Social Penetration Theory

At a party, one observes various levels of interpersonal communication. At an open table, new acquaintances exchange names and share their musical preferences. A couple on their second date chats about their political views. Long-time friends discuss their feelings about a difficult family situation. Meanwhile, a married couple sits quietly, making only occasional comments about the other guests and chuckling in agreement. Another couple, stewing in anger, sits away from the other guests, refusing to speak to each other.

Social Penetration Theory explains these differences in communication in relation to the depth of interpersonal relationships. Developed in 1973 by psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor, the theory states that relationships begin and deepen through self-disclosure. In the beginning, people establish relationships by disclosing many simple, harmless facts through small talk. As relationships grow, the rate of self-disclosure slows while the facts disclosed become increasingly intimate in nature. Intimate self-disclosure allows others to penetrate a person’s public persona and discover his or her innermost self. Relationships stagnate when the people involved refuse to self-disclose.

Stages of Self-Disclosure

Altman and Taylor first described the process of self-disclosure as peeling back the layers of an onion, which possess both breadth and depth. “Breadth” refers to the various facets of a person’s life, such as work, family, community and hobbies. “Depth” pertains to the details concerning each of these areas. The outer layers of the onion represent superficial information about a person, such as physical appearance and speech. The deeper layers represent more intimate information, such as the person’s thoughts, feelings and relationships with others. As a person self-discloses to a friend or partner, she peels away the outer layers of her self toward exposing her core nature. Altman and Taylor outlined the various stages of intimacy that result from this process of self-disclosure:

1. Orientation Stage — Also known as the “small talk” or “first impression” stage. Communicators become acquainted by observing mannerisms and personal dress and by exchanging non-intimate information about themselves. Interaction adheres to social norms.

2. Exploratory Affective Stage — Communicators begin to reveal more about themselves, such as their opinions concerning politics and sports teams. Deeply personal information is withheld. Casual friendships develop at this stage, and most relationships stay at this level.

3. Affective Stage — Communicators begin to disclose personal and private matters. Personal ways of speaking, such as using idioms or unconventional language, is allowed to come through. Communicators feel comfortable enough to argue or criticize each other. Romantic relationships develop at this stage.

4. Stable Stage — Communicators share a relationship in which disclosure is open and comfortable. They can predict how the other person will react to certain types of information.

5. Depenetration — Occurs when one or both communicators perceive that the cost of self-disclosure outweighs its benefits. Communicators withdraw from self-disclosure, thus ending the relationship.

Progress through these stages is usually linear at first but may become cyclical later. Psychologists say intimate relationships can switch stages at different times—moving, for example, from the stable stage to the exploratory effective stage and back again—as partners work through their insecurities and reservations.

Reward-Cost Assessment

Self-disclosure results in vulnerability, and becoming vulnerable to another person can carry significant costs. Therefore, the extent to which a person chooses to self-disclose depends upon the outcome of a reward-cost assessment. In a reward-cost assessment, communicators weigh the risks of self-disclosure against its potential rewards. Sharing personal information can strengthen relationships, increase physical and emotional intimacy and open new lines of communication with a partner. However, if a partner were to react badly to the information, betrayal, mistrust and separation could result. When deciding whether to disclose personal information, communicators consider factors such as trust, loss of privacy, the longevity of the relationship and previous reactions from former partners in similar instances. As long as the rewards outweigh the costs, information is shared.

Reward-cost assessments become more critical and frequent as relationships deepen and the risks of self-disclosure rise. The assessments’ outcomes determine the volume and types of information, if any, a person will share with a partner. When the costs of self-disclosure exceed the potential rewards, self-disclosure stops and the relationship stalls.

Barriers to Self-Disclosure

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.

Applications

Social Penetration Theory is being used in today’s modern world to study electronic interactions on the Internet through social media sites and chat rooms. On the one hand, people who meet online are often unable to predict how a person will react to certain types of information, making the cost of self-disclosure difficult to evaluate. On the other hand, the impersonal nature of communicating through a screen may mitigate the cost of sharing intimate information, thus making self-disclosure more likely. Theorists in this field have observed a variety of outcomes with online interactions, highlighting a need for more study to turn Social Penetration Theory into a more predictable model.

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