Social penetration theory

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The Social Penetration Theory is a communication and psychology theory first written by Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor. The theory outlines concepts of social interaction that takes place when two people are getting to know each other. Altman and Taylor proposed that closeness occurs between two people through a gradual process of self-disclosure. The theory relies heavily on the ‘Onion' analogy that suggests that people are like multi-layered onions and have different layers of their personality that they may or may not reveal over time depending on the interaction that takes place. The theory also outlines other aspects of social interaction such as the ‘cost and reward' concept. This concept suggests that people base their relationships around the cost and reward outcomes and how they can benefit from that relationship.

This report explains in detail the key concepts and ideas of the Social Penetration theory as well as other theories that are related with social penetration such as the Social Exchange Theory. To further investigate the effects of Social Penetration experimental research was found to support the effects of self-disclosure in regards to the Social Penetration Theory.

After comprehensive study and research on this topic it was found that closeness between two people develops over a period time and through a process of self-disclosure. If self-disclosure is not apparent then the relationship is likely to fail. According to the theory people base their friendships on a process of cost and reward benefits but will usually do this sub-concisely without knowing that they have used this method to determine their relationships. Key ideas such as ‘comparison levels' suggest that an individual determines whether the relationship is working by the process of profits = Rewards – Costs.



The purpose of this report is to understand the social interaction that takes place between people and to study the fundamentals of human behaviour during the gradual process of social penetration. This report is aimed at giving the reader a better understanding of key concepts of the Social Penetration theory and how it is used in everyday situations.


To fully understand and explain this theory research was conducted over several areas that directly relate to the Social Penetration Theory. These areas of research came from 6 main literature sources ranging from journal articles to large-scale social experiments that put the theory into practice. Internet research was also conducted.


The limitations of this report include:

Availability of information

Due to the detail needed to fully understand the concepts of this theory commonly used sources such as libraries proved to be of little help when finding information to write this report. Detailed Internet sites were also hard to come by when researching this theory.

Time restrictions:

At first time was not considered to be a major issue but due to the availability of information in both library sources and databases time restrictions did become a concern nearing the deadline of this report.

Research methods

When conducting research regarding the Social Penetration Theory commonly used sources such as libraries were not as useful as they normally would be. Although two of the 6 sources were gathered from libraries other information that was found in books was concentrated into sections of no more than 5 pages. Because this report needed to be detailed and informative these sources were of no use. When detailed books were finally found they were still not as useful as the longer articles found using Internet sites and databases. When searching for information using Internet databases such as Proquest I was able to find much more in-depth and detailed information into the study of Social Penetration. Searching for information using Internet articles and journals proved to be the best way to find accurate sources.

Structure of report

This report is organised into the following structure:

  • Title page, including submission details and abstract.

Table of contents.

  • Introduction, includes details on purpose, scope and research methods used to produce this report.
  • Literature review, Provides detailed information on each individual source including background information on the author/s.
  • Findings, includes descriptions on the theorists, outlines the key concepts of the theory, application of the theory and an evaluation of the theory.
  • Conclusion, summarises the key points and concepts of the theory and critique of the theory.
  • References and glossary of terms, references alternative web-sites and books that were also used when researching as well as a glossary of terms that explains key words used in this report.

Literature review

West, R., & Turner, LH. (2007). Introducing Communication theory Analysis and Application (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.


The information from this source highlights the key components of the Social Penetration theory such as the Onion analogy and assumptions of social penetration. It also has an in-depth section on the Social Exchange theory in regards to relational costs and rewards as well as guidelines for self disclosure relating to social penetration. The source also produces a lot of useful case studies and examples that put the theories into practice. It has examples that use a script to depict a conversation between two people in order to highlight the use of social penetration, social exchange and self disclosure. There is also an expanded references section that references the sources of information used for this book.

Accuracy And Validity

The information contained in this book offers a high level of accuracy in regards to the Social Penetration theory, Social Exchange theory and self disclosure. Both authors have done extensive research on communication theory and wrote numerous books and articles on the subject. Co-author Richard West is an accomplished Professor and has a Ph.D from Ohio University. His research spans a number of different areas, including family communication, instructional practices, and classroom communication. He is the recipient of various teaching and research awards at USM, including the College of Arts and Sciences, Outstanding Teacher-Scholar and the Faculty Senate Award in Communication Research. Co-author Lynn H. Turner teaches in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She received her Ph.D. from North-western University in 1989. She is the author of several journal articles, books, and book chapters focused on communication studies. She is the recipient of the Marquette University College of Communication Research Award and numerous other awards for communication analysis and theory.

DeVito, J. (2004). The Interpersonal Communication Book (10th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc


This book covers the main concepts of The Social Penetration theory and the Social exchange theory. The section on the Social Exchange theory also features information on comparison levels in relationships as well as profits, rewards and costs and briefly describes aspects of the equity theory in regards to social exchange. It also goes into detail on intimacy and risks of relationships and deterioration of personal relationships. There is also detailed information on the depenetration of relationships and the stages that it involves such as withdrawal, decline in self disclosure, deception and positive and negative messages.

Accuracy And Validity

The author of this book is Joseph A. DeVito a famous U. S. Communication scholar from Hunter College, New York. He is a member of the National Communication Association, the Eastern Communication Association, the International Communication Association, The International Society for General Semantics and the Society for the Study of Personal Relationships. He is has written over 15 textbooks on communication which are used by thousands of students worldwide. His articles have appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Communication Monographs, Communication Quarterly, Southern Speech Communication Journal and Central States Communication Journal. His extensive knowledge in communication and publication experience gives this textbook a high level of accuracy.

Kito, M. (2002). Self-Disclosure in Romantic Relationships and Friendships Among America and Japanese College Students. Proquest physiology journals, 145(2), 127-140.


The information in this journal was produced by doing an experiment regarding self-disclosure and the Social Penetration process. It also explains in detail the key concepts of social interaction and self-disclosure. The author examined whether the level of self disclosure would differ across four types of relationships: passionate love relationships, companion love relationships, same-sex friendships and cross-sex friendships. The experiment was done by American and Japanese participants to examine any cultural differences in self-disclosure. The results produced three main hypotheses, Japanese students scored lower than American students in self disclosure regardless of relationship type, Self disclosure was higher in same sex friendships than in cross sex friendships in both American and Japanese students and self disclosure was higher in romantic relationships than in friendships among both American and Japanese students (Kito, M. 2002). The article also has information regarding each relationship type and previous authors that have studied similar topics and experiments.

Accuracy And Validity

This article and experiment was written by Mie Kito from the Department of psychology, California state university. She is a student at the university and won an award for research and creativity for this paper. She was also awarded the honour of presenting the theory at a psychology seminar in Vancouver, Canada.

Allensworth, N. (1996). Social penetration: A description, research and evaluation Communication theory. PP. 1-25


This document covers the main concepts of the Social Penetration Theory. It has a detailed description of the history including the history and progress of Altman and Taylor and the way the theory came into existence. It also incorporates the Onion diagram and describes the layers of social penetration in great detail. The article also has studies that were done in regards to self-disclosure and social penetration. They include various experiments that were carried out and the findings of the study. There is also a section on intercultural research to do with social penetration and self disclosure.

Accuracy And Validity

This paper was presented by Nicole J Allensworth at the Annual Meeting of the Southern States Communication Association (Memphis, Tennessee, March 27-31, 1996). The document was presented to researchers involved in communication research studies to affectively demonstrate the effects of communication within personal relationships. No other information was found on this author.

Baack, D., Fogliasso, C. & Harris, J. (2000). The personal Impact of Ethical decisions: A Social Penetration Theory. Journal of business ethics, 24, 1, 39- 49.


This Journal article discusses people's ethical reasoning and beliefs in regard to social penetration. It talks about the structure and make up of each individual as well as personal characteristics and describes personal benefits in the form of cost and reward outcomes relating to social exchange and social penetration. The article also talks about Altman and Taylor and their understandings of social penetration theory. The article features the Onion diagram to establish the basic concepts of the Onion analogy and also has examples of these processes to put the theory into a real life situation.

Accuracy And Validity

This article was written by Donald Baack, Christine Fogliasso and James Harris. Donald Baack is a University Professor of Management at PSU. He has an undergraduate degree from Dana College, an MBA from Southwest Missouri State University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska. Baack teaches undergraduate level Organizational Theory and Behavior, Advanced Organizational Behavior, and graduate level Behavioral Management. Professor Baack is the author and co-author of eight books. Three are college textbooks, in the areas of Management, Organizational Behavior, and Integrated Marketing Communications. Christine Fogliasso is a University Professor in the Department of Management and Marketing at Pittsburg State University. Her Bachelor's degree was earned at Pittsburg State University, and her Ph.D. at the University Of Kansas School Of Law. Her teaching and research areas are business law, ethics and communication. No information was found on author James Harris.

Social Penetration: The Development of Interpersonal Relationships. (2001) . NewYork: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Retrieved from


This internet article has a brief summary that identifies the main concepts of the social penetration theory. The article also has a section on scientific assumptions which tries to explain that social penetration can be referred to as a scientific theory. It argues this point by saying that if self disclosure is high then the relationship will develop; this statement can be seen as an equation and therefore can be viewed as a scientific. Critique is another scientific concept that is explained in this article. This refers to predictions that are made on the relationship development based on the levels of self-disclosure within the relationship. The article also explains in detail how Altman and Taylor's Onion analogy operates and how the theory compares people to multilayered onions. The ideas behind breadth and depth are also explained in this article.

Accuracy And Validity

This article was written by a company called Holt, Rinehart and Winston. They are an educational company that specialises in publishing textbooks and articles for secondary school students around the world. The company is based in Austin, Texas and has been providing educational tools since the early 1900s. Holt, Rinehart and Winston supply textbooks, learning CDs, eLearning sites and many other kinds of support material for teachers and students. Because Holt, Rinehart and Winston is a internationally known for producing high quality learning tools and equipment its accuracy and validity is of a high level.


Background of theorists

Irwin Altman

Irwin Altman was born on July 16th 1930 in New York. Altman mainly specialises in social psychology and social interaction and is experienced in most areas of communication. His tertiary achievements include a Bachelor of Arts degree from New York University in 1951, a Master of Arts degree from the University of Maryland in 1954 and a Ph.D. also achieved from the University Of Maryland in 1957. Altman also studies environmental psychology and believes there is a strong link between environmental psychology and social psychology, Altman has based many books and articles that relate to this subject. While developing the Social Penetration theory Altman's work was heavily based on human behaviour within different environments. Altman is heavily involved in associations including The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the International Association of Applied Psychology and the American Psychology Association. Irwin Altman is currently a professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City teaching psychology and social communication.

Dalmas Taylor

Dalmas Taylor was born in 1934 in Detroit, Michigan. After showing an interest in psychology in his teenage years he later went on to study for his Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. His research and interest in psychology eventually lead him to further his studies when he received his Masters degree in psychology from Howard University in Washington D.C and his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Delaware. Taylor also gained a certificate from Harvard University Business School. Early in his career Taylor worked with the SPSSI (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues). During the late 1960s Taylor was the chairman of the Dissertation Award Committee and served for the SPSSI council for several years. During the 1970s Taylor began to teach psychology at various universities throughout North America and eventually became a Professor at the University of Maryland where he taught for 16 years.

Taylor also worked with the APA (American Psychological Association) and eventually became a member of groups such as the Board of Ethic Minority Affairs, the Committee on Employment and Human Resources, the Policy and Planning Board and the Committee on Ethics Code Revision. His work with the American Psychological Association made very well known among psychologists and he received numerous awards from the APA. Later in his courier Taylor received the Distinguished Contribution to Education and Training Award of the Association and in 1992 he received the Distinguished Service Award for Outstanding Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest. In final stages of his career Taylor served as Vice President of Academic Affairs at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Dalmas Taylor died in January 1998 at the age of 64 due to medical conditions.

Outline Of Theory/key Issues

Psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor first established the Social Penetration Theory in 1973. The theories main objective was to explain how relation closeness develops over time. Altman and Taylor suggested that closeness develops within a relationship through a gradual process of self-disclosure, they believed that this process could occur both consciously and sub-consciously when any kind of relationship is developing.

This section of the report will describe the Social Penetration Theory by explaining its key concepts including:

  • The onion analogy
  • Self-disclosure
  • Cost and reward outcomes/ Social Exchange Theory
  • Depenetration and withdrawal

The Onion Analogy

The Onion analogy can be seen as the most notable aspect of the Social Penetration Theory. The model literally depicts an onion and is used as an analogy by Altman and Taylor to explain the foundations of social penetration. The analogy states that humans consist of layers much like an onion. Each layer reveals more about an individual's personality, the outer layers contain less personal information and the deeper layers consists of the most private details of a person's character. As a result the more layers penetrated the harder it becomes to ‘unlock' the next layer. Often the type of relationship will have a heavy impact on the degree of penetration that occurs for example family relationships, personal relationships, same sex friendships and opposite sex friendships may all have different degrees of penetration that take place during a relationship.

The penetration of the layers can be associated with two concepts. The first is ‘breadth' which refers to the amount of issues and variety of topics being discussed and the second is ‘depth' which refers to the degree of intimacy being applied on each topic. Each layer has a level of ‘breath' and ‘depth' depending on how personal the relationship has become for example friendships may have different levels of ‘breadth' and ‘depth' compared to a more personal relationship with a partner.

Surface Layers

The surface layers can be seen as superficial information about an individual such as what they look like, how they dress, their body language and how they talk. Information on the outer layers is given out a lot faster than the inner layers because it is not as personal. The surface layers can often be altered so that an individual can change the appearance they are producing when entering a social situation often for the first time. These changes will usually be things like the way they look and dress or material items such as cars or jewelry. The surface layers help to create a first impression to the outside world and is readily available to anyone who wishes to notice. After the initial surface layer is penetrated information such as their likes and dislikes, favorite movies, musical preferences etc. are revealed as the relationship progresses through the beginning stages.

Central Layers

The central or middle layers of the Onion Model can be seen as the characteristics of an individual's personality. This includes aspects such as religious beliefs, personal values and what they consider to be right from wrong. The central layers hold more understanding into a person's upbringing and culture. The central layers are usually only penetrable by people who know that individual well. In most cases it is unlikely that common friendship will go beyond the central layers.

Inner Layers

The inner layer of the Onion model holds a person's most intimate secrets and beliefs. It is the foundation of their personality and their self-concept. This layer can only be penetrated by the people who are closest to individual such as family members or their partner. Even then a person's most inner secrets might only be accessible by the individual them self. The inner layers of the Onion Analogy will heavily influence the central and surface layers because it is the basis of their personality.


The term self-disclosure refers to the act of revealing details about oneself to others. This process can happen both consciously and sub-consciously depending on the degree of intimacy at any given point throughout the relationship. Personal and intimate details about our personality are usually revealed over time as the relationship becomes more meaningful and important to us.

Altman and Taylor believed that the only way a relationship can develop is through a gradual process of self-disclosure. This process is necessary in both romantic relationships and friendships. The act of self-disclosure is one of the main principals in the study of social penetration as well as psychology. Altman and Taylor state that this is the key process that decides if a relationship will succeed or fail particularly if it is a romantic relationship. Altman and Taylor's ideas on self-disclosure have sparked many studies on the effects of self-disclosure in both close relationships and common friendships. In 1986 Berg and McQuinn tested self-disclosure by asking couples that had recently started dating to complete a self-disclosure examination. Four months later the couples were then asked to take the same examination. It was found that couples that were still together four months later reported greater self-disclosure at the initial contact then those who had later broken up. This experiment suggested that the level self-disclosure was not only based on the length of the relationship but also the satisfaction levels of the individuals when they were first getting to know each other (Berg & McQuinn.1986). Altman and Taylor believed that the process of self-disclosure allowed for a relationship to develop to a more personal level. By allowing this process to occur penetration can take place through the various layers of the ‘onion' (the onion analogy). Altman and Taylor believed that the process of penetrating the inner onion layers is especially important when long-term relationships are developing thus making the process of self-disclosure one of the key concepts of the Social Penetration Theory.

Cost And Reward Outcomes/ Social Exchange Theory

The cost and reward outcomes of the Social Penetration Theory were initially based around the concepts developed from Social Exchange Theory. Psychologists John Thibaut and Harold Kelly were seen as the main developers of the Social Exchange Theory in 1959. The Theory is based on a model of cost and reward outcomes of relationships (both friendships and personal relationships) and states that people develop relationships based on whether or not they will profit in the long run. Thibault and Kelly claim that based on the equation: profits = Rewards – Costs, people will continue being in a relationship if the profit or outcome is in their favour.

The idea of costs and rewards is analysed in the theory by using the concept of ‘Comparison levels'. This concept suggests that people have a general idea of what they expect or what they deserve to get out of any particular relationship whether it's a personal relationship or friendship, this is your known as your ‘comparison level'. For example in a personal long-term relationship the individual might expect high levels of trust, love and commitment. If the relationship has just started however they may expect lower levels of privacy, sexual activity and deep communication. When the rewards and profits out way this comparison level the satisfactory level of the relationship will increase for that particular individual.

‘Comparison levels for alternatives ‘refers to the suggestion that people will compare the rewards they are getting out of their current relationship with rewards and profits they could get out of an alternative relationship. For example an individual may feel that they are getting the maximum profits out of their current relationship therefore they are likely to stay with their current partner. If however they feel the relationship has more costs than rewards they are likely to leave that relationship to find a more profitable relationship (DeVito, J. 2004). Altman and Taylor's Social Penetration Theory relies on this same method of cost and reward outcomes to determine the path of a relationship.

Depenetration And Withdrawal

Although the Social Penetration Theory examines how a relationship develops it also acknowledges and describes the ways in which depenetration and withdrawal can occur. This occurs when the relationship begins to deteriorate either because of a falling out or simply because the individuals begin to grow apart. The first stage of deterioration is usually ‘intrapersonal dissatisfaction', this occurs when everyday life with the individual seems to be less and less eventful or for filling. If this dissatisfaction continues then the relationship will proceed to the next stage of deterioration. This stage is known as ‘Interpersonal deterioration', this stage involves growing further and further apart and spending less free time with that individual then they would have at previous points in the relationship. The process of withdrawal or depenetration occurs when one or more of the individuals begin to close of areas of their lives that had once been open in the earlier stages of the relationship. As a result the ‘breadth' and ‘depth' which once made the relationship more intimate and personal will now begin to reverse. This process can be seen as taking back what has already been used to build the foundations of the relationship, if the foundations are no longer apparent then the relationship becomes unstable. Altman and Taylor have compared this stage of depenetration to watching a movie in reverse (Griffin,EM 2006), in other words everything that has been put into the relationship will now begin to be withdrawn to some extent. A decline in self-disclosure will also be apparent because of the fact there is now less communication and social activities taking place. If there is a decline in self-disclosure levels then the relationship will no longer move forward. The absence of self-disclosure can often be due to a number of contributing factors including; one or more of the individuals no longer feeling comfortable to communicate with the other on a personal level, they are no longer trust worthy or they are simply not worth the effort. The depenetration and deterioration of a relationship rarely ends in a sudden burst of realisation but rather a gradual process of withdrawal due to lack of enjoyment and intimacy levels in the relationship.

Application Of Theory

The process of social penetration is solely based on communication and social interaction. As a result this theory is put into practice every day in a variety of situations from common greetings to a work mate to a personal conversation with a family member. Different social interactions will involve different levels of self-disclosure and communication. To illustrate how the theory affects people in everyday life an experiment was found to describe the effects of social penetration and self-disclosure in common relationships including friendships and romantic relationships.

This experiment was done by Mie Kito from the California State University as part of her undergraduate honors program in 2003. The experiment gained her an award for research and creativity and was presented at the 83rd annual Western physiological Association Convention in Vancouver in May 2003. The purpose of the experiment was to examine different levels of self-disclosure among American and Japanese college students. She examined students that were involved in romantic relationships, companionate relationships and same sex and opposite sex friendships to find out if both cultural background and relationship types played a major role in the level of self-disclosure that was applied in everyday situations. To gain an accurate sample she found a selection of 145 college students, 64 of the students were American and 81 were Japanese. The purpose and aim of the survey was not disclosed to the participants and the information they provided was confidential and no names were obtained to ensure the participants remained anonymous.

The methods and procedures she used where as follows:

  • Three standardized methods were used within the survey gain an accurate sample. These methods were the self-disclosure index (Miller. Berg. & Archer.1983), the Passionate love scale (Hatfield & Spencer. 1986) and the companionate love scale (Hatfield. 1986). The self-disclosure index is a target specific tool that can be used to measure self-disclosure among certain groups. The main differences between the companionate love scale and the passionate love scale is that passionate love refers to the feeling of unity with another individual who is not currently present where as companionate love refers to the bond between someone who is already heavily involved within an individual's life. When answering questions about passionate relationships the participants were asked to think of their current partner, if they did not currently have a partner then they were asked to think of the last partner that they shared deep feelings for. If the questions involved any friendships they were then asked to think of their closest friendship with either a same sex friend or opposite sex friend depending on the required relationship type for that question.
  • The self-disclosure index included 10 questions of personal information including personal habits, things that the participant wouldn't do in public and their personal feelings on certain issues. Each relationship type was modified to relate to the available answers that could be chosen by the participant. For example one of the questions for the self-disclosure index for a Passionate love relationship was, “I am willing to talk about my deepest feelings on a personal issue with the person I am romantically involved with” and another question for self-disclosure in a same sex friendship was “I'm willing to talk about my deepest feelings on a personal issue with a same sex friend”, She then provided the participants with scale of answers to choose from ranging from “will never discuss this subject with this person” to “will openly discuss this subject with this person”.
  • The passionate love scale included 15 statements and an answer scale from 1 to 9, 1 being “not true at all” and 9 being “defiantly true”. Some of the statements that were asked where “I'd get jealous if I thought my partner was attracted to someone else” and “I have an endless amount of affection for my partner”.
  • The companionate love scale was had a similar layout to the passionate love scale. It consisted of 8 statements which again had an answer scale ranging from 1 to 9, 1 being “not true at all” and 9 being “defiantly true”. Some of the question asked in this section were “I expect my love for my partner to last forever” and “I can't imagine being without my partner”.
  • The results of this experiment produced three key ideas about self-disclosure among students. The first was that Japanese students showed lower levels of self-disclosure than American students regardless of the relationship type. The second was that same sex friendships showed higher levels of self-disclosure than opposite sex friendships in both American and Japanese students. And the third was that self-disclosure was higher among romantic relationships than any other relationship type in both American and Japanese students (Mie Kito, 2003). The results of the experiment show that during a relationship different cultures can often show different levels of intimacy and self-disclosure.

This experiment showed the cross cultural differences that can occur in terms of social penetration in ordinary relationships. The study shows that although self-disclosure and social penetration is always present when communicating with others cultural backgrounds can also play a role in determining the extent of self-disclosure. The experiment also showed that regardless of cultural backgrounds self-disclosure levels are usually higher in same sex friendships than opposite sex friendships. Theorists believe that this is due to the fact that in general we share more in common interests with same sex friends than we do with the opposite sex thus creating a stronger bond and more willingness to share personal details about our lives with others.

Application of Social penetration within the I.T industry:

Communication within the I.T industry is crucial to the success of projects and the entire industry as a whole. To ensure a high level of productivity within an organisation staff must be able to communicate well with their colleges. Social penetration and self-disclosure can help to establish a strong bond within a company when colleges are getting to know each other. When working on project management assignments being able to feel comfortable in a working environment can help staff to express ideas with other team members. If self-disclosure and social penetration is applied in an I.T environment then staff are able to establish friendships which in turn can create a better atmosphere and better working conditions for the organisation.

Evaluation Of Theory

The Social Penetration Theory best outlines the key concepts of an objective theory as shown below:

Explanation of data:

The Social Penetration Theory explains the depths of human behaviour in the area of social interaction. The theory explains how people develop relationships by disclosing personal details about themselves over time in a process known as self-disclosure. The process of self-disclosure is best described through the Onion analogy which helps to show levels of privacy and personal details that make up an individual's personality. The process of penetrating the layers explains the natural human process that occurs when a relationship is in its early stages.

Prediction of future events:

Because the Social Penetration theory has been studied over time, predictions and outcomes of human relationships can be made to assess if the relationship will succeed or fail. A prediction of the outcome of the relationship can be made by assessing the self-disclosure levels of the individuals as well as what kind of relationship is taking place. Altman and Taylor state that relationships will only succeed through a gradual process of self-disclosure therefore if there is a high level of self disclosure within a relationship it will have a higher chance of developing compared to a relationship that has low levels of self-disclosure. Although a prediction can be made it can still be hard to assess the outcome of the relationship especially if it is in the early stages of social penetration.

Relative simplicity:

The basic principles of the Social Penetration Theory are relatively straightforward. Once concepts such as the onion analogy, self-disclosure and depenetration are understood it can be easy to see the effects of social penetration in your own life and in the surrounding environment.

Hypothesis that can be tested:

The main hypothesis that can be learnt from the Social Penetration Theory is that a relational closeness in a relationship can only form and develop through a gradual process of self-disclosure. As shown in the earlier experiment, the effects of self-disclosure can be tracked within a relationship. The outcome of this observation will usually result in the relationship succeeding or failing.

Practical utility:

The Social Penetration Theory is a communication theory that relies on human interaction. Because communication and social interaction is a part of everyday life the theory can be seen in progress in most social situations. The theory can be very useful when assessing relational closeness and levels of self-disclosure among relationships both personal and in a social environment.


Summary of Points of information:

The Onion Analogy

The onion analogy can be used to accurately view different layers of both superficial (outer layers) and personal aspects (inner layers) of an individual personality. The penetration of the layers can be related to two concepts known as ‘breadth' and ‘depth'. ‘Breadth' refers to different topics and issues being discussed including both personal issues and common discussions that may take place during a relationship. ‘Depth' refers to the degree of intimacy that takes place while discussing an issue; this may vary depending on relationship type. Both these concepts will decide the depth of penetration within a relationship.


Self-disclosure is the key concept behind the Social Penetration Theory. Altman and Taylor state that a relationship will only develop through a process of gradual self-disclosure. The level of self-disclosure will also determine the degree of penetration. If self-disclosure is low

then layers of the onion (an individual's personality) will not be penetrated, this in turn will make the relationship either stall at a certain layer (within the onion model) or fail completely.

Cost And Reward Outcomes/ Social Exchange Theory

The ideas of cost and reward outcomes that are used in the Social Penetration Theory were first developed in the Social Exchange theory in 1959 by Psychologists John Thibaut and Harold Kelly. The concept in short describes that people will use the equation profits = rewards – costs to determine if the relationship is worth beginning or continuing. The concept of ‘comparison levels' suggests that people enter a relationship knowing what they want out of it and what they deserve. If the rewards in the relationship outweigh the costs then that particular individual will continue to be committed to the relationship, if this is not the case then in most situations the relationship will fail.

Depenetration And Withdrawal

Depenetration and withdrawal occur in a relationship when the process of ‘deterioration' takes place. This is due to the fact that one or more of the individuals begin to close of areas of their life that were previously open at the beginning stages of the relationship. Deterioration can be broken into two main stages. ‘ Intrapersonal dissatisfaction' is the beginning stage of deterioration and is a process that takes place within the relationship were one or more of the individuals begin to feel the relationship is lacking intimacy or excitement . If this continues then the relationship will enter ‘Interpersonal deterioration' were the individuals begin to drift apart and eventually lose interest in one another. Depenetation and withdrawal of a relationship will usually happen over a period time rather than a sudden decision to end the relationship.

Critique Of The Theory

In my opinion the Social Penetration Theory has clearly been supported by other social scientists and psychologists worldwide. The Social Exchange Theory by renowned psychologists John Thibaut and Harold Kelly supports Altman and Taylor's ideas of cost and reward outcomes. Authors Vinsel and Brown who are both social psychologists wrote a well known book among communication and Psychology theorists called ‘Advances in Experimental Social Psychology'. Their book supports Altman (who was also a co-author of the book) and Taylor's ideas on social penetration and social communication in everyday situations.

Altman and Taylors ideas have been put into practice in numerous experiments including two experiments featured in this report that show the effects of self disclosure in relationships. The first was the award winning experiment written by Mie Kito that tested the levels of self-disclosure and social penetration among student from different cultural backgrounds. The second was done by psychologists Berg and McQuin who tested self-disclosure by asking couples to participate in a self-disclosure experiment over a period of four months. Both these experiments support the key concepts of the Social Penetration Theory and help to further the key issues of self-disclosure and social interaction.

The arguments against the theory in my opinion are that certain aspects of the theory seem to put everyone into the same bracket. For example the cost and reward outcomes seem to label everyone as using the same mathematical equation to decide if they should enter a relationship. This struck me as a ‘robotic' approach to take when deciding if people should enter a relationship. I could not remember a time when I used this equation to determine if I would profit out of any kind of relationship. I felt that this side of the theory did not take into consideration certain variables that would alter these suggestions of cost and reward determining an outcome of a relationship. For example if two people were forced into an arranged marriage then this idea of cost and reward benefits determining the outcome of a relationship would be voided. The two people would be in a relationship without ever using this method therefore it becomes irrelevant.

Although this idea struck me as a cavalier approach to decide a relationship the other aspects of the theories foundations are supported by key ideas within the field of psychology studies and practices. The theorists themselves have decades of experiences between them and are considered to be experts in their chosen fields. They have both wrote countless award winning articles and books and are involved with organisations such as the APA and the SPSSI. In Psychology and communication circles both Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor are highly regarded for their ideas on the Onion analogy and their work on social penetration. In my opinion the theory is a good way of understanding a complex process that occurs on an everyday basis. The theories ideas (in particular the onion analogy) provide a clear understanding of how human behaviour will affect the development of relationships. After researching this subject I think that the theory its self can be noticed in almost all social situations and while observing social interactions you can see the various concepts of the Social Penetration Theory take place.

Glossary Of Terms

Terms are listed in alphabetical order:

Breadth- Refers to the variety of topics and issues being discussed in a relationship.

Comparison levels- A form of measuring and comparing costs and reward outcomes based on a person's individual expectations within a relationship.

Comparison level for alternatives- A form of measuring and comparing costs and reward outcomes based on a person's individual expectations within a relationship. The level is then used to analyse if an individual should proceed with the relationship or search for an alternative relationship.

Depenetraiton- The process of reversing penetration, self-disclosure levels within the relationship decrease as the relationship begins to end.

Depth- Refers to the degree of intimacy being applied on each topic and issue within a relationship.

Deterioration- The process of a relationship falling apart.

Intrapersonal dissatisfaction- A stage of deterioration were one or more of the individuals within a relationship feel that there is a lack of intimacy or excitement resulting in dissatisfaction.

Interpersonal deterioration- the final stage of deterioration involving growing further and further apart and spending less free time with that individual then they would have at other points in the relationship. This is due to the continuing effect of Intrapersonal dissatisfaction.

Onion Analogy- A concept that relates a human's personality and self-disclosure levels to layers of an onion. Each layer of the onion reveals deeper insight into an individual's personality and beliefs.

Self-disclosure- Refers to the act and process of revealing details about oneself to others.

Social penetration- The process of interacting in a social situation and penetrating through the layers of an individual's personality to gain a better understanding and knowledge of their character. This in turn allows relationships to form.


References in APA 5th addition format


West, R., & Turner, LH. (2007). Introducing Communication theory Analysis and Application (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

DeVito, J. (2004). The Interpersonal Communication Book (10th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc

Database Sources:

Kito, M. (2002). Self-Disclosure in Romantic Relationships and Friendships Among America and Japanese College Students. Proquest physiology journals, 145(2), 127-140.

Allensworth, N. (1996). Social penetration: A description, research and evaluation Communication theory. PP. 1-25

Baack, D., Fogliasso, C. & Harris, J. (2000). The personal Impact of Ethical decisions: A Social Penetration Theory. Journal of business ethics, 24, 1, 39- 49.

Internet Sources:

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Social Exchange Theory. (n.d). Retrived August 21, from