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Social Penetration Theory – Bringing People Closer Together

The social penetration theory claims that communication goes from superficial to deeper and more meaningful as a relationship develops. This theory was given by Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor in 1973.

How Does Social Penetration Work?

Social penetration is achieved through the process of self-disclosure. Self-disclosure is the process of revealing information about yourself. The information can be about opinions, thoughts, feelings or experiences. It is helpful to create trust, understanding and emotional intimacy between people.

Onion is a helpful metaphor for understanding how social penetration works. Just like an onion, there are a set of peels on people. People need to “peel back” others’ layers of personal data through communication to reach the inner core.

It can take time to find another’s “core self,” which includes the most personal details about them. The public image is the outer layer of an individual which is visible to many. The private self is the innermost layer of a person that is only reached by their closed ones over time through the process of disclosure.

Social penetration theory includes many layers such as superficial layers, middle layers, inner layers, and core personality.

The superficial layers involve surface-level information. For example, opinions on movies or shows.

The middle layers involve a little more information. For example, views on social practices.

The inner layers involve more data about the individual. For example, childhood experiences, plans, goals, and mistakes.

The core personality involves the most intimate details about an individual.

social penetration theory

Factors Influencing Social Penetration Theory

  • Breadth: This includes the number of topics discussed between individuals. For example, conversations about occupation, commute, and movies.
  • Depth: This includes the level of intimacy in the conversation between individuals. For example, talking about feelings associated with a break- up or a job loss.
  • Norm of reciprocity: This norm states that when an individual shares something about their life, the other person feels the need to disclose something about their own life. For example, Harissa shares her experience of being let down by her parents. Tina listens and shares a similar experience from her life.

Stages of Social Penetration Theory

The social penetration theory includes four stages, namely, orientation, exploratory affective exchange, affective exchange and stable exchange.

1. Orientation: The first stage involves sharing only shallow information about themselves. As the bond is new and unfamiliar, individuals play safe and do not divulge much. Intimate personal details are not disclosed during this stage. Safe topics are chosen and negative topics are mostly avoided. Social desirability plays a role here.

For example, Sahil joins a new school. It is his first day, he talks to a few people about general class schedules and games.

2. Exploratory affective exchange: The second stage involves sharing a little more information than the first stage. Shallowness decreases and people are more prone to disclosing information. But as the bond is still relatively new, people still focus on social norms and behave accordingly.

For example, Gia is meeting her co-workers for the second time today. They can talk more and share beliefs on social media.

3. Affective exchange: The third stage involves more casual banter and lowering inhibitions in conversations. Some intimate details could be shared during this stage. There is a presence of comfort and friendliness in this stage.

For example, Tim meets his in-laws for the third time, and they joke around and discuss personal experiences.

4. Stable exchange: The last stage involves discussion of personal, intimate details. There is a presence of honesty, openness, and intimacy here.

For example, sharing a traumatic experience with a close friend. These relationships are usually maintained and last for a longer time.

In some cases, social depenetration can also occur. It includes reduced self-disclosure due to fights or stressors. It could lessen the intensity of a bond or break the bond. It could also be a break, and then, the individuals can renegotiate their bond.

The social depenetration process can be drastic or slow. There can be 2 ways.

Relational disintegration would lead to people distancing themselves from each other by reducing intimacy. And then, in some cases, relational renegotiation can occur, which includes redefining the previous relationship. This process occurs when two people still want to maintain closeness and mutually agree to a definition for the relationship.

For example, a sudden break up between 2 people, friends gradually drifting apart due to living in different cities.

Applications Of Social Penetration Theory

  1. Social penetration can function in multiple contexts such as dating, friendships, social clubs and relationships at work. It can also be applied to client and therapists’ disclosure in psychotherapy sessions.
  2. The theory is used to study gender differences in self-disclosure in various contexts. The depth and breadth of topics shared can be different for males and females. Self-disclosure in the LGBTQ community can also be studied and necessary interventions can be made accordingly.
  3. The theory can also be applied in computer-mediated interactions such as online dating, virtual teams, blogging, chatting, etc. It can be applied to friendships and relationships formed on social networking sites.
  4. Social Penetration theory has influenced vast research in the context of relationship development and information management. It can also be applied to study intercultural and interracial relationships.

Research Evidence

Study 1:

By: Tuheena Mukherjee, Saurabh Maheshwari

Aim: To explore the differences between the formation of Facebook friendships and face-to-face friendships and their patterns of support access using social penetration theory.


  • Data was collected through an anonymous voluntary offline survey from 3 colleges. The survey was conducted in classrooms with the help of a class instructor.
  • Students were asked to volunteer for the study. They were given a brief about the purpose of the study and instructions were given for filling out the questionnaire.
  • The questionnaire was simple and easy to understand. It included brief explanations about the purpose, instructions and questions.
  • It took approximately 10 minutes to fill out the questionnaire.


  • Results indicated that during times of financial stress and emergencies, individuals tend to ask for support from both Facebook friends and close friends.
  • However, for emotional support, individuals tend to turn to close friends.

Study 2:

By: Jih-Hsin Tang, Cheng-Chung Wang

Aim: To explore the topics that bloggers disclose on their blogs and in real life using social penetration theory.


  • 1027 Taiwanese bloggers participated in this study through an online survey. Bloggers revealed information about 9 topics during this survey.
  • The Bloggers Self Disclosure Scale were utilized for this study.
  • The depth and width of this shared information was examined as to what the bloggers disclosed to 3 specific target audiences (their online audience, best friend, and parents).


  • It was found that the bloggers’ disclosure was significantly different for all the 3 target audiences.
  • They seem to disclose the most with their best friends, followed by parents and online audiences.
  • Female bloggers seemed to disclose more with their best friends and families as compared to male bloggers. No significant difference was found here in terms of disclosure to an online audience.

Criticisms Of Social Penetration Theory

  • Social penetration theory has certain limitations. It has limited scope as it is mostly used to explain early levels of development of relationships and how dating relationships progress with time but it cannot be applied to neighbours, or acquaintances.
  • The theory is not prompt at explaining the process that occurs in enduring relationships such as old friendships, families or long-term relationships or year long marriages.
  • The theory also states disclosure to be a simplistic process, but disclosure mostly is a complex process that differs based on stages of a relationship.
  • The theory also does not take individual differences in disclosure preferences into account. Additionally, the depenetration process is not as linear as given by the theory. It can vary among different people and contexts.

Interrelations Between Social Exchange Theory, Self-Disclosure, And Uncertainty Reduction Theory

Social Exchange Theory

Social exchange theory explains negotiation between two people. It’s based on the idea that relationships are developed through a subjective cost-benefit analysis and the differences between options.

For example, if a person is facing more disadvantages (pain, sadness) from a relationship than benefits (happiness, security), he/she is likely to leave the relationship.

Social Exchange And Uncertainty Reduction

All social exchanges involve some form of uncertainty.

For example, getting into a new relationship could be uncertain as one doesn’t know the other person fully yet. The uncertainty can be reduced through open communication, trust, and information disclosure.

Self-Disclosure And Social Exchange

Self-disclosure includes disclosing information about the self to others. Social exchange theory can be worked with self-disclosure. Both the processes require exchanging information with other parties for maintaining relationships or forming a new bonds.

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