Modern Advances in Social Penetration Theory: Influences on Intimate Self-Disclosures within Interpersonal Relationships

The following is a literature review developed for a graduate communication theory course.

Annabelle Everett

University of Rhode Island

December 2014


This research functions on the idea that self-disclosures are a crucial component of relational development, as explicated by the interpersonal communication perspective of social penetration.  As relationships progress, relational intimacy is increased.  By pinpointing various factors that influence dyad member’s mutual self-disclosures, this paper presents a comprehensive, yet admittedly somewhat limited, review of social penetration literature.  The research presented here reveals the influence of culture and ethnicity on self-disclosure rate, the role that perceived intimacy of topic plays on the likelihood of disclosure, and mode of communication on an individual’s willingness to disclose to a dyad member.  Ultimately, the review presented here reveals the effect of these influential factors on social penetration within interpersonal relationships, as well as a continued discrepancy in self-disclosure research as related to the depenetration process.

Modern Advances in Social Penetration Theory: Influences on Intimate Self-Disclosures within Interpersonal Relationships

Social penetration theory provides a model for relationship development and proposes that self-disclosures between individuals in a dyad are an essential component of relationship growth.  Altman and Taylor (1973) initially developed this theory to provide a model of relationship development in relation to communication exchanges.  As exchanges of interpersonal communication increase in intimacy, relationships develop further.  The rate at which exchanges occur (frequency), as well as the level of intimacy of the exchange (depth) and the range of topics exchanged (breadth), contributes to overall growth.  Relationships, according to Altman and Taylor, pass through four developmental stages (orientation, exploratory affective exchange, affective exchange, and stable exchange).  As exchanges grow from superficial to increasingly personal, the relationship passes through these successive stages, and individuals reveal layers of their personality to each other through disclosures of the self.  While this process continues, the relationship is maintained. 

For the purpose of this paper, interpersonal communication is limited to that of romantic, dating relationships and close friendships, and the primary focus will be on self-disclosure as explicated by Altman and Taylor’s social penetration theory.  Modern advances of the theory have revealed various factors that influence the rate of self-disclosure within interpersonal relationships: the culture of participants, the content of disclosures, and the medium of communication.  The culture of dyad members inevitably influences their levels of self-disclosure.  The actual information being disclosed, particularly its degree of intimacy, will also affect an individual’s willingness to disclose.  Additionally, the increasing influence of online technologies has affected self-disclosures within interpersonal relationships, particularly those that are initiated through online communication. 

Stages of Relationship Development

The social penetration perspective views relationships as a series of successive phases that dyad members pass through.  The initial stage of interaction, orientation, is characterized by its existence in primarily public areas, meaning communication occurs in non-intimate settings and is narrow and highly regulated.  Individuals allow each other a limited access to self, and their focus remains on conflict avoidance.  They attempt to stay within social norms during orientation by revealing limited information about themselves.  At this stage within the dyad, participants primarily reveal information that is superficial.  They are wary of revealing too much of the self at this stage, and participate in communication exchanges that are deemed socially acceptable.  Communication is reserved, so as not to reveal intimate information about the self, a practice that is reserved for later stages of relationship development.  At this point, individuals are simply introducing a restricted version of themselves.  

The next stage, known as exploratory affective exchange, revolves around an expanded richness of communication within public areas.  Individuals reveal additional parts of their personalities.  Thus, the intimacy of exchanges is increased.  Dyad members are exposing slightly more of themselves to each other through mutual exchanges of personal information.  A slightly deeper level of self is communicated between dyad members and the relationship develops further.

This stage is followed by affective exchange, which involves more casual interactive engagements.  It is at this point that participants begin to the break down barriers between each other.  Dyad members an increased knowledge of each other, and they are now allowing access to deeper layers of personality.  Relational intimacy has significantly increased at this point in the relationship, as they reveal aspects of their “true” personality. 

The final stage, stable exchange, is characterized by efficient communication.  This occurs throughout a range of environments, in both the public and private spheres.  Dyad members experience a continued sense of openness between each other, and the level of intimacy within the relationship is greatly increased.  This allows individuals to more or less reliably interpret and predict each other’s attitudes and behaviors (Altman & Taylor, 1987).  Individuals at this stage have reached the pinnacle of relational intimacy within a dyad and are able to shape their actions and behavior to the other dyad member’s needs. 

Influences on Relational Development

Although the personality of individuals within a relationship will impact their willingness to disclose and the overall relational development, there are additional influences at play.  Altman and Taylor (1987) viewed interpersonal communication within close relationships as characterized by various other factors, including verbal exchanges, nonverbal behaviors, and environmentally oriented behaviors. Verbal exchanges involve expressions of self-disclosure between dyad members and similar processes of communication.  Nonverbal behaviors include expressions of nonverbal communication, such as gestures and facial expressions.  Environmentally oriented behaviors involve actions influenced by the space, both physical and social, between individuals.  For example, individuals in a long-distance romantic relationship will participate in communication behaviors in order to maintain the relationship that will be influenced by the literal distance between them.  According to social penetration theory, dyad members in close relationships will be more likely to give each other access to private aspects of each other, all the while being influenced by the aforementioned factors (Altman & Taylor, 1987).

Social penetration theory is expanded further when examining the dyadic effect, a theoretical perspective derived from Thibault and Kelly’s (1959) theory of social exchange.  Rewards and costs are factors that provide motivation for individuals in a relationship, acting as influences in its continuation or dissolution.  Rewards are, in a sense, any benefits that are reaped by dyad members, while costs characterize the negative aspects they experience in the relationship.  Rewards provide a foundation for relationship maintenance and influence the intimacy level of exchanges, while costs often become the cause for relationship dissolution, or depenetration.  Typically, individuals within a dyad desire gains and do not wish to receive any losses.  Therefore, the outcome of a relationship is dependent on the ratio of rewards to costs.  If the costs endured by an individual within interpersonal exchanges outweigh the rewards, the relationship will theoretically be deemed unsatisfactory and terminated, as participants will likely be unwilling to continue relationship maintenance in the absence of any benefits (Altman & Taylor, 1987). 

Thibault and Kelly’s social exchange has been incorporated into social penetration theory within five propositions.  The reward/cost ratio involves the balance of positive and negative experiences of a social relationship. This proposes that relationship satisfaction is higher when there are greater rewards in relation to cost, providing further support for the dyadic effect as an influence on interpersonal relationships.  Absolute reward and cost properties refers to the absolute magnitude of positive and negative experiences in a relationship.  Immediately obtained rewards and costs signifies the rewards and costs that accumulate from a restricted social interaction.  Forecast rewards and costs are projections of eventual rewards and costs, which can either push relationships forward or hinder their growth and development.  Cumulative rewards and costs are the rewards and costs that are accumulated by a dyad throughout its history.  Relationship growth is directly tied to whether the positive, satisfying aspects of the relationship outweigh the negatives (Altman & Taylor, 1987).  According to this perspective, when an individual is not experiencing a greater number of benefits than negative aspects within his or her relationship, he or she will more often than not resort to relationship dissolution.  This theory functions on the idea that people initiate and maintain their relationships in order to satisfy their own selfish needs. 

According to Altman and Taylor (1987), absolute rewards received within a dyad are probably a greater indication of relationship outcome than any costs received.  Relationships typically focus on a desire to gain rewards, as opposed to simply a desire to avoid costs.  Rewards and costs are contextual, and exchanges will continue as long as the balance between rewards and costs is positive for both individuals in a relationship.  As long as the amount of rewards is perceived as high, individuals will typically neglect to consider the costs a factor in the status of the relationship. As the intimacy of communicative exchanges is increased, so is relationship growth.  However, if the ratio between rewards and costs becomes negative, the relationship will likely end.

Reciprocity of Exchange

Further research was conducted to determine whether the reciprocity of exchange influences the level of self-disclosure a person is willing to express.  In other words, does a dyad member’s willingness to self-disclose contribute to the other member’s willingness to disclose?   The norm of reciprocity refers to obligation a person feels to mutually disclose in order to maintain a sense of balance within a dyad.  Altman and Taylor (1987) “speculated that reciprocity derives from the dynamics of the encounter between people, the level of intimacy of topics discussed, the properties of the situation, and the characteristics of the participants” (p. 268).  Reciprocal disclosure is a relational, communicative process.  It is a means of establishing trust within the early stages of an interpersonal relationship; “Once trust has been established, reciprocation is no longer considered important since unilateral disclosures carry little risk of vulnerability.  Thus non-intimate disclosure probably operates more in accordance with a norm of social reciprocity than do highly intimate disclosures” (p. 268).  The intimacy of a disclosure directly correlates with the developmental stage of a relationship.  Relational intimacy peaks at the middle stages, with a minimum occurring at the beginning and later stages of relationship development.  Altman additionally hypothesized that reciprocity would be the greatest when individuals share messages that lack intimacy.  In other words, a person is more likely to share information about him or herself if it is not overly personal (Altman & Taylor, 1987).  However, when one dyad member participates in disclosures of a highly intimate nature, it is likely that the other dyad member will as well.  This reciprocity reflects each member’s desire to maintain a balance within the relationship through his or her respective communicative exchanges. 

Depenetration Processes

Conflict is an essential component of relationship development when examined through the lens of social penetration theory.  The dissolution of a relationship can often be attributed to a failure of conflict management.  Although the theory of social penetration focuses on communication within relationships, little study was initially completed on the development process of social penetration, and even less on the depenetration process.  Tolstedt and Stokes (1983) is one such study that details the process of depenetration.  This research takes further Altman and Taylor’s postulate that depenetration is a relational process occurring when self-disclosures and intimacy of exchange between individuals begin to decrease.   Tolstedt and Stokes examined the roles of intimacy and self-disclosure in the depenetration process.  Intimacy here is defined as “feelings of closeness and emotional bonding” (p. 85).  In their discussion of self-disclosure, they refer to breadth and depth, as well as valence (whether the disclosure is positive or negative).  Social penetration theory would seemingly predict that disclosures have positive valence during the early stages of a relationship.  This, in turn, suggests that as intimacy is increased so is the potential for more negative disclosures.  In other words, while individuals grow closer and more comfortable with each other, they seemingly become more comfortable disclosing information that might be unsavory to the other person.  However, the data of Tolstedt and Stokes’ study (1984) found support for a reversal hypothesis as that which was initially introduced by social penetration theory: as intimacy declines, breadth and depth of disclosure decreases and the valence of disclosure becomes more negative.  As dyad members feel less close to each other, their willingness to disclose decreases, as does the number of topics they are willing to reveal to each other. 

Influences on Relational Development and Self-Disclosure

Initial study on social penetration focused on properly explicating the theory, determining its conventions, and pinpointing its limitations.  Much of modern research in social penetration theory and self-disclosure has revolved around analyzing the impact of certain influencing factors on interpersonal communication and relationship development.  Recent studies investigate the role of culture and ethnicity, explore the disclosure of sexual topics, and analyze an influx of self-disclosure online.  The sections that follow provide a limited review of such literature, specifically as they relate to the function of self-disclosure in the development and maintenance of interpersonal relationships. 

Culture and Ethnicity

There are a number of factors that play a role in the function of social penetration theory, one of which is the culture of dyad members.  Self-disclosure, as explained by social penetration theory, is a crucial component of the development of interpersonal relationships.  Within intercultural friendships, reciprocal self-disclosure is just as important, but often much more difficult to achieve, especially if dyad members do not speak the same primary language.  Research conducted on cross-cultural friendships between native English-speakers and Taiwanese individuals revealed patterns of self-disclosure.  Native English speakers visiting Taiwan revealed a greater likelihood of broad self-disclosure to unknown Taiwanese than Taiwanese visiting America did with unknown Americans.  Additionally, the cultural background of the stranger affected disclosures: “friendship types (i.e., intercultural vs. intracultural) influenced patterns of self-disclosure. Specifically, sojourning Taiwanese had significantly broader self-disclosure when talking with U.S. Americans who were strangers or casual friends than Taiwanese in Taiwan talking with Taiwanese who were strangers or casual friends” (Chen & Nakazawa, 2012, pg. 138).

While Chen and Nakazawa (2012) explored the effect of culture on interpersonal communication, Hammer and Gudykunst (1987) examined the influence of ethnicity (black/white) and sex (male/female) on self-disclosure among subjects.  The results implied that black subjects participated in greater self-disclosure within close friendships when disclosing topics of physical condition, school and work, hobbies/interests and religion, while white subjects consistently disclosed more to close friends about love, dating, sex, emotion and feeling (p. 429).  The study ultimately suggested that black subjects engaged in greater self-disclosure with close friends than white subjects.  Individuals appeared to be more willing in both studies to express information about him or herself to someone they related to, on an ethnic or cultural level.  This trend may reflect larger societal attitudes about race and culture; however, further research is required to explore this hypothesis. 

Chen and Nakazawa (2009) conducted a previous study on how the individualist-collectivistic value orientation dichotomy influenced relational intimacy on various topics and self-disclosure dimensions among interracial, intercultural friendships.  The study found:

(1)  relational intimacy was positively correlated with all six topics and four out of the five dimensions of self-disclosure

(2)  individualism was a significant predictor of the five dimensions of self-disclosure as a set

(3)  one mirrors one’s intercultural/interracial friend in all six topics and the positive/negative dimension of self-disclosure. (p. 77)

The results revealed that as friendships developed between individuals of different cultures and races, the topics and dimension of self-disclosure increased.  Ultimately, this study found that relational intimacy had a greater affect on the rate of disclosure than culture in intercultural and interracial friendships, suggesting that the development of close relationships is essential in overcoming intercultural communication barriers.  This suggests a cyclical process of development, with relationships evolving as communication increases and communicative exchanges becoming more frequent as the relationship progresses.  

Sexual Self-Disclosure

Communication has consistently been identified as an essential component of any relationship, and that the idea upon which social penetration theory functions.  Disclosing on intimate matters, such as topics of a sexual nature, is a component of any successful dating relationship.  Despite considerable studies conducted on self-disclosure in general, there has been limited research on sexual self-disclosure.  Herold and Way (1988) attempted to determine the rate of sexual self-disclosure among college-aged women.  They made a number of postulations about sexual self-disclosure and found that among their sample of subjects, there was limited explicit sexual self-disclosure.  Those with high levels of disclosure were more willing to disclose, or, rather, a woman who often reveals information about herself is more likely to reveal private information than a woman who rarely reveals information. 

Various other studies discovered that individuals are not likely to disclose information about themselves to parents that is deemed private, such as sexual information (e.g., Herold & Way, 1988, Morgan, 1976; Sorenson, 1973).  Herold and Way (1988) found that young adults were unwilling to disclose to parents because their perceptions of parental sexual values differed from their own.  However, children would seemingly be more willing to disclose issues of lesser intimacy with their parents.  It seems that reciprocity of values must be perceived in order to promote disclosures, especially between parent and child.  Although social penetration theory is not fully applicable in a familial context, analyzing families allows for a greater understanding of what types of information individuals are typically willing to self-disclose across a variety of contexts.    

The characteristics of dyad members influence a willingness to disclose, as well. When individuals are more comfortable with each other, they are more likely to reveal a greater amount of information about themselves, especially when discussing sexual topics. “In revealing one’s intimate self, people are highly cognizant of the possibility that the listener might respond negatively to the disclosure and possibly use this information to hurt the person” (p. 12).  However, if an individual perceives to have similar values to another, disclosure is more likely.  People in committed dating relationships were also likely to disclose to their partners, seemingly due to a greater perceived level of comfort and safety, as well as a means of increasing intimacy between partners.  However, they typically did not engage in full self-disclosure.  Individuals with a negative attitude towards sex, or sex guilt, were unlikely to disclose.  In all, Herold and Way (1988) concluded that sexual self-disclosure is influenced by various factors, including “personality characteristics, sexual comfort level and attitude similarity of the target disclosure group, attitudes regarding sexual disclosure, the nature of the dating relationship, and sexual attitudes and experience” (p. 13).  In the context of romantic relationships, sexual self-disclosure is influential on relational development, and probably plays an even greater role in influencing relationship management and, ultimately, success.  In the early stages of a romantic relationship, individuals are unlikely to disclose much sexual information.  However, if the relationship proceeds and takes on a more sexual nature, mutual disclosure is imperative.  If individuals’ sexual preferences and values are not in line, the relationship will likely not be sustained any further. 

Byers and Demmons (1999) further studied the role of sexual self-disclosure in relationships, particularly the disclosure of sexual likes and dislikes to an intimate partner.  The study concluded that there were a number of influential factors affecting disclosure, such as relationship length, the exclusivity of the relationship, rate of affection given, and overall relationship satisfaction; it also discovered that individuals in relationships that had high disclosure about other nonsexual topics were more likely to sexual self-disclose.  A willingness to disclose about topics in general will usually characterize a willingness to disclose about sexual topics as well.  Individuals were also likely to sexual self-disclose if the relationship was viewed as positive and reciprocated (Byers & Demmons, 1999).  According to both studies, individuals’ perceptions of a relationship are influential in their levels of disclosure, especially in regards to highly intimate topics (Herold & Way, 1988, Byers & Demmons, 1999).  If disclosures reveal that individuals have different preferences or values, or if disclosure is not reciprocated, it would be difficult to sustain a healthy, lasting romantic relationship. 

Online Self-Disclosure

As technology becomes progressively ingrained into everyday modern life, it has an increasing effect on communication practices.  Online technologies, like social media, play a significant role in influencing communication patterns, particularly in the context of interpersonal relationships with regards to relationship initiation and socialization.  This raises the question: how does one’s “real-world” identity affect their online communication of self and the development of relationships online?

Baruh, Chisik, Bisson, and Şenova (2014) examined the effect of gender on what is shared online.  They investigated the quantity of information (breadth of disclosure) expressed on an individuals’ Social Network Site (SNS) and the impact of both SNS profile owner’s and viewer’s gender, respectfully.  Findings included that, for male individuals, increased information accompanied an increased desire for further socialization; yet, for female individuals, the opposite was true (pg. 245 – 246).  Thus, males were more likely to seek to continue a relationship when there is a high level of disclosure in the initial stages of relational development.

Within computer-mediated communications’ (CMC) contexts, longer messages were evaluated more favorably, which would seemingly influence individuals’ desire to seek further socialization.  When confronted with another’s SNS profile, an individual will most likely resort to a preconceived schema about gender and their respective roles in order to reduce uncertainty about the other person.  Typically, men are expected to initiate relationships, which would take the form of initial online communication in the context of SNS profiles.  Results revealed “Quantity of information [to have] no statistically significant effect on intentions to further socialize online. However, for both dependent variables, more information increased intentions to socialize with male profile owners and decreased intentions to socialize with female profile owners” (pg. 249).  These findings are consistent with traditional sex roles, which typically state that men are expected to share information in early relationships stages, while women are expected to receive information

While Baruh, Chisik, Bisson, and Şenova (2014) examined the impact of gender on disclosure, Jiang, Bazarova, and Hancock (2013) explored the increased intimacy of disclosure in text-based CMC, as opposed to face-to-face interaction.  Their research focuses on reciprocity of exchange, which, as previously determined by Altman and Taylor (1987), is a key factor in the establishment and maintenance of interpersonal relationships.  However, their initial research focused on face-to-face interaction, while Jiang, Bazarova, and Hancock examined the effect of CMC on disclosures.

Intimacy of disclosure is more significant in establishing overall relational intimacy than disclosure frequency.  Reciprocation of intimate disclosures is a necessary component of relationship development, because it remedies the imbalance that emerges when one partner self-discloses to the other.  The balance is restored and maintained when both partners are mutually disclosing to each other.  Dyad member’s intimacy of disclosures will typically be reciprocated, or rather equivalent, for the most part.  In other words, if an individual self-discloses superficial information their partner will most likely mirror that communication behavior and participate in superficial exchanges as well.  When one dyad member fails to reciprocate with a similarly intimate disclosure, this creates an imbalance in the dyad and can lead to the depenetration stage of the relationship.  Individuals will most likely take issue with the relationship, since one person is displaying vulnerability through intimate disclosure, while the other remains more aloof by failing to intimately disclose. 

These elements of disclosure are significant to examine in the context of CMCs, particularly now that digital communication plays such an influential role in relationship establishment.  These days, the early stages of a relationship can often take place in an online setting.  Romantic relationships, and even friendships, that initiate online, through social media platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, or dating apps, such as OkCupid or Tinder, are becoming increasingly common.  Relationships begun through these means are developed through online communication, which typically takes the form of mutual self-disclosures.  Individuals participate in greater self-disclosure through online means than in face-to-face interaction.  This is due to an increased anxiety level that accompanies face-to-face communication; “the absence of nonverbal cues in CMC encourages higher levels of self-disclosures by activating more private self-awareness while reducing concerns about one’s public image” (Joinson, 2001, as cited in Jiang, Bazarova, & Hancock, 2013, pg. 4).  Jiang, Bazarova, and Hancock (2013) concluded in their study that disclosure intimacy was not necessarily greater through CMC, but that the perceived disclosure intimacy was greater, and this motivated the perceiver to increase their own intimate disclosures.  The mode of communication (CMC) ultimately contributed to greater frequency of disclosure, as well. 

Additional study on self-disclosure within the context of online romantic relationships provided further support for social penetration theory and the role of self-disclosure in online settings (Gibbs, Ellison, & Heino, 2006).  These can be described as “mixed-mode” relationships as they are initiated through online communication means, but are later developed further through face-to-face interaction.  Although there is overlap, communication strategies employed in virtual meetings will often differ from those used within a face-to-face communication event.  When online, dyad members are able to actively participate in “selective self-presentation,” meaning the asynchronicity of online communication allows them the ability to police their own communication strategies and shape their identity in a more conscious manner.  CMC affords for a greater control over communication, in turn allowing users to more carefully craft deliberate communicative messages that allow them to be presented positively to other users (pg. 153).  The goals for the relationship, or relational goals, influence the rate of self-disclosure.  Those who anticipate or are seeking a long-term relationship will typically disclose on a more intimate level at the early stages of relationship development, yet they will disclose information that is more likely to position them in a positive manner.  This aligns with social penetration theory, which posits that individuals withhold negative information during the early stages of relationship development. 


Social penetration is an interpersonal communication theory initially proposed by communication scholars Altman and Taylor.  According to this perspective, relationships develop through four successive phases.  When dyads move through these stages, their disclosures become increasingly intimate as they reveal more aspects of their personality to each other.  Relational development is also affected by the dyadic, as participants constantly weigh the benefits versus the detriments received from the relationship.  When absolute rewards are being reaped, the relationship is typically deemed successful and will continue.  Additionally, the way in which an individual perceives the relationship partially depends on whether his or her self-disclosures are being reciprocated.  In other words, a person will view a relationship more positively he or she feels that information is being shared equally between parties.   

This paper presents an admittedly narrow display of the social penetration perspective, with a focus on the role of self-disclosures between dyad members on overall relationship development.  As explicated by the review of literature presented here, the theory, particularly the function of self-disclosures, is applicable across a variety of contexts in as an influential factor in relational development.  The culture and ethnicity of individuals will inevitable affect their willingness to disclose to each other.  If two people are not of the same background, this may make them less likely to disclose, ultimately having a stagnating effect on the relationship as a whole. 

Additionally, the topic of disclosure and its perceived level of intimacy by dyad members will influence their willingness to disclose to one another.  For example, various research conducted by scholars revolved around the disclosure of sexual topics.  In sum, people must perceive shared values within a dyad to feel comfortable enough to sexually self-disclose.  Individuals usually do not express this type of disclosure in early stages of relational development; within the context of a dating relationship, people are more likely to disclose this information as the relationship progresses. 

Lastly, the medium of disclosures was examined within this paper, more specifically the role of text-based computer-mediated communication (CMC) on self-disclosures.  Since digital technology is becoming increasingly common, it is imperative to examine the information that is expressed through online means of communication in the early stages of a relationship.  Gender serves as an influence on an individual’s willingness to disclose, with men more likely to seek relationship continuation if there is a fairly high level of disclosure in initial stages.  A person is also more likely to express more intimate self-disclosure within text-based CMC, as opposed to face-to-face interaction.  This is due to the ability for greater communication and identity control that CMC affords individuals. 

Although this paper provides a unique perspective on the influence of self-disclosures on relational development within the context of social penetration theory, it only displays a limited scope of this perspective and the process of self-disclosure.  In order to fully understand the role of interpersonal communication in the initiation, development, and maintenance of relationships, communication and social science scholars must conduct further research.  Much of modern research on social penetration has revolved around the beginning and middle phases of relationships, and there is still a gap in scholarly research revolving around the process of depenetration, or relationship dissolution.  A truly comprehensive review of social penetration theory will not be possible until this discrepancy is addressed.   




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