Social Penetration Theory Essay

Social penetration theory, also known as the ‘Onion Theory’, was a theory formulated by professors Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor on 1973 on the development of interpersonal relationship. The social penetration theory states that as relationships develop, communication moves from relatively shallow, non-intimate levels to deeper, more personal ones. It mainly concentrates on the development and degree of self-disclosure, voluntary act of revealing or sharing of oneself on both a conscious and an unconscious level with another person. (Altman & Taylor, 1973) Altman and Taylor were convinced that the process of social penetration moves a lot faster in the beginning stages of a relationship but then it slows considerably.

Some people get lucky to be able to share their core values and feelings. Those who are able to develop a long term, positive reward/ cost outcome are the same people who are able to share important matches of breadth categories. The early reward/ cost assessment have a strong impact on the relationships reactions and involvement.

When you have expectancies in a relationship regarding the future it plays a major role on the outcome in the relationship. The members in the relationship that are called high revealers are the individuals are much more willing to rapidly disclose intimate information.

The other members that are low revealers are very reticent. This theory enhances the intimacy and self-disclosure, which makes it a candidate for analyzing how various ethical issues, might affect the relationship. Social penetration theory is made for explaining level of intimacy and interaction between people. There are various degrees of how someone could respond to decisions about ethics or personal challenges. The reactions to problems regarding ethics and challenges are also based on personal characteristics, reward/cost assessments and situational factors. (Wikipedia) The metatheoretical assumption of this theory is that epistemologically, this theory makes the statement that if self disclosure is high, then the relationship will develop. This “if-then” statement makes this a scientific theory. It does allow for free-will because people can choose whether or not to self disclose (time and manner).

Etiologically, this theory says that this behavior will take place regardless of values. (Altman & Taylor, 1973) In layman term, we can say that the more time we spend with others, the more likely we are to self-disclose more intimate thought and details of our life. This theory is divided into 5 stages. The first is the Orientation Stage. (Wikipedia) The flaky exterior onion skin reflects a “conversational” stage where interchanges are brief question and answer communication whereby one-line answer or a cliché statement is common following the standards of society desirability and norms of appropriateness. The second stage which is Exploratory Affective Stage is the zone between acquaintance and friend, a casual relationship whereby most of interpersonal relationship men has is at this stage. It is where you start to reveal yourself, perhaps by moderately revealing your opinions about non-personal topics, expressing personal attitudes and emotion. (Carson C, 2011 and Taylor & Altman, 1987) The third stage Affective Stage is the stage at which actual feelings are expressed at this stage more often than other stages.

Communication topics moves to more personal and private matters whereby both party are more honest in expression causing arousal of personal opinion, arguments, criticism and personal disposition. It is also a stage where more intimate relationship between both party develops and where one is comfortable with the presence of the other. The fourth stage, Stable Stage, is where relationship reaches a plateau in which personal things are shared and prediction of emotional and physiological reaction of the other person can be done. If one perceives the relationship that the benefits outweigh the cost, the Stable Stage remains balance. However, if the costs outweigh the benefits, then Depenetration begins, where one person generally starts to close up, withdrawal of disclosure, regression of relationship and may lead to termination or ignorance. (Carson C, 2011 and Taylor & Altman, 1987)

In addition to the stages of this theory, it is also important to understand that the depth of penetration is also a crucial point. As the stages develop, more and more layer is peeled off thus increasing the depth of penetration of the relationship which refers to the degree of intimacy. There are four thoughts within the process of depth of penetration. These are known as: 1) “Peripheral items are exchanged more frequently and sooner than private information.” 2) “Self-disclosure is reciprocal, especially in the early stages of relationship development.” 3) “Penetrations is rapid at the start but slows down quickly as the tightly wrapped inner layers are reached.” 4) “Depenetration is a gradual process of layer-by-layer withdrawal.” (Wikipedia) Breadth of penetration is just as important to the theory as the depth of penetration. Breadth refers to the different segments of a person’s life. For instance one segment can be family while another could be a romantic relationship or even academic studies could be thought of as another type of segment. Each of these segments or areas is not always accessed at the same time.

One could be completely open about a family relationship while hiding an aspect of a romantic relationship for various reasons such as abuse or disapproval from family or friends. It takes genuine intimacy with all segments to be able to access all areas of breadth at all times. It is possible to have depth without breadth and even breadth without depth. For instance, depth without breadth could be where only one area of intimacy is accessed. “A relationship that could be depicted from the onion model would be a summer romance. This would be depth without breadth.” On the other hand, breadth without depth would be simple everyday conversations. An example would be when passing by an acquaintance and saying, “Hi, how are you?” without ever really expecting to stop and listen to what this person has to say is an everyday instance. (Sheldon, 2009) Altman and Taylor compared people to a multilayered onion.

They believe each opinion, belief, prejudice, and obsession is layered around and within the individual. As people get to know each other, the layers “shed away” to reveal the core of the person. These layers have both breadth and depth. Breadth is the array or variety of topics that have been incorporated into individuals’ lives. Depth is the amount of information available on each topic. On the outermost shell are highly visible levels of information such dress and speech. Inside are increasingly private details about the lives, feelings, and thoughts of the participants. As the relationship develops, the partners share more aspects of the self, providing breadth as well as depth, through an exchange of information, feelings and activities. According to Altman and Taylor, relationships are sustained when they are relatively rewarding and discontinued when they are relatively costly. (Capstone, 2001) This theory seems to pertain to real world experiences; however, Altman and Taylor abandoned several main factors that influence self disclosure. Gender, race, and ethnic background could greatly influence findings and may contribute to the rate at which the onion is “shed.”


Altman, I., & Taylor, D., (1973). Social Penetration: The Development of Interpersonal Relationships. NewYork: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Carson Clews (July 7, 2011). Onion Theory: Social Penetration Theory. Retrieved from Communication Capstone Theory workbook (Febuary 14, 2001)Social Penetration Theory: Interpersonal Context. Retreived from Sheldon, P. (2009). “I’ll poke you. You’ll poke me!” Self-disclosure, social attraction, predictability and trust as important predictors of Facebook relationships . Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 3(2), article 1 Taylor, D. & Altman, I. (1987). Communication in interpersonal relationships: Social penetration processes. Interpersonal processes: New directions in communication research. p.257-277. Wikipedia ;last modified on 1 Febuary 2012. Social Penetration Theory. Retrived from

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