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Social Penetration Theory proposes that, as relationships develop, interpersonal communication moves from relatively shallow, non-intimate levels to deeper, more personal ones.[1] The theory was formulated by psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor to provide an understanding of the closeness between two individuals.

Social penetration is defined as a process that moves a relationship from non-intimate to intimate. Social penetration theory states that this process occurs primarily through self-disclosure. This theory is also guided by the assumptions that relationship development is systematic and predictable and also includes deterioration, or growing apart. Social Penetration theory also claims that our relationships progress through four stages before reaching stability where communication is open and partners are highly intimate.[2]

Altman and Taylor proposed that closeness occurs through a gradual process of self-disclosure, and closeness develops if the participants proceed in a gradual and orderly fashion from superficial to intimate levels of exchange as a function of both immediate and forecast outcomes.[3] This psychological theory, as with many others, is applied in the context of interpersonal communication. It can also be defined as the process of developing deeper intimacy with another person through mutual self-disclosure and other forms of vulnerability. The Social Penetration theory is known as an objective theory, meaning that the theory is based on data drawn from experiments, and not from conclusions based on individuals' specific experiences.

Altman and Taylor believe that only through opening one's self to the main route to social penetration – self-disclosure – by becoming vulnerable to another person can a close relationship develop. Vulnerability can be expressed in a variety of ways, including the giving of anything which is considered to be a personal possession, such as a dresser drawer given to a partner.[4]

Altman and Taylor were convinced that the process of social penetration moves a lot faster in the beginning stages of a relationship but then it slows considerably. Those who are able to develop a long term, positive reward/ cost outcome are the same people who are able to share important matches of breadth categories. The early reward/ cost assessment have a strong impact on the relationships reactions and involvement. When you have expectancies in a relationship regarding the future it plays a major role on the outcome in the relationship.

Social penetration theory is made for explaining the level of intimacy and interaction between people. There are various degrees of how someone could respond to decisions about ethics or personal challenges. The reactions to problems regarding ethics and challenges are also based on personal characteristics, reward/cost assessments and situational factors.


  • Relationships progress from nonintimate to intimate.
  • Relational development is generally systematic and predictable.
  • Relational development includes depenetration and dissolution.
  • Self-disclosure is at the core of relationship development.[5]

Onion Metaphor

Social penetration is perhaps best known for its onion analogy. As time passes and intimacy grows, the layers of one's personality begin to unfold. Three major factors influence self-revelation and begin the process of the onion theory, which are personal characteristics, reward/cost assessments, and the situational context.[6]

Personal Characteristics

Responses to questions during social penetration are broken up into breadth categories. They include, sports, work, religion, politics and sometimes right and wrong. Some categories are more significant than the rest to certain people depending on the person who is disclosing the information. The categories that are greatest in depth will be focused on and the shallowest category would be ignored.

Stages of the Onion

  1. Orientation stage- In this first stage we engage in small talk and simple, harmless clichés like, ‘Life’s like that’. This first stage follows the standards of social desirability and norms of appropriateness.
  2. Exploratory affective stage- We now start to reveal ourselves, expressing personal attitudes about moderate topics such as government and education. This may not be the whole truth as we are not yet comfortable to lay ourselves bare. We are still feeling our way forward. This is the stage of casual friendship, and many relationships do not go past this stage.
  3. Affective stage- Now we start to talk about private and personal matters. We may use personal idioms. Criticism and arguments may arise. There may be intimate touching and kissing at this stage.
  4. Stable stage- The relationship now reaches a plateau in which some of the deepest personal thoughts, beliefs, and values are shared and each can predict the emotional reactions of the other person.
  5. Depenetration- When the relationship starts to break down and costs exceed benefits, then there is a withdrawal of disclosure which leads to termination of the relationship.[7]

Breadth and Depth

File:Breadth and depth.jpeg

Breadth and depth

Both depth and breadth are related to the Onion Model. As the wedge penetrates the layers of the onion, the degree of intimacy (depth) and the range of areas in an individual’s life that an individual chooses to share (breadth) increases.

Depth of penetration is defined as: The degree in which someone is intimate with someone else. This does not necessarily refer to sexual activity, but more to the idea of how open and close someone can become with another person despite their anxiety over self-disclosure. This could be through friendship, family relationships, peers, and even romantic relationships with either same-sex or opposite-sex relationships.

There are four thoughts within the process of depth of penetration (2009). These are known as:

  1. “Peripheral items are exchanged more frequently and sooner than private information.”
  2. “Self-disclosure is reciprocal, especially in the early stages of relationship development.”
  3. “Penetrations is rapid at the start but slows down quickly as the tightly wrapped inner layers are reached.”
  4. “Depenetration is a gradual process of layer-by-layer withdrawal.”

Breadth of penetration is just as important to the theory as the depth of penetration. Breadth refers to the different segments of a person’s life. For instance one segment can be family while another could be a romantic relationship or even academic studies could be thought of as another type of segment. Each of these segments or areas is not always accessed at the same time. One could be completely open about a family relationship while hiding an aspect of a romantic relationship for various reasons such as abuse or disapproval from family or friends. It takes genuine intimacy with all segments to be able to access all areas of breadth at all times.[8]

It is possible to have depth without breadth and even breadth without depth. For instance, depth without breadth could be where only one area of intimacy is accessed. “A relationship that could be depicted from the onion model would be a summer romance. This would be depth without breadth.” On the other hand, breadth without depth would be simple everyday conversations. An example would be when passing by an acquaintance and saying, “Hi, how are you?” without ever really expecting to stop and listen to what this person has to say is an everyday instance.

The depth described in the social penetration theory is how well you know people in and around your life to reach greater depths of intimacy. This does not always pertain to sex in a relationship with a person. It is more concerned with getting to know the person after you meet them and then moving to deeper levels of intimacy such as them gaining trust in you and wanting to be more open with you. Doing this will give the person more trust in the relationship and make them want to talk to you about deeper things then what is on the surface of a normal everyday conversation.

How do you move to deeper intimacy levels? When talking with the person over time make more topics to talk about so they will start to open up to you and express different things towards the topics and what they feel towards different issues. This helps you to move closer to getting to know the person and how they react to different things.[1] Getting to know the person will show their true colors. From attitudes,family, and romantic relationship status, many things can come from this after getting in depth with a person to know their background and how they were brought up.

Breadth in social penetration means knowing a wide variety of information about a person. Most people stop after a friendly acquaintance an others become close friends. Breadth means to get to know a person on a wider level or even in some cases a romantic level. To get to these levels it takes time to get to know the person and find out different beneficial information to help you to move in the right direction with a person. Some people think you know a person pretty well but to know them extremely well it takes many conversations to reach the level of breadth. It depends on how far you want to go with a relationship. In getting to know a person people look on how they can benefit off the relationship or what is it going to cost to be in a relationship with the person.

To get to the level of breadth and depth you have to work your way down and work on your social skills and how you present yourself to people. You have to be willing to open up and talk to the person and express yourself to them. Let a little bit of your personal life and out and see how they respond to it. If they want to talk about it they will talk about it. If they do not want to open up the first time you have to keep talking to them and have many conversations to where they feel comfortable enough for them to want to talk to you about personal things in their life.

Rewards and Costs

Social penetration theory states that humans, even without thinking about it, weigh each relationship and interaction with another human on a reward cost scale. If the interaction was satisfactory, then that person or relationship is looked upon favorably. But if an interaction was unsatisfactory, then the relationship will be evaluated for its costs compared to its rewards or benefits. People try to predict the outcome of an interaction before it takes place. Coming from a scientific standpoint, Altman and Taylor were able to assign letters as mathematical representations of costs and rewards. They also borrowed the concepts from Thibaut and Kelley's Social exchange theory in order to describe the relation of costs and rewards of relationships. Thibaut and Kelley's key concepts of relational outcome, relational satisfaction, and relational stability serve as the foundation of Irwin and Taylor's rewards minus costs, comparison level, and comparison level of alternatives.

A major factor of disclosure is an individual calculation in direct relation to benefits of the relationship at hand. Each calculation is unique in its own way because every person prefers different things and therefore will give different responses to different questions.

The more you disclose to your partner the greater intimacy reward you will receive. When the individuals who are involved in the relationship hold positive values in this calculation intimacy proceeds at an accelerated rate. In the relationship if you and your partner are dyad the cost exceeds the rewards. The relationship then will slow considerably, and future intimacy is less likely to happen.

Outcomes: rewards minus cost

This means that people want to maximize their rewards and minimize their costs when they are in a relationship with somebody. If your costs are not greater than your rewards, the relationship could be beneficial to you.

Comparison level (CL)

The first standard that we use to evaluate the outcomes of a situation is comparison level. As defined by Thibaut and Kelley, comparison level is the standard by which individuals evaluate the desirability of group membership. A group is defined as “two or more interdependent individuals who influence one another through social interaction." In this instance, the group refers to a dyadic relationship, but it can really be extended to any type of group. "A person's comparison level (CL) is the threshold above which an outcome seems attractive"[1] . That is, when groups fall above the CL they are seen as being satisfying to the individual, and when they fall below the CL they are seen as being unsatisfying. We take an average of outcomes from the past as a benchmark to determine what makes us happy or sad so that we may develop the threshold, or comparison level, in which an outcome appears attractive. Our past experiences really do shape our thoughts and feelings about developing relationships with people, and in this way, an individual’s CL is very much influenced by these previous relationships.

Comparison level of alternatives (CLalt)

Comparison level only predicts when we are satisfied with membership in a given relationship, or group. Therefore, Thibaut and Kelley also say that people use a comparison level for alternatives to evaluate their outcomes. Basically, CLalt is determined by "the worst outcome a person will accept and still stay in a relationship." As such, comparison level for alternatives is a better predictor for whether or not a person will join or leave a relationship, or group. However, even if a relationship is unhealthy a person might choose to remain in it because it is better than what they perceive the real world to be.

Ethical Egoism

Altman and Taylor define ethical egoism the belief that individuals should live their lives so as to maximize their own pleasure and minimize their own pain. It is the minimax principle that undergirds social exchange theory. The term reflects many social scientists’ convection that all of us are motivated by self-interest.[1]

Ethical egoists claim we should act selfishly. It is right and good for us to look out for number one.

Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who lived around Aristotle’s lifetime and defined the good life as getting as much pleasure as possible. Epicurus thought that “no pleasure is in itself evil, but the things which produce certain pleasure entail annoyances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.” This philosopher was noted on how he believed in the idea of telling lies. The only way someone should tell lies is if he or she knows there is no way he or she will get caught in their lie.[3]

Other philosophers who believe in Epicurus’s ideas:

Thomas Hobbes Friedrich Nietzsche Ayn Rand

Computer Mediated Communication

Benefits: Computer-Mediated Communication or also known as CMC can be thought of as another way in which people can develop relationships. Internet has thought to broaden the way people communicate and build relationships. By opening up a new window in which people could be open-minded and unconventional communicators and partners from traditional limitations like time and place. (Yum & Hara, 2005)

Barriers: Some theorists find this concept impossible and there are barriers to this idea. Since there are risks and there is usually more uncertainty about whether the person on the other side of the computer is being real and truthful, or deceitful and manipulative for one reason or another there is no possible way to build a relationship. A lack of face-to-face interaction can cause heightened skepticism and doubt. Since this is possible, there is no chance to make a long lasting and profound connection.

Social Networking sites: Self-disclosure is fundamental when it comes to building and growing within relationships. Some theorists say self-disclosure goes through cycles. What this means is relationships will have certain times where their intimacy levels, due to openness of information, will be high. Then within the relationship there will also be times when either too much disclosure or not enough disclosure can happen. This would be a low part within the relationship. Every relationship has rotations and progressions but these are usually normal. Self-disclosure has been studied when it comes to face-to-face interactions. Since the ideas of social networking sites are new phenomena there are not as many studies done about how people disclose information over a computer compared to a one-on-one interaction. There are still a couple surveys done about how social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, hi5, myyearbook, or Friendster effect interactions between human beings.

There was a study done about the connection on how couples or other romantic relationships have trust, commitment, and affection towards each other and the amount of self-disclosure each person gives to the one another. There are several criteria to the study. One important is how the couple met. If they met before talking over the Internet they are more likely to reveal personal information due to trusting someone easier. According to Rempel, Holmes, & Zanna the best way to be able to trust someone is to be able to foretell or calculate how another person will act or react to any given information. (1985) In other words, we are more probable to release information about ourselves if we can expect the behavior of the other person.

“The hyper personal perspective suggests that the limited cues in CMC are likely to result in over attribution and exaggerated or idealized perceptions of others and that those who meet and interact via CMC use such limited cues to engage in optimized or selective self-presentation”. (Walther, 1996) What this author means is there could be deceitful or dishonest intents involved from people on the Internet. There are possibilities that someone could mislead another person because there are more opportunities to build a bigger and better identity without much worry for persecution. If there is no chance of ever meeting the person on the other end of the computer, then there is a high rick of falsifying information and credentials. Other theorists such as Rubin and Bargh say that because of the blockade of the computer, it increases how likely people are to be true and honest about themselves. There is also the idea that there will not be any fear of consequences for less than respectable decisions made in the past. Computer mediated communication has also been thought to even speed up the intimacy process because computers facilitate individual communication to be more, rather than fewer, open and accommodating about characteristics of the person or persons involved. Both idea and types of theories can be proved and disproven but it all depends on how an individual uses and or abuses computer mediated communication.


  • Theory not fully supported by data
  • Highest reciprocity may occur at middle levels; may be cycles of disclosure and reserve
  • Needs take account of gender (males less open)
  • Disclosure can increase as relationship deteriorates
  • Single comparison (CL) index too simplistic
  • In close relationships, self-centeredness lessens
  • Onion metaphor: sexual; disclosure is active, usually symmetrical; self is not simply revealed but is constructed
  • The original theory did not account for gender differences in vulnerability, but later research concludes that males are less open than females.[9]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Griffin, E. (2006). A first look at communication theory. (6th edition). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Wolf.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Altman, I. & Taylor, D. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. New York: Holt.
  4. Taylor, D. & Altman, I. (1987). Communication in interpersonal relationships: Social penetration processes. Interpersonal processes: New directions in communication research. p.257-277.
  5. West, Richard (2009). Introducing Communication Theory-Analysis and Application, 4th Edition, 169, McGraw-Hill.
  6. Infante, D. A., Rancer, A. S., & Womack, D. F. (1997). Building Communication Theory.
  7. Changing Minds.
  8. Social Penetration. URL accessed on 18 April 2012.
  9. McDaniel.

Other resources

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  • Altman, I., Vinsel, A., & Brown, B. (1981). Dialectic conceptions in social psychology: An application to social penetration and privacy regulation. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 14. p. 107–160.
  • Berg, J. (1984). Development of friendship between roommates. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46. p. 346–356.
  • Griffin, Em. (2009). A first look at communication theory. NY, Ny: McGraw-Hill. p. 114.
  • Petronio, S. (2002). boundaries of privacy: Dialectics of disclosure. SUNY Albany.
  • Shafer, M. (1999, November 18). Social penetration theory.
  • Taylor, D. & Altman, I. (1975). Self-disclosure as a function of reward-cost outcomes. Sociometry, 38. p. 18–31.
  • VanLear, C. A. (1987). The formation of social relationships: A longitudinal study of social penetration. Human Communication Research, 13. p. 299–322.
  • VanLear, C. A. (1991). Testing a cyclical model of communicative openness in relationship development: Two longitudinal studies. Communication Monographs, 58. p. 337–361.
  • Werner, C., Altman, I., & Brown, B. B. (1992). A transactional approach to interpersonal relations: Physical environment, social context and temporal qualities. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 9. p. 297–323.
  • Yum, Y. K., & Hara, K. (2005). Computer-mediated relationship development: A cross-cultural comparison . Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11, . Retrieved from
  • Pennington, N. (2008). Will You Be My Friend: Facebook as a model for the evolution of the social penetration theory.,, . Retrieved from
  • Sheldon, P. (2009). "I'll poke you. You'll poke me!" Self-disclosure, social attraction, predictability and trust as important predictors of Facebook relationships . Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 3(2), article 1
  • Paul DiMaggio, Eszter Hargittai, W. Russell Neuman and John P. Robinson, annual review of sociology, vol. 27, (2001), pp. 307–336
  • Social Penetration Theory. <>.
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