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Taylor and Altman’s Social Penetration Theory

Updated August 13, 2022

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Taylor and Altman’s Social Penetration Theory essay

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During the span of our lives, we develop new meaningful, as well as inconsequential, relationships daily. We accomplish this through the means of communication, we communicate with each other on a daily basis and relationships are developed.

We decide which relationships stay as acquaintances, which relationships become casual friends, and which reach a level of intimacy. This process is repeated as we progress through life, but the depth of penetration we allow each individual may differ. The theory I chose to write about is Taylor and Altman’s Social Penetration Theory (1973), which states that relationships begin and deepen through self-disclosure and seeks to explain how information exchange operates in the development, and dissolution, of interpersonal relationships. A popular metaphor used for explaining how the theory operates is the Onion Metaphor.

Humans, like onions, possess layers. Keep on peeling layers and eventually you reach the core. The Social Penetration Theory describes several layers including outer layers, middle layers, inner layers, and core personality. The outer layers are made up of superficial information about a person, such as likes and dislikes in clothing and music, physical appearance, and speech. Middle layers consist of social attitudes and political views. Included in the inner layers are spiritual values, deep fears, hopes, goals, fantasies and secrets.

The core personality contains the most private aspects of oneself. To add, humans and onions alike also contain breadth and depth. Breadth refers to the various facets of a person’s life, including work, family, community and hobbies, while depth refers to the degree of intimacy and detail that guides each of these areas. As the relationship between two individuals develops, the partners share more aspects of themselves, thus adding more depth and breadth to what they know about one another.

According to Taylor and Altman (1987), self-disclosure passes through a number of phases as an interpersonal relationship advances. These stages of Social Penetration Theory include orientation, exploratory affective exchange, affective exchange, and stable exchange. The first stage is orientation, also known as the “small talk” or “first impression” stage. In this initial stage, impersonal communication takes place.

Non-intimate information is exchanged as participants become acquainted through observing mannerisms and personal dress. Social norms are followed during this stage. The following stage is the exploratory affective exchange stage, where movement to a deeper level of disclosure occurs and communicators begin to reveal more about themselves. In this stage, the personality begins to emerge. Still, deeply personal information is withheld. The third stage is the affective exchange stage, in which evaluative and critical feelings are centered at a deeper level.

Participants in this stage begin to disclose personal and private matters while personal ways of speaking, such as slang and the usage of idioms, are allowed to come through. A level of comfort as well as further commitment is reflected in this stage. Finally, stable exchange is highly intimate and allows partners to predict each other’s actions and responses very well. This stage is characterized by openness, breadth, and depth across conversation topics. Depenetration is also known to occur when partners refuse to self-disclose, causing the relationship to stagnate and possibly end (Taylor ; Altman, 1987). Beyond relationship stages, Social Penetration Theory incorporates aspects of Social Exchange Theory, stating that human beings make decisions based on costs and rewards, seeking to maximize rewards and minimize costs.

Applied to social penetration, you will reveal information about yourself when the cost-rewards ratio is acceptable to you. According to Taylor and Altman (1975), relational partners not only asses the rewards and costs of the relationship at a given moment but also use the information they have gathered to predict the rewards and costs in the future. As long as rewards continue to outweigh costs, partners will become increasingly intimate by disclosing more and more. To add, Social Penetration Theory follows a pattern of the “greater the ratio of rewards to costs, the more rapid the penetration process” (Taylor ; Altman, 1987, p.264). This reward/cost ratio suggests, then, that relationships develop more quickly when there are positive self-disclosure experiences and do not develop quickly or at all if too many perceived costs exist. The Social Penetration Theory was initially important in regarding relationship development as a communication process, however it failed to live up to the actual experience of relationships in daily life.

Rather than moving increasingly from public to private in a linear fashion, the current version of the theory suggests social penetration is a cyclical, dialectical process (p. 203). The process is cyclical because intimate relationships proceed in back-and-forth cycles as partners work through insecurities and reservations, and it is dialectical because it involves the management of the never-ending tension between the public and the private (p.203). Furthermore, the Social Penetration Theory has been criticized, beginning with the limited scope.

The theory is primarily used to describe early stages of relationship development and how romantic relationships develop as time passes but does not apply as well to coworkers, neighbors, or acquaintances. It is not as clear at explaining or describing what occurs in established relationships such as family members, lifelong friends, or couples that have been married for several years. Another critique questions if the theory is supported by data. Moreover, the theory lacks understanding of when rates of reciprocity are highest, whether in the middle stages of a relationship as opposed to its final stages. Social Penetration Theory also does not account for individual differences in disclosure preferences and behaviors, for example, introversion/extroversion. Lastly, although stages of the penetration process are outlines clearly, the depenetration process is not as straightforward.

To conclude, the Social Penetration Theory looks at the development of an interpersonal relationship from superficial to more intimate as a gradual and systematic process, stating that relationships begin and deepen through self-disclosure. The theorists, Altman and Taylor, suggest four stages of relational development, including orientation, exploratory affective exchange, affective exchange, and stable exchange. Progress through these stages is not always linear, but rather cyclical. To add, Social Exchange Theory is also incorporated into the theory, stating that humans base decisions off costs and rewards. To elaborate, the extent to which a person chooses to self-disclose depends on the outcome of a reward-cost assessment, in which partners weigh the risks of self-disclosure against its potential rewards. Finally, the Social Penetration Theory has received criticism by scholars for its limited scope, its ambiguity when regarding established relationships, whether the theory is supported by data, lack of understanding of when reciprocity is highest, not accounting for individual differences in disclosure preferences and behaviors, and unclear stages for depenetration.

After having completed this assignment, I learned that although this process of making new relationships happens regularly and without much thought or effort, it is a very complex process that we go through every day of our lives. With this new found knowledge, I can conclude that communication is intricate as well as meaningful.

Taylor and Altman’s Social Penetration Theory essay

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Taylor and Altman’s Social Penetration Theory. (2019, Feb 14). Retrieved from