Disclaimer: This is an example of a student written essay.
Click here for sample essays written by our professional writers.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UKEssays.com.

Social Penetration Theory Psychology

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 5450 words Published: 31st Jul 2018

Reference this


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.

Get Help With Your Essay

If you need assistance with writing your essay, our professional essay writing service is here to help!

Essay Writing Service

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 http://www.uky.edu/~drlane/capstone/interpersonal/socpen.html


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.

Find Out How UKEssays.com Can Help You!

Our academic experts are ready and waiting to assist with any writing project you may have. From simple essay plans, through to full dissertations, you can guarantee we have a service perfectly matched to your needs.

View our services

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.

Findings: 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 ran


Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have your work published on UKEssays.com then please: