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Social Penetration Theory
Irwin Altman & Dalmas Taylor

INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION: RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT


  1. Introduction.
    1. Developed by social psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor, social penetration theory explains how relational closeness develops.
    2. Closeness develops only if individuals proceed in a gradual and orderly fashion from superficial to intimate levels of exchange as a function of both immediate and forecast outcomes.
  2. Personality structure: a multilayered onion.
    1. The outer layer is the public self.
    2. The inner core is one’s private domain.
  3. Closeness through self-disclosure.
    1. The main route to deep social penetration is through self-disclosure.
    2. With the onion-wedge model, the depth of penetration represents the degree of personal disclosure.
    3. The layers of the onion are tougher near the center.
  4. The depth and breadth of self-disclosure.
    1. Peripheral items are exchanged more frequently and sooner than private information.
    2. Self-disclosure is reciprocal, especially in early stages of relationship development.
    3. Penetration is rapid at the start, but slows down quickly as the tightly wrapped inner layers are reached.
      1. Societal norms prevent too much early self-disclosure.
      2. Most relationships stall before a stable intimate exchange is established.
      3. Genuine intimate exchange is rare but when it is achieved, relationships become meaningful and enduring.
      4. Sharing personal narratives, which tend to contain a carefully structured story, deeper emotion, and greater detail than other shared information, is a quick path to stronger bonds.
    4. Depenetration is a gradual process of layer-by-layer withdrawal.
    5. For true intimacy, depth and breadth of penetration are equally important.
  5. Regulating closeness on the basis of rewards and costs.
    1. Social penetration theory draws heavily on the social exchange theory of John Thibaut and Harold Kelley.
    2. If perceived mutual benefits outweigh the costs of greater vulnerability, the process of social penetration will proceed.
    3. Three important concepts are: relational outcome; relational satisfaction; and relational stability.
  6. Relational outcome: Rewards minus costs.
    1. Thibaut and Kelley suggest that people try to predict the outcome of an interaction before it takes place.
      1. The economic approach to determining behavior dates from John Stuart Mill’s principle of utility.
      2. The minimax principle of human behavior claims that people seek to maximize benefits and minimize costs.
      3. The higher we index a relational outcome, the more attractive the behavior that might make it happen.
    2. Social exchange theory assumes that people can accurately gauge the benefits of their actions and make sensible choices based on their predictions.
    3. As relationships develop, the nature of interaction that friends find rewarding evolves.
  7. Gauging relational satisfaction- The comparison level (CL).
    1. A person’s CL is the threshold above which an outcome appears attractive.
    2. One’s CL for friendship, romance, or family ties is pegged by one’s relational history, the baseline of past experience.
    3. Sequence and trends play large roles in evaluating a relationship.
  8. Gauging relational stability- The comparison level of alternatives (CLalt).
    1. The CLalt is the best relational outcomes currently available outside the relationship.
    2. While one’s CL is relatively stable over time, CLalt compares the options at the current moment.
    3. When existent outcomes slide below an established CLalt, relational instability increases.
    4. Social exchange theories have an economic orientation.
    5. The CLalt explains why people sometimes stay in unsatisfying relationships.
      1. Some women endure abuse because Outcome > CLalt.
      2. They will leave only when CLalt > Outcome.
    6. The relative values of Outcome, CL, and CLalt help determine one’s willingness to disclose.
      1. Optimum disclosure will occur when both parties believe that Outcome > CLalt > CL.
      2. A relationship can be more than satisfying if it is stable, but other satisfying options are also available (in case this relationship turns sour).
  9. Ethical reflection: Epicurus’ ethical egoism.
    1. Psychological egoism reflects many social scientists’ conviction that all of us are motivated by self-interest.
    2. Ethical egoism claims we should act selfishly.
    3. Epicurus emphasized the passive pleasures of friendship, good digestion, and above all, the absence of pain.
    4. Other philosophers (Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand) echo the Epicurean call for selfish concern.
  10. Dialectics and the environment.
    1. Altman originally thought that openness is the predominant quality of relationship changes. The desire for privacy may counteract a unidirectional quest for intimacy.
    2. A dialectical model suggests that human social relationships are characterized by openness or contact and closedness or separateness between participants.
    3. Altman also identified the environment as a heuristic cue that might guide our decisions to disclose.
    4. Disclosing of one’s self may include both our cognitive space (our minds, thoughts) and our physical space or territory.
    5. Sandra Petronio’s Communication Privacy Management theory maps out the intricate ways people manage boundaries around their personal information.
  11. Critique: Pulling back from social penetration.
    1. Petronio thinks it’s simplistic to equate self-disclosure with relational closeness.
    2. She also challenges the theorists’ view of disclosure boundaries as being fixed and increasingly less permeable.
    3. Can a complex blend of advantages and disadvantages be reliably reduced to a single index?
    4. Are people so consistently selfish that they always opt to act strictly in their own best interest?
    5. Paul Wright believes that friendships often reach a point of such closeness that self-centered concerns are no longer salient.


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Instructors can get additional
resources. Read more

Archived chapters (PDF)
from previous editions
are available in
Resources by Type.
See list

New to Theory
Resources?

Find out more in this short
video overview (3:01).


Social Penetration Theory
Irwin Altman & Dalmas Taylor

INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION: RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT


  1. Introduction.
    1. Developed by social psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor, social penetration theory explains how relational closeness develops.
    2. Closeness develops only if individuals proceed in a gradual and orderly fashion from superficial to intimate levels of exchange as a function of both immediate and forecast outcomes.
  2. Personality structure: a multilayered onion.
    1. The outer layer is the public self.
    2. The inner core is one’s private domain.
  3. Closeness through self-disclosure.
    1. The main route to deep social penetration is through self-disclosure.
    2. With the onion-wedge model, the depth of penetration represents the degree of personal disclosure.
    3. The layers of the onion are tougher near the center.
  4. The depth and breadth of self-disclosure.
    1. Peripheral items are exchanged more frequently and sooner than private information.
    2. Self-disclosure is reciprocal, especially in early stages of relationship development.
    3. Penetration is rapid at the start, but slows down quickly as the tightly wrapped inner layers are reached.
      1. Societal norms prevent too much early self-disclosure.
      2. Most relationships stall before a stable intimate exchange is established.
      3. Genuine intimate exchange is rare but when it is achieved, relationships become meaningful and enduring.
      4. Sharing personal narratives, which tend to contain a carefully structured story, deeper emotion, and greater detail than other shared information, is a quick path to stronger bonds.
    4. Depenetration is a gradual process of layer-by-layer withdrawal.
    5. For true intimacy, depth and breadth of penetration are equally important.
  5. Regulating closeness on the basis of rewards and costs.
    1. Social penetration theory draws heavily on the social exchange theory of John Thibaut and Harold Kelley.
    2. If perceived mutual benefits outweigh the costs of greater vulnerability, the process of social penetration will proceed.
    3. Three important concepts are: relational outcome; relational satisfaction; and relational stability.
  6. Relational outcome: Rewards minus costs.
    1. Thibaut and Kelley suggest that people try to predict the outcome of an interaction before it takes place.
      1. The economic approach to determining behavior dates from John Stuart Mill’s principle of utility.
      2. The minimax principle of human behavior claims that people seek to maximize benefits and minimize costs.
      3. The higher we index a relational outcome, the more attractive the behavior that might make it happen.
    2. Social exchange theory assumes that people can accurately gauge the benefits of their actions and make sensible choices based on their predictions.
    3. As relationships develop, the nature of interaction that friends find rewarding evolves.
  7. Gauging relational satisfaction- The comparison level (CL).
    1. A person’s CL is the threshold above which an outcome appears attractive.
    2. One’s CL for friendship, romance, or family ties is pegged by one’s relational history, the baseline of past experience.
    3. Sequence and trends play large roles in evaluating a relationship.
  8. Gauging relational stability- The comparison level of alternatives (CLalt).
    1. The CLalt is the best relational outcomes currently available outside the relationship.
    2. While one’s CL is relatively stable over time, CLalt compares the options at the current moment.
    3. When existent outcomes slide below an established CLalt, relational instability increases.
    4. Social exchange theories have an economic orientation.
    5. The CLalt explains why people sometimes stay in unsatisfying relationships.
      1. Some women endure abuse because Outcome > CLalt.
      2. They will leave only when CLalt > Outcome.
    6. The relative values of Outcome, CL, and CLalt help determine one’s willingness to disclose.
      1. Optimum disclosure will occur when both parties believe that Outcome > CLalt > CL.
      2. A relationship can be more than satisfying if it is stable, but other satisfying options are also available (in case this relationship turns sour).
  9. Ethical reflection: Epicurus’ ethical egoism.
    1. Psychological egoism reflects many social scientists’ conviction that all of us are motivated by self-interest.
    2. Ethical egoism claims we should act selfishly.
    3. Epicurus emphasized the passive pleasures of friendship, good digestion, and above all, the absence of pain.
    4. Other philosophers (Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand) echo the Epicurean call for selfish concern.
  10. Dialectics and the environment.
    1. Altman originally thought that openness is the predominant quality of relationship changes. The desire for privacy may counteract a unidirectional quest for intimacy.
    2. A dialectical model suggests that human social relationships are characterized by openness or contact and closedness or separateness between participants.
    3. Altman also identified the environment as a heuristic cue that might guide our decisions to disclose.
    4. Disclosing of one’s self may include both our cognitive space (our minds, thoughts) and our physical space or territory.
    5. Sandra Petronio’s Communication Privacy Management theory maps out the intricate ways people manage boundaries around their personal information.
  11. Critique: Pulling back from social penetration.
    1. Petronio thinks it’s simplistic to equate self-disclosure with relational closeness.
    2. She also challenges the theorists’ view of disclosure boundaries as being fixed and increasingly less permeable.
    3. Can a complex blend of advantages and disadvantages be reliably reduced to a single index?
    4. Are people so consistently selfish that they always opt to act strictly in their own best interest?
    5. Paul Wright believes that friendships often reach a point of such closeness that self-centered concerns are no longer salient.


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