Question Patty Social Sciences

Social penetration theory

What is social penetration theory?

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Answer Internal Staff

Social penetration is a psychological concept which was developed in the 1970s by two researchers: Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor. The theory was developed in order to explain the process of interpersonal communication by which intimacy develops between two people. They argued that intimacy develops through a process of escalating mutual self-disclosure in which the individuals becomes vulnerable to one-another. The participants move through various stages of intimacy, culminating in a stable state or, sometimes, in the breakdown of the relationship. The metaphor that is often used to describe this theory is of an onion, in which the deeper layers represent later stages of relationship development.

They believed that this process occurs most quickly in the early stages of a relationship. It begins with an orientation stage, which consists of basic ‘small talk’. This is followed by the tentative expression of personal attitudes (the exploratory affective stage), which moves into more involved personal discussion (the affective stage). If this goes well, it is then possible to reach a stage of stable closeness (the stable stage). As such, the model works progressively, in that there is no possibility of skipping stages. However, it should be noted that there is no guarantee of progression through the stages; the development of intimacy is dependent on the social skills of the participants, their willingness to self-disclose and their receptiveness to self-disclosure. Participants can halt at any one of the stages, or retreat back through the stages in a process known as ‘depenetration’.