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Running head: SOCIAL PENETRATION

THEORY

The Social Penetration Theory


Allison F. Riddle
Queens University of Charlotte
2014

SOCIAL PENETRATION THEORY

Signing in to my Facebook account these days feels like opening the February edition of
Cosmo Magazine. My newsfeed has an overabundance of links to articles entitled, 20 things
you should say on a first date, 20 things you should not say on a first date, The 10 most
important lessons for a 20-Something looking for love. I have to admit that at first glance these
short reads appear very attractive when trying to make sense of a phenomenon like falling in
love. Luckily, I have had the opportunity to study the social theories behind getting to know
someone and achieving interpersonal closeness with a significant other.
When first investigating the development of interpersonal relationships one must explore
and understand the Social Penetration Theory. Baxter and Wilmot (1983) noted that studying
such relationships has been heavily influenced by this theory (p. 264). Formulated in 1973 by
social psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor, the Social Penetration Theory provides
objective reasoning to the common occurrences in the creation, development, and dissolution of
various types of relationships. Taylor (1968) explains that the theory refers to the reciprocal
behaviors that occur between individuals in the development of an interpersonal relationship (p.
79). According to these theorists, relational closeness is dependent upon a gradual and orderly
progression of the intimacy of self-disclosure and the perceived relational outcome. I chose to
focus my own research on the social penetration theory as it applies to the development and
dissolution of romantic relationships.
Altman and Taylor (1973) use the image of a multilayered onion (p. 114) to illustrate
the complexity of personality structure. When peeling an onion, you will peel away layer after
layer until you reach the inner core. As for humans, the more we get to know about a person the
closer we get to their inner core. The outermost layers represent information that is easily
accessible. As you peel away each layer a larger amount of personal information is revealed. The

SOCIAL PENETRATION THEORY

inner most part of the onion represents a persons private self, including fears and secrets. In
order to reach the desired amount of intimacy in a relationship, an individual must allow the
other person to peel away those layers.
This theory claims that both depth and breadth of self-disclosure are required to reach an
individuals inner core and obtain complete interpersonal closeness. Depth of self-disclosure
refers to the degree of intimacy, while breadth represents the range of areas in an individuals
life over which the disclosure takes place (p. 117). The start of a relationship begins with
frequent socially acceptable levels of small talk which increases the breadth of self-disclosure.
Private information will soon begin to be exchanged, but only if self-disclosure remains
reciprocal. Both parties typically arrive at an equal level of openness due to perceiving the other
person as trustworthy as they open up. Penetration is fast at first but slows down quickly after
peeling away the easier outer layers. Individuals can be eager to get to know someone but once
the exchange of peripheral information has occurred, disclosure slows down due to the fear of
becoming too vulnerable. It is highly unlikely for intimacy to be achieved instantly. Just as the
gradual progression of social penetration creates a relationship, the gradual process of
depenetration can end a relationship. According to Griffin (2009), Relationships are likely to
terminate not in an explosive flash of anger but in a gradual cooling off of enjoyment and care
(p. 116). After deep intimate disclosure has ended there is still small talk that occurs.
In conjunction with the Social Penetration Theory, the closeness of the relationship is also
dependent on the cost-benefit analysis. Griffin (2009) noted, If the perceived mutual benefits
outweigh the costs of greater vulnerability, the process of social penetration will proceed (p.
117). The Social Exchange Theory, created by Thibault and Kelley (year), refers to the decision
by both parties to disclose information only if the benefits outweigh the costs. In order to do this

SOCIAL PENETRATION THEORY

an individual must use a comparison level (CL) to be able to determine the perceived relational
satisfaction by comparing it to previous experiences and social constructs. The social exchange
theory also explains that the comparison level of alternatives (CLalt) is used to determine if the
current relationship is the best outcome available (p.119).
Exploring the notion that the perceived outcome of a relationship is determined by an
individuals analysis of costs and benefits raises an ethical question. The thought of ethical
egoism supports the idea of cost-benefit analysis by claiming that individuals ought to alter their
lives accordingly in order to gain the most pleasure. Many religious leaders do not support this
belief. (p. 120)
While the Social Penetration Theory is very informative in providing objective reasoning
behind the development of interpersonal relationships, we must study the theory with a critical
eye. There are several definitive limitations to this theory. Some argue that it oversimplifies the
development of relational closeness. Sandra Petronio (year), who developed the Communication
Privacy Management Theory, believes that the onion-layer model of the social penetration theory
does not accurately depict the inner core of personality. According to Griffin (2009) Our privacy
boundaries are personally created, often shifting, and frequently permeable (p. 122). We are not
necessarily a static being and different situations call for various bits of information to be shared.
Research into the social penetration theory has further challenged the idea of
depenetration. Altman and Taylor (1973) suggested that depenetration is the reversal of
processes that lead to social penetration (Tolstedt and Stokes 1984). Consequently stating that
depenetration occurs gradually. However, there is the instance that the listener does not
appreciate what the speaker has to say from the beginning and therefore depenetration can occur

SOCIAL PENETRATION THEORY

rather quickly. For example, if a first date goes poorly it is easiest to cut your losses and move on
right away.
Altman and Taylor also believe that the depth of self-disclosure decreases during
depenetration. In a study conducted by Betsy E. tolstedt and Joseph P. Stokes, the correlation
between intimacy and self-disclosure in the depenetration process was tested by examining 60
couples from various backgrounds during the dissolution of their relationship. The participants
were tested in two stages. The first stage required each partner to complete a confidential
questionnaire on their own. Then as a couple, the participants were asked to complete two tasks
indicating strengths, weaknesses, and feelings about their relationship. According to the Social
Penetration Theory the findings would support the idea that both the depth and the breadth of
self-disclosure would decline as the intimacy decreased. However this was not the case with the
depth of self-disclosure. According to Tolstedt and Stokes (1984), the less the intimacy, the
greater the tendency to discuss highly personal content and to share judgements, evaluations, and
feelings (p.89). Such findings go against what the social penetration theory suggests. There are
several explanations for these results. For starters, many couples in the study were going through
psychological treatment that encouraged complete honesty in an attempt to salvage the
relationship. Another thought was that couples who were angry with each other would use
negative, high-depth self-disclosure as a way of striking out at their spouses (p. 90). Lastly, one
could presume that if things were going well at the first stages of intimacy an individual might
not share heavy items. Then as the relationship comes to an end that individual feels it is
necessary to finally share.
Despite the limitations of this theory, there is still significant value to be taken away. In
understanding the relevance of the social penetration theory we can turn inwards to examine our

SOCIAL PENETRATION THEORY

own relationships and interpersonal communication. For me, specifically, studying the main
concepts of this theory has proven to be quite beneficial for my own relationships. My most
recent significant relational development is a perfect example. Over the summer I started dating
my current boyfriend, Mike. We grew up going to school together, but we were not close friends
and did not keep in touch after graduating from High School. Through mutual friends we
reconnected, in our hometown, at the beginning of May. Because we had somewhat known each
other previously, several outer layers had already been revealed. From the beginning I felt
comfortable with disclosing information about myself and in turn Mike was reciprocating. After
a few outings with friends we realized we both had a lot of general things in common and thus
continued to allow the social penetration to occur. As we frequently disclosed more intimate and
personal information I realized how vulnerable I had become. We came to a point where it was
time to analyze the costs and the benefits. In this specific relationship we actually had to analyze
the costs and the benefits aloud together because I was moving to Charlotte at the end of the
summer and he was starting a new job in Columbus, OH. It was imperative that we make the
decision to either continue to let our relationship develop and become long distance or stop the
penetration process immediately. After weighing the rewards and the costs we came to a mutual
decision to continue on a path towards relational closeness. We had the luxury of seeing each
other every day for four months so after moving away it took a while to adjust my comparison
level (CL) to fit the current situation regarding maintaining relational satisfaction. It was difficult
because at the time the in-person experiences made up a majority of the history of the
relationship. Over the past six months our comparison levels (CL) have altered to fit our
situation. We do have those talks using the comparison level of alternatives (CLalt) but for now

SOCIAL PENETRATION THEORY

believe that the rewards still outweigh the costs. I found it very interesting to be able to apply
this theory directly to a very important part of my life.
In conclusion, I do believe that the social penetration theory will stand the test of time.
While it is quite simple, it provides a basic understanding of human relationships. This theory is
a great jumping off point for further research into areas regarding interpersonal communications.
While I specifically discussed romantic relational development, I also understand how I can take
this knowledge with me in the future, into other facets of life. In my opinion, by appreciating
Altman and Taylors (1973) assumptions about the gradual process of penetration and the value
of reciprocity, I can only increase the quality of all relationships.

SOCIAL PENETRATION THEORY

References
Baxter, L. A., & Wilmot, W. W. (1983). Communication characteristics of relationships with
differential growth rates. Communication Monographs, 50(3), 264-272.
doi:10.1080/03637758309390168
Griffin, E. (2009). Social Penetration Theory, A First Look At communication Theory (pp. 113124). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Taylor, D. A. (1968). THE DEVELOPMENT OF INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS:
SOCIAL PENETRATION PROCESSES. Journal Of Social Psychology, 75(1), 79-90.
Tolstedt, B. E., & Stokes, J. P. (1984). Self-disclosure, intimacy, and the depenetration process.
Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 46(1), 84-90. doi:10.1037/00223514.46.1.84