Social penetration theory was formulated by the psychology professors Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor as their attempt to describe the dynamics of relational closeness. They proposed that closeness occurs through a gradual process of 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.[1] This psychological theory, as with many others, is applied in the context of interpersonal relationships such as communications.

Self-disclosure is the act of revealing more about ourselves, on both a conscious and an unconscious level. 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.[2]

Onion Metaphor[edit | edit source]

Social penetration is perhaps best known for its onion analogy. Self-disclosure is referred to in terms of breadth and depth, the latter of which is described in units of layers. This analogy is used to describe the multilayered nature of personality. When one peels the outer skin from an onion, another skin is uncovered. When the second layer is removed, a third is exposed, and so forth.

The outer layer of personality contains the public self, which is accessible to anyone who wants to look. The public self layer has a myriad of details which help to describe who one is, such as height, weight, gender, and other public information which takes little questioning to discover. Below the surface layer, however, the personality holds more private information like beliefs, faith, prejudices, and general relationship information. Held within the inner core are values, self-concept, and deep emotions. The inner core is the unique private domain of individuals, which, although invisible to the rest of the world, has a profound impact on the areas of life which lie closer to the surface. [3] The amount revealed can vary according to culture.

Rewards and costs[edit | edit source]

The Social Penetration Theory states that humans, even with out thinking about it, weigh each relationship and interaction with another human on a reward cost scale. 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.

Taking stock[edit | edit source]

Key points of self-disclosure[edit | edit source]

  • Peripheral items are exchanged more frequently and sooner than private information.
  • Self-disclosure is reciprocal, especially in the early stages of relationship development.
  • Penetration is rapid at the start but slows down quickly as the tightly wrapped inner layers are reached.
  • Depenetration is a gradual process of layer-by-layer withdrawal.
  • Social Penetration draws heavily from Thibaut and Kelley's Social Exchange Theory

Notes[edit | edit source]


Other resources[edit | edit source]

  • Thibaut, J. W. & Kelley, H. H. (1952). The social psychology of groups. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Altman, I., Vinsel, A., & Brown, B. (1981). Dialectic conceptions in social psychology: An application to social penetration and privacy regulation. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 14. p. 107-160.
  • Taylor, D. & Altman, I. (1975). Self-disclosure as a function of reward-cost outcomes. Sociometry, 38. p. 18-31.
  • VanLear, C. A. (1987). The formation of social relationships: A longitudinal study of social penetration. Human Communication Research, 13. p. 299-322.
  • VanLear, C. A. (1991). Testing a cyclical model of communicative openness in relationship development: Two longitudinal studies. Communication Monographs, 58. p. 337-361.
  • Werner, C., Altman, I., & Brown, B. B. (1992). A transactional approach to interpersonal relations: Physical environment, social context and temporal qualities. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 9. p. 297-323.
  • Petronio, S. (2002). boundaries of privacy: Dialectics of disclosure. SUNY Albany.
  • Berg, J. (1984). Development of friendship between roommates. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46. p. 346-356.
  • Altman, I. & Taylor, D. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. New York: Holt.
  • Taylor, D. & Altman, I. (1987). Communication in interpersonal relationships: Social penetration processes. Interpersonal processes: New directions in communication research. p.257-277.
  • Griffin, E. (2006). A first look at communication theory. (6th edition). New York: McGraw-Hill.
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