in self-disclosure. In friendship between females, emotional attachments such as sharing emotions, thoughts, experiences, and supports are at the core, while friendships between males tend to focus on activities and companionships.[6] Overall, women's friendships are described as more intimate than men's friendship.

In addition, there is a gender difference regarding to topics revealed. Men tend to disclose their strengths. On the contrary, women disclose their fear more.[6] Both men and women are prone to disclose their emotions to the same-sex friends more, but women are prone to reveal more than men to both same-sex as well as cross-sex friends.[12] What is worth noting is that according to a research conducted among Pakistan students, while women extensively disclose their feelings, emotions such as depression, anxiety ad fear are disclose more to male friends, because men are perceived as more capable to handle such emotions.[6]

Patient self-disclosure in psychotherapy[edit]

Patient self-disclosure have been a prominent issue in therapy, particularly in psychotherapy. Early studies has shown that patient disclosure is positively related to treatment outcomes.[12] Freud is a pioneer in encouraging his patients to totally open up in psychotherapy.[12] Many early clinical innovations, such as lying on the couch and therapist's silence, are aimed to create an environment and atmosphere that allows patients to disclose the deepest self, and free the consciously suppressing emotions and memories without concerns.[12] Nonetheless, even with such efforts, as Barry A. Farber puts it, in psychotherapy "full disclosure is more of an ideal than an actuality."[12] Patients are prone to reveal certain topics to the therapists, such as disliked characteristics of self, social activities, as well as relationship with friends and significant ones; while tend to avoid discussing certain issues, such as sexual-oriented experiences, immediately experienced negative reactions (e.g feeling misunderstood or confused) due to conscious inhibition.[12]

In psychotherapy, patient have to deal with the tension between confessional relief and confessional shame all the time.[12] It has been shown that length of therapy and the strength of the therapeutic alliance are two major factors that affect self-disclosure in psychotherapy.[12] As social penetration theory indicates, as the patient spends longer time with the therapist, the range of issues discussed expand, and more topic discussed are marked with depth.[12] The greater the depth of the discussions, the more likely the patient to feel vulnerable. Therefore, the trust built over time among the patient and the therapist is essential to reach the deep discussion. Therapeutic alliance means the bond between the patient and the therapist. To strength the alliance, cultivating an comfortable atmosphere for self-disclosure and self-discovery is important.[12]

Self-disclosure and individuals with social phobia[edit]

Social phobia, or social anxiety disorder (SAD), is a disorder in which individuals are experienced with overwhelming levels of fear in social situations and interactions. Individuals with social phobia tend to adopt strategic avoidance of social interactions, which makes it challenging for them to disclose themselves to others and reveal emotions. Self-disclosure is the key to foster intimate relationship, in which individuals can receive needed social supports. Close friendship and romantic relationship are two major sources for social supports, which have protective effect and play a crucial role in helping individuals with social phobia to cope with distress.[16] Due to the profound impacts of the anxiety disorder, it has been found that late marriage or staying unmarried for the lifetime is prevailing among population with social phobia.[16] This is problematic, because being unable to gain needed social supports from intimate ones further confines the social phobic in the loneliness and depression that they have been suffering from.[16] In response to the problem, Sparrevohn and Rapee suggest that improving communication skill, particularly self-disclosure and emotional expression, should be included in future social phobia treatment, so the life quality of individuals with social phobia can be improved.[16]

Server-patron mutual disclosure in restaurant industry[edit]

As social penetration theory suggests, disclosure reciprocity induces positive emotion which is essential for retaining close and enduring relationships. In service industry, compared with securing new customers, maintaining long-term relationship with existing customers is more cost-effective.[15] Therefore, engaging with current customers is a crucial topic in restaurant industry. Hwang et al. indicates that mutual disclosure is the vital factor for establishing trust between customers and servers.[17] Effective server disclosure, such as sincere advice about menu choices and personal favorite dishes, can elicit reciprocity of information exchange between servers and customers. The received information regarding to the taste and preference of the customers then can be used to provide tailored services, which in turn can positively strengthen customers' trust, commitment and loyalty toward the restaurant.[15]

Hwang et al. suggest that server disclosure is more effective to evoke customer disclosure in female customers, who are more likely to reveal personal information than their male counterparts.[15] In addition, studies shown that factors such as expertise (e.g servers' knowledge and experience), customer-oriented attribute (e.g. listening to the concerns from the customers attentively), as well as marital status influence mutual disclosure in the restaurant setting. Expertise is positively correlated to both customer and server disclosure.[17] Server disclosure is only effective in inducing disclosure and positive feelings from unmarried patrons who are more desire to have a conversation with the servers.[17]

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.

Media-mediated communication[edit]

Self-disclosure in reality TV[edit]

Reality TV shows are gaining popularity in the last decades, and the trend is still growing. Reality TV is a genre that is characterized with real-life situations and very intimate self-disclosure in the shows.Self-disclosure in reality show can be considered as self-disclosure by media characters and the relationship between the audience and the media character is parasocial.[18]

In reality show, self-disclosure are usually delivered in the form of a monologue, which is similar real-life self-disclosure and gives the audience the illusion that the messages are directed to them.[18] According to social penetration theory, self-disclosure should follow certain stages, moving from the superficial layers to the central layers gradually. Nonetheless, rapid self-disclorue of intimate layers is a norm in reality TV shows, and unlike in interpersonal interactions, viewers prefer early intimate disclosure and such disclosure leads to liking rather than inducing uncomfortable feeling.[18] Heavy viewers are more accustomed to the norm of early intimate disclosure, because provocative stimuli and voyeuristic are what they are searching for in such shows.[18]

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.

Celebrity's self-disclosure on social media[edit]

Social media has turned to be a crucial platform for celebrities to engage with their followers. On social medias, the boundaries between interpersonal and mass communication is blurred, and parasocial interaction (PSI) is adopted strategically by celebrities to enhance liking, intimacy and credibility from their followers.[19] As Ledbetter and Redd notes, "During PSI, people interact with a media figure, to some extent, as if they were in an actual interpersonal relationships with the target entity."[19] For celebrities, professional self-disclosure(e.g information as to upcoming events) and personal self-disclosure (e.g emotions and feelings) are two primary ways to cultivate illusory intimacy with their followers and to expand their fan bases. What is worth noting is that unlike in real-life interpersonal relationship, disclosure reciprocity is not expected in expected in parasocial interactions, although through imagined interactions on social medias, followers do feel they are connected to the media figures.[14]

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).[20] 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).[21] 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).[22] 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.[23] 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."[24]


  • The scope of the theory is limited[4]
  • 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. ^ a b c d e f Altman, I. & Taylor, D. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. New York: Holt. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h West, Richard (2013). Introducing Communication Theory-Analysis and Application, 5th Edition. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0073534282. 
  5. ^ Howard, S. (2011). A Primer on Communication and Communicative Disorders. (1st Edition). "a Primer on communication studies, Howard, S. (2001)". 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Sultan, Sarwat; Chaudry, Huma (2008). "Gender-based Differences in the Patterns of Emotional Self-disclosure". Pakistan Journal of Psychological Research. 23: 107–122. 
  7. ^ Infante, D. A., Rancer, A. S., & Womack, D. F. (1997). Building Communication Theory. 
  8. ^ "Changing Minds, Straker, D (2002-2013)". 
  9. ^ a b Tolstedt, Betsy E.; Stokes, Joseph P. (1984). "Self-disclosure, intimacy and the de-penetraion process". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 46: 84–90. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.46.1.84. 
  10. ^ "Social Penetration, Straker, D (2002-2013)". 
  11. ^ Hensley, Wayne E. (1996). "A Theory of the Valenced Other: the Intersection of the Looking-glass-self and Social Penetration". Social Behavior and Personality. 24: 293–308. doi:10.2224/sbp.1996.24.3.293. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Farber, Barry A. (2003). "Patient Self-Disclosure: A Review of the Research". Journal of Clinical Psychology. 59: 589–600. doi:10.1002/jclp.10161. 
  13. ^ 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. 
  14. ^ a b Kim, Jihyun (2016). "Celebrity's Self-disclosure on Twitter and Parasocial Relationships: a Mediating Role of Social Presence". Computers in Human Behavior. 62: 570–577. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2016.03.083. 
  15. ^ a b c d Hwang, Jinsoon; Han, Heesup; Kim, Seongseop (2014). "How Can Employees Engage Customers? Application of Social Penetration Theory to the Full-service Restaurant Industry by Gender". International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management. 27: 1117–1134. doi:10.1108/ijchm-03-2014-0154. 
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