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Chapter 10Social Information Processing Theory


  1. Introduction.
    1. Social information processing theory’s chief claim is this: People can build interpersonal relationships despite the limitations imposed by mediated channels.
    2. Rapid changes in communication technology over the past several decades have frustrated communication scholars seeking to understand what all of this means for interpersonal relationships.
    3. Walther proposed that under the right conditions, people can conduct satisfying interpersonal and group communication online.
    4. SIP addresses any form of mediated communication that limits the nonverbal cues people can express.
  1. Online versus face-to-face: A sip instead of a gulp.
    1. Walther labeled his theory social information processing (SIP) because he believes relationships grow only to the extent that parties first gain information about each other and use that information to form impressions.
    2. It’s a chain of events that occurs regardless of the medium used to communicate: we get information, we form an impression, and then the relationship grows.
    3. SIP focuses on how the first link of the chain looks a bit different when communicating online.
    4. Before SIP, many communication theorists shared a cues filtered out interpretation of online messages. They believed the lack of nonverbal cues would disrupt the process of gaining information and forming an impression.
    5. Flaming is use of hostile language that zings its target, creating a toxic climate for relationship development and growth.
    6. Walther doesn’t think the loss of nonverbal cues is necessarily fatal or even injurious to a well-defined impression of the other or the relational development it triggers.
    7. Two features of online communication provide a rationale for SIP theory.
      1. Verbal cues: CMC users can create fully formed impressions of others based solely on linguistic content of messages.
      2. Extended time: Though the exchange of social information is slower online versus face-to-face, over time the relationships formed are not weaker or more fragile.
  1. Verbal cues of affinity replace nonverbal cues.
    1. Based on Mehrabian’s foundational research on inconsistent messages, people gave nonverbal cues more weight when interpreting messages where verbal and nonverbal channels clash.
    2. Nonverbal cues become less powerful when they don’t conflict with the verbal message or when we’re conveying facts.
    3. Walther claims we can replace nonverbal cues with verbal messages that convey the same meaning.
    4. This ability to convert nonverbal cues into verbal meaning isn’t new; earlier examples include pen-pal relationships.
  1. Experimental support for a counter-intuitive idea
    1. Walther and his colleagues ran studies to test how online communicators pursue their social goals and if affinity can be expressed through a digital medium.
      1. In their study, the participants discussed a moral dilemma with a stranger via either online or face-to-face communication.  The stranger was actually a research confederate told to pursue a specific communication goal.  Half the confederates were told to interact in a friendly manner and the remaining pairs were told to interact in an unfriendly manner.
      2. The medium of communication made no difference in the emotional tone perceived by the participants.
      3. Self-disclosure, praise, and explicit statements of affection successfully communicated warmth.
      4. In face-to-face interactions, participants relied on facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice, body position, and other nonverbal cues to communicate affiliation.
    2. Compared to visually-oriented channels, building warmth over text might take longer.
  1. Extended time: The crucial variable in online communication.
    1. According to Walther, online communicators need extended time to build close connections.
    2. Rather than drinking a glass by taking big gulps, smaller sips will take more time.
    3. Over an extended period, the issue is not the amount of social information that can be conveyed online; rather, it’s the rate at which that information mounts up.
    4. Email and Twitter allow us to send messages, but still mostly text. Even more visual media (Zoom, Instagram) still provide less social information than would be available face-to-face.
    5. Messages spoken in person take at least four times as long to communicate online. This differential may explain why online interactions are perceived as impersonal and task-oriented.
    6. Anticipated future interaction and chronemic cues may also contribute to intimacy on the Internet.
      1. People will trade more relational messages if they think they may meet again and this anticipated future interaction motivates them to develop the relationship.
      2. Walther believes that chronemic cues, or nonverbal indicators of how people perceive, use, or respond to issues of time, are never filtered out completely when communicating online. 
    7. Walther claims that, sometimes, online exchanges actually surpass the quality of relational communication that’s available when parties talk face-to-face.
  1. Hyperpersonal perspective: Closer online than in person.
    1. Walther uses the term hyperpersonal to label online relationships that are more intimate than if partners were physically together.
    2. He classifies four types of media effects that occur precisely because communicators aren’t face-to-face and have limited nonverbal cues.
      1. Sender: Selective self-presentation
        1. Through selective self-presentation, people who meet online have an opportunity to make and sustain an overwhelmingly positive impression.
        2. As a relationship develops, they can carefully edit the breadth and depth of their self-disclosure to conform to their cyber image, without worrying that nonverbal leakage will shatter their projected persona.
      2. Receiver: Overattribution of similarity
        1. Attribution is a perceptual process where we observe people’s actions and try to figure out what they’re really like.
        2. In the absence of other cues, we are likely to overattribute the information we have and create an idealized image of the sender.
      3. Channel: Communicating on your own time
        1. Many forms of online communication are asynchronous channels of communication, meaning that parties can use them nonsimultaneously— at different times.
        2. A benefit is the ability to edit when dealing with touchy issues, misunderstandings, or conflict between parties.
      4. Feedback: Self-fulfilling prophecy
        1. A self-fulfilling prophecy is the tendency for a person’s expectation of others to evoke a response from them that confirms what was anticipated.
        2. Self-fulfilling prophecy is triggered when the hyperpositive image is intentionally or inadvertently fed back to the other person.
        3. Beyond online dating, Walther suggests hyperpersonal communication may improve relationships between groups with a strong history of tension and conflict, such as Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims.
        4. Based on his research, Walther suggests that in order to ease tensions, communicators should focus on common tasks rather than group differences, allowing plenty of time for communication, and exclusively using text-only channels.
  1. The warranting value of information: What to trust?
    1. Hyperpersonal effects aren’t likely to occur when people don’t trust each other.
    2. Walther and his colleagues have examined how people evaluate the credibility of others through social media.
    3. Social media sites display two types of information—that controlled by the profile owner and that beyond the owner’s direct control.
    4. Walther’s investigated the warranting value of personal information, or “the degree to which a target… is perceived to have manipulated, controlled, or shaped information that is abut the target.”  
    5. Information is believed if it has warranting value. Does their online profile match their offline characteristics?
      1. Like email messages, whose content is under the sole control of the sender, information posted by a profile owner is low warrant information because he or she can manipulate it with ease.
      2. Since the profile owner can’t as easily manipulate what’s posted by friends, we’re more likely to accept such high warrant information as true.
    6. Walther believes this happens offline too where we weigh differently the words of others.
    7. Walther’s experiments confirm that people trust high warrant information.
  1. Critique: Does it work outside the lab?
    1. The hyperpersonal model is over 20 years old and was created to describe an online environment that no longer exists. Yet it remains one of the most important and most useful conceptual perspectives for understanding technology-mediated communication.
    2. The theory’s relative simplicity, grounded with testable hypotheses, has performed well in the controlled conditions of quantitative research labs.
    3. It consistently explains the data and predicts outcomes.
    4. But what about outside the lab, where social life is so complex?
    5. Moving beyond the lab, researchers hope for ecological validity.
    6. The work of Erin Ruppel and Bree McEwan questions if the theory’s predictions hold up in real-world relationships.
    7. SIP does not explain how people use multiple media to maintain their relationships.
    8. By focusing on the fundamentals of the communication process, Walther and other SIP researchers have laid a solid foundation.


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Theory Outlines
11th Edition

From the Instructors Manual

List mode: Normal (click on theory name to show detail) | Show All details | Clear details

Chapter 10Social Information Processing Theory


  1. Introduction.
    1. Social information processing theory’s chief claim is this: People can build interpersonal relationships despite the limitations imposed by mediated channels.
    2. Rapid changes in communication technology over the past several decades have frustrated communication scholars seeking to understand what all of this means for interpersonal relationships.
    3. Walther proposed that under the right conditions, people can conduct satisfying interpersonal and group communication online.
    4. SIP addresses any form of mediated communication that limits the nonverbal cues people can express.
  1. Online versus face-to-face: A sip instead of a gulp.
    1. Walther labeled his theory social information processing (SIP) because he believes relationships grow only to the extent that parties first gain information about each other and use that information to form impressions.
    2. It’s a chain of events that occurs regardless of the medium used to communicate: we get information, we form an impression, and then the relationship grows.
    3. SIP focuses on how the first link of the chain looks a bit different when communicating online.
    4. Before SIP, many communication theorists shared a cues filtered out interpretation of online messages. They believed the lack of nonverbal cues would disrupt the process of gaining information and forming an impression.
    5. Flaming is use of hostile language that zings its target, creating a toxic climate for relationship development and growth.
    6. Walther doesn’t think the loss of nonverbal cues is necessarily fatal or even injurious to a well-defined impression of the other or the relational development it triggers.
    7. Two features of online communication provide a rationale for SIP theory.
      1. Verbal cues: CMC users can create fully formed impressions of others based solely on linguistic content of messages.
      2. Extended time: Though the exchange of social information is slower online versus face-to-face, over time the relationships formed are not weaker or more fragile.
  1. Verbal cues of affinity replace nonverbal cues.
    1. Based on Mehrabian’s foundational research on inconsistent messages, people gave nonverbal cues more weight when interpreting messages where verbal and nonverbal channels clash.
    2. Nonverbal cues become less powerful when they don’t conflict with the verbal message or when we’re conveying facts.
    3. Walther claims we can replace nonverbal cues with verbal messages that convey the same meaning.
    4. This ability to convert nonverbal cues into verbal meaning isn’t new; earlier examples include pen-pal relationships.
  1. Experimental support for a counter-intuitive idea
    1. Walther and his colleagues ran studies to test how online communicators pursue their social goals and if affinity can be expressed through a digital medium.
      1. In their study, the participants discussed a moral dilemma with a stranger via either online or face-to-face communication.  The stranger was actually a research confederate told to pursue a specific communication goal.  Half the confederates were told to interact in a friendly manner and the remaining pairs were told to interact in an unfriendly manner.
      2. The medium of communication made no difference in the emotional tone perceived by the participants.
      3. Self-disclosure, praise, and explicit statements of affection successfully communicated warmth.
      4. In face-to-face interactions, participants relied on facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice, body position, and other nonverbal cues to communicate affiliation.
    2. Compared to visually-oriented channels, building warmth over text might take longer.
  1. Extended time: The crucial variable in online communication.
    1. According to Walther, online communicators need extended time to build close connections.
    2. Rather than drinking a glass by taking big gulps, smaller sips will take more time.
    3. Over an extended period, the issue is not the amount of social information that can be conveyed online; rather, it’s the rate at which that information mounts up.
    4. Email and Twitter allow us to send messages, but still mostly text. Even more visual media (Zoom, Instagram) still provide less social information than would be available face-to-face.
    5. Messages spoken in person take at least four times as long to communicate online. This differential may explain why online interactions are perceived as impersonal and task-oriented.
    6. Anticipated future interaction and chronemic cues may also contribute to intimacy on the Internet.
      1. People will trade more relational messages if they think they may meet again and this anticipated future interaction motivates them to develop the relationship.
      2. Walther believes that chronemic cues, or nonverbal indicators of how people perceive, use, or respond to issues of time, are never filtered out completely when communicating online. 
    7. Walther claims that, sometimes, online exchanges actually surpass the quality of relational communication that’s available when parties talk face-to-face.
  1. Hyperpersonal perspective: Closer online than in person.
    1. Walther uses the term hyperpersonal to label online relationships that are more intimate than if partners were physically together.
    2. He classifies four types of media effects that occur precisely because communicators aren’t face-to-face and have limited nonverbal cues.
      1. Sender: Selective self-presentation
        1. Through selective self-presentation, people who meet online have an opportunity to make and sustain an overwhelmingly positive impression.
        2. As a relationship develops, they can carefully edit the breadth and depth of their self-disclosure to conform to their cyber image, without worrying that nonverbal leakage will shatter their projected persona.
      2. Receiver: Overattribution of similarity
        1. Attribution is a perceptual process where we observe people’s actions and try to figure out what they’re really like.
        2. In the absence of other cues, we are likely to overattribute the information we have and create an idealized image of the sender.
      3. Channel: Communicating on your own time
        1. Many forms of online communication are asynchronous channels of communication, meaning that parties can use them nonsimultaneously— at different times.
        2. A benefit is the ability to edit when dealing with touchy issues, misunderstandings, or conflict between parties.
      4. Feedback: Self-fulfilling prophecy
        1. A self-fulfilling prophecy is the tendency for a person’s expectation of others to evoke a response from them that confirms what was anticipated.
        2. Self-fulfilling prophecy is triggered when the hyperpositive image is intentionally or inadvertently fed back to the other person.
        3. Beyond online dating, Walther suggests hyperpersonal communication may improve relationships between groups with a strong history of tension and conflict, such as Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims.
        4. Based on his research, Walther suggests that in order to ease tensions, communicators should focus on common tasks rather than group differences, allowing plenty of time for communication, and exclusively using text-only channels.
  1. The warranting value of information: What to trust?
    1. Hyperpersonal effects aren’t likely to occur when people don’t trust each other.
    2. Walther and his colleagues have examined how people evaluate the credibility of others through social media.
    3. Social media sites display two types of information—that controlled by the profile owner and that beyond the owner’s direct control.
    4. Walther’s investigated the warranting value of personal information, or “the degree to which a target… is perceived to have manipulated, controlled, or shaped information that is abut the target.”  
    5. Information is believed if it has warranting value. Does their online profile match their offline characteristics?
      1. Like email messages, whose content is under the sole control of the sender, information posted by a profile owner is low warrant information because he or she can manipulate it with ease.
      2. Since the profile owner can’t as easily manipulate what’s posted by friends, we’re more likely to accept such high warrant information as true.
    6. Walther believes this happens offline too where we weigh differently the words of others.
    7. Walther’s experiments confirm that people trust high warrant information.
  1. Critique: Does it work outside the lab?
    1. The hyperpersonal model is over 20 years old and was created to describe an online environment that no longer exists. Yet it remains one of the most important and most useful conceptual perspectives for understanding technology-mediated communication.
    2. The theory’s relative simplicity, grounded with testable hypotheses, has performed well in the controlled conditions of quantitative research labs.
    3. It consistently explains the data and predicts outcomes.
    4. But what about outside the lab, where social life is so complex?
    5. Moving beyond the lab, researchers hope for ecological validity.
    6. The work of Erin Ruppel and Bree McEwan questions if the theory’s predictions hold up in real-world relationships.
    7. SIP does not explain how people use multiple media to maintain their relationships.
    8. By focusing on the fundamentals of the communication process, Walther and other SIP researchers have laid a solid foundation.


You can access the Outline for a particular chapter in several ways:

  • Switch to View by Theory, then select the desired theory/chapter from the drop-down list at the top of the page. Look in the list of available resources.
  • To quickly find a theory by chapter number, use the Table of Contents and link from there. It will take you directly to the theory with available options highlighted.
  • You can also use the Theory List, which will take you directly to the theory with available options highlighted.

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