Social Penetration Theory


Social Penetration Theory asserts that as relationships develop persons communication from superficial to deeply personal topics, slowing penetrating the communicators' public persona to reach their core personality or sense of self. First viewed as a direct, continuous penetration from public person to private person, social penetration is know considered to be a cyclical and dialectical. Relationships have normal ebbs and flows. They do not automatically get better and better where the participants learn more and more about each other. Instead, the participants have to work through the tensions of the relationship (the dialectic) while they learn and group themselves and a parties in a relationships. At times the relationships is very open and sharing. Other time, one or both parties to the relationship need their space, or have other concerns, and the relationship is less open. The theory posits that these cycles occur throughout the life of the relationship as the persons try to balance their needs for privacy and open relationship.

Persons allow other people to penetrate their public self when they disclose personal information. The decision to disclose is based on the preceived rewards the person will gain if he or she discloses information. If a person perceives that the cost of disclosing information is greater than the rewards for disclosing information then no information will be disclosed. The larger the reward - cost ratio the more disclosure takes place. If you think to the relationships you have been in you will probably find that in almost all of them more disclosure took place at the outset of the relationship than at any other place. That happens because people initially disclose superficial information that costs very little if another person finds it out. It matters little if you know that I enjoy all types of music but especially enjoy listening to blues, saxophone jazz, and straight-forward rock-n-roll. It gets a bit more personal when I start explaining why I like those types of music, so I, like most people, will wait until you reciprocate and tell me your favorite types of music before I allow you more visibility into who I am. The deeper I allow you to penetrate my self, the more affective information I will disclose to you. The closer you get to my core self the higher my perceived costs will be for disclosing that information. Thus, it is not likely that I will disclose very personal information to very many people.


For detailed information read:

Altman, I., & Taylor, D. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Altman, I., & Taylor, D. (1987). Communication in interpersonal relationships: Social Penetration Theory. In M. E. Roloff and G. R. Miller (Eds.), Interpersonal processes: New directions in communication research, 257-277. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. 

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