University of Colorado at Boulder
I. Explanation of theory
The social penetration theory is a theory composed by Altman and Taylor in which people are compared to onions. This may seem like an absurd comparison, but when explored more deeply it makes quite a bit of sense. The social penetration theory is a description of the multi-layered nature of people's personalities. As the outer skin of an onion is peeled away another layer is found beneath it, and if you remove that layer you will expose another layer, and so forth. The same holds true for people; as we get to know someone better we expose more layers of their personality and hence become closer to the core of the individual, or the private self The outer layers of our personality is the public self, or characteristics that are apparent to people we do not know very well. Some of these characteristics include a person's world view, studies, and tastes (Griffin, 1997, p. 145). Altman and Taylor proceed to say that in order for people to develop close and meaningful relationships penetration must occur; this process requires self-disclosure and vulnerability in order to be achieved. People are able to choose who they want to become closer to and to decide how much of their private self they want to expose.
According to Sidney Jourard, author of Transparent Self (1980), "You cannot collaborate with another person toward some common end unless you know him. How can you know him, and he you, unless you have engaged in enough mutual disclosure of self to be able anticipate how he will react and what part he will play?" (p. 3). One main reason Jourard says people may be reluctant to self-disclose is that they dread the moral judgment of their friends, family. minister, or the law. This is the same as becoming vulnerable, according Altman and Taylor, which is the essential path to deep social penetration; if a person chooses to never self-disclose to anyone then they will never achieve close, personal relationships. How do we know when to disclose ourselves and when not to? According to Jourard a person is more likely to self-disclose when he believes that his audience is of good will, or someone with an attitude of love and trust.
Now we must ask a question as to how much one should disclose to people? The breadth and depth of self-disclosure is determined by the degree of intimacy a person wants to achieve, with another. This theory claims that peripheral (public) items are exchanged more frequently and sooner than private information. This usually happens in the beginning of a relationship when it is still on a more impersonal and superficial level. According to one study, only about 2 percent of people disclosed intimate details about themselves during this level of the relationship, the majority of talk between two individuals on this level was about public items, or worldly experiences they both knew about. Self-disclosure is reciprocal during the beginning stages of developing a relationship. New acquaintances generally achieve equal levels of openness, perhaps due to the vulnerability of both people knowing nothing about the other. Instant intimacy usually does not happen with people, it is something that both parties must strive for in order to attain. At the beginning of a relationship penetration is usually fast, but as the layers of personality are revealed, it slows down. As humans we are eager to discover characteristics of people, right away, but it is also a societal norm not to disclose too much too fast: disclosing too fast can cause people to become too vulnerable without really knowing the other person. With some people we do not know very well, the information that is self-disclosed can sometimes be used as emotional blackmail, therefore it is important not to self-disclose too fast. However, for true intimacy to occur in a relationship both breadth and depth must occur. Along with the development of some relationships comes the process of depenetration, which is the gradual process of layer-by-layer withdrawal. This can happen if both individuals begin to close off areas of their lives that were open earlier in the relationship. According to Altman and Taylor relational retreat is the taking back of what has earlier been exchanged. Most relationships are not likely to terminate very quickly, some surface talk still continues after deep disclosure is silenced, however there are exceptions (Griffin, 1997, p. 147).
Relationships are determined by a theory known as the social exchange theory, by Thibault and Kelley. Individuals who choose to self-disclose will determine if the perceived benefits outweigh the costs of greater vulnerability, and if the costs are too great social penetration will not occur. The outcomes of a relationship are defined as the rewards minus the costs. Many people discover that the rewards of developing a close, meaningful relationship outweigh the costs that may occur by self-disclosure,. They are willing to become vulnerable to the other person, even though there could be a chance that the relationship mav deteriorate. In order to determine if the relationship is a chance a person wants to take they must have a comparison level. This is the threshold above which an outcome, seems attractive and is based on past experiences. If a person is satisfied with the outcome of a current relationship in relation to the comparison level, then they will allow the relationship to continue. However, if they discover their comparison levels of past relationships are greater than the current outcomes, they will usually begin the depenetration process.
A second way in which the social exchange theory is used is with a person's comparison level of alternatives, which is the best outcome available outside the current relationship. If there are more rewarding alternatives waiting then the individual will leave the current relationship; if the alternatives do not appear to be more costly or not as rewarding, the current relationship will be maintained. An example of the comparison level of alternatives could be a woman who is in an abusive relationship. It is only until she perceives an alternative to being abused that she will leave the current relationship.
The social penetration theory as well as the social exchange theory are both extremely important aspects in relational development. Social penetration requires self-disclosure and vulnerability, and social exchange weighs the costs and rewards of a current relationship. Together they determine Whether or not a person is capable of possessing meaningful, close relationships throughout their life. Self-disclosing is also important in getting to know yourself, as Sidney Jourard (1980) says "No man can come to know himself except as an outcome of disclosing himself to another person" (p. 5).
II. Explanation of case
My relationship with my best friend Dana is a prime example of the social penetration theory and the social exchange theory. Dana and I met our sophomore year in high school and instantly liked what the other had to offer. We discovered that we both had a lot in common on the surface, our tastes in clothes, our world view, and preference in music. However. these were just superficial areas we had in common, and in order to determine if we were really compatible or not social penetration had to occur. We had to determine if we wanted the relationship to go any further than just a superficial level, and if the benefits were worth the costs. Dana and I both decided that we wanted to become closer friends, thus the social penetration began.
III. Application of theory to case
After discovering the outer layers of each other, Dana and I came to a mutual understanding that we both wanted to further the relationship and become closer. Both of us were comfortable enough with each other initially to begin to self-disclose deeper information and we started to peel away the layers of the "onion." Dana and I began to perceive each other as trustworthy and our vulnerability with each other increased as did the self-disclosure. We began with discussing our goals, aspirations, religious beliefs, etc. This information was pertinent in order to determine whether or not we wanted to continue the penetration process.
Our penetration of each other held true with the breadth and depth of self-disclosure that says peripheral items are exchanged more frequently and sooner. Dana and would hang out all the time together and disclose information frequently, and I found out a lot about her very rapidly. As the layers began to peel away we became more and more vulnerable with each other. I began to tell her things that I would never dream of telling anyone else, even my family, and the behavior was reciprocated back to me by her. The vulnerability I received from Dana was very important in order for me to continue my self-disclosure; if I felt as though I was doing most of the disclosing and was too vulnerable, I probably would not have Continued the relationship. As our penetration continued, it also began to slow down a little. I believe we were beginning to look at our costs and benefits of the relationship at this point; we began the social exchange theory.
I began to go over in my mind the comparison level and the comparison level of alternatives I had formed in order to determine if the relationship was beneficial to me. I compared my relationship with Dana to other relationships I had previously had with other girls. I thought about what the possible costs of being close to a girl could be, whether important information could be used against me in any way. From many of my experiences I discovered that girls, especially m high school, could be very fake and would back-stab you without thinking twice about it. In many previous relationships with girls my vulnerability had cost me and I wasn't sure if I wanted to take that chance again. However, I decided to proceed with the penetration of my relationship with Dana; I concluded that the benefits seemed to greatly outweigh the costs.
As our relationship continued to deepen, Dana and I became inseparable. We were there for each other through deaths of loved ones to dealing with the heartache caused by many men. The relationship came to the point where we both knew everything there was to know about each other, we were able to successfully penetrated the inner core where our self concept lay hidden. There was no one in -the world who knew me better than Dana, and by self-disclosing to her I discovered more about myself I discovered beliefs I had never known to exist within myself, and this proved to be the greatest benefit of the relationship. I believe that other people can help a person to dig deeper into their core and discover new ideas that are important to who that person is.
Currently Dana is my roommate and has been for the last two years. The experience of living together has made the social penetration of our relationship to continue even deeper. We have discovered habits of each other that we never knew of, and some of them are not very likeable. However, this has caused us to become closer and see each other in a very different light than before. I have found though that our self-disclosure is quite different than from when we were younger. The information we talk about to each other relates more to our future plans such as marriage and what we will do when we graduate from college. I have felt that we self-disclose less information than we used to. I believe it has something to do with the fact that we are both at different points in our lives and are growing up. I am a month away from graduation and Dana still has another year, which has caused some ambivalent feelings for both of us. I have also been dating a guy for almost a year, who I believe I will marry, and she is still searching for a meaningful relationship with "the one." This has definitely caused us to depenetrate a little because we do not have common around in this aspect of our relationship, therefore, it is extremely hard to disclose. Dana also does not particularly care for my boyfriend, which makes me not want to really tell her anything that relates to him. I am very upset by this aspect of our relationship because I always believed that when I found a guy I could have a meaningful relationship with that she would be supportive. However,, despite my feelings I respect her decision to like whoever she chooses, but it is definitely having an impact on the level of information we now disclose to each other.
I have come to the conclusion that part of growing up can lead to growing apart in certain relationships. I have, always believed that Dana and I would be best friends forever and we would talk about our plans of living next door to each other and raising our children together. Now I know that these goals we had may not be realistic, and that we may eventually drift apart. In looking through the lens of the social penetration theory I can see our relationship as different than what I actually wanted to believe. The idea of depenetration is something I never thought existed in our relationship, but in analyzing the self-disclosure and vulnerability we have had with each other lately I can see this part of the theory taking place. We are self-disclosing less, perhaps due to the feelings we know the other person has on the issue, which in turn lowers our vulnerability level. I know that there are things now that we do not know about each other, and are finding harder to tell one another. I believe this may have to do with the idea, at least from my perspective, that we do not want to hurt the other. I know that when our lease is up this summer we are not planning on moving back in together; she is going to move back to Boulder to finish off school, and I am going to move into my own place. I know that even though we may be drifting apart that we will never fully depenetrate to where the relationship does not exist anymore. We both have invested too much into the relationship and both want it to continue even if it is not at the same level as it was or is now. We care way too much about each other to allow the other to disappear from our lives. I believe that in order for social penetration to effectively take place, the two individuals must understand there will be costs no matter what. The costs could be anything from feeling too vulnerable to watching the relationship deteriorate before your eyes.
IV. Critique of theory
Overall I believe the social penetration theory and the social exchange theory to be very informative theories and relatively accurate, at least in comparing my own experiences. The idea of comparing the human personality with the layers of the onion was a good comparison and related very well with the theory itself. The concepts of self-disclosure and vulnerability hold true as well and I believe are essential ingredients for social penetration to take place. These concepts are not only important, but Griffin does an excellent job of explaining the theory so it is easy to understand. The social exchange theory is explained well also, and is applicable to real relationships.
However, there are some definite limitations to these theories. One is that the part of the theory that discusses the depenetration part of a relationship as a slow layer-by layer withdrawal does not always seem to hold true. In past experiences I have been in relationships where anger and pain have been involved and I wanted nothing more than to never see the person right away. This constituted immediate depenetration and withdrawal from that person, which conflicts with Altman and Taylor's theory. Consistent reports have also shown that in many relationships the depth of self-disclosure increases greatly in the final stages of depenetration (Griffin. 1997, p. 150). This conflicts with Altman and Taylor's idea that as depenetration occurs, the depth of self-disclosure decreases and all that is left at the end is surface talk.
This theory of social penetration can be judged from a humanistic perspective of communication. According to Griffin (1997), a humanistic perspective says that truth is largely subjective; meaning is highly interpretive (p. 10). One idea of the humanist standard is that of free will. Humanists believe that every person has a conscious choice on what they want to do. The social penetration theory and the act of self-disclosing is a choice a person makes. We choose who we want to self-disclose to and who we don't. We also have the free will to depenetrate from a relationship if the costs outweigh the rewards and we do not want to be vulnerable and self-disclose anymore. Humanists also view theories and the interpretation that is created from them. In looking at the social penetration theory we could say that a humanist is exploring the web of meaning that is created from the interaction. By self-disclosing a person is creating the meaning that they want to become closer to the other individual, and are choosing to be more vulnerable. Humanists also tend to use certain phrases such as "in order to" or "so that" and these phrases would accurately apply to the social penetration theory. One could say that "in order to" achieve social penetration an individual must self-disclose and make themselves vulnerable "so that" the process of penetration begins.
The social penetration theory and social exchange theory fail to mention if the results are different between males and females. Does self-disclosure happen more often between females? Are females able to get to the core of another individual more often than males? These are just two of the questions that I am curious about that are not explained in this theory. I would tend to think that self-disclosure between females is on a deeper level than between males; however, Altman and Taylor do not provide any concrete evidence to support this idea. It would be helpful if they include statistics to measure the level of social penetration that occurs between males and females, males and males, and females and females. I feel the social penetration theory should be extended to include information as to whether gender makes a difference or not.
I think it would also be interesting if Altman and Taylor included whether or not it makes a difference on the amount of self-disclosure that happens and where the two people met. For example, whether two college roommates forced to live together self-disclose more than two people who meet at a bar. I think it is a possibility that location of where people meet could have an effect on the amount of penetration that occurs; in any case it would be very interesting to talk about in relation to the social penetration theory.
I have definitely enjoyed learning about the social penetration theory and social exchange theory the most. They are very important theories that happen every day with people we know and people we don't know. I believe that they are among the most important theories that need to be used in order to achieve and maintain close, meaningful relationships throughout our lives. In analyzing my own level of penetration with a close friend, I have discovered a little bit more about myself and how prone I am to self-disclose for a potential relationship.
Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Jourard, S. (1980). The transparent self. New York, NY: Macmillan.