Table of Contents

General Contexts

Intrapersonal Communication (Persuasion)

Interpersonal Communication

Small Group Communication

Organizational Communication

Intercultural Communication

Mass Communication

Applied Contexts

Health Communication

Instructional Communication

Honors Capstone Home Page

Last updated February 14, 2001


Click Here to Go Back to Interpersonal Context Page

Social Penetration Theory

Explanation of Theory:

The social penetration theory states that as relationships develop, communication moves from relatively shallow, nonintimate levels to deeper, more personal ones.

Theorists: Altman and Taylor

Date: 1973

Primary Article:

     Altman, I., & Taylor, D., (1973). Social Penetration: The Development of Interpersonal Relationships. NewYork: Holt, Rinehart and Winston

Individual Interpretations:

The more time we spend with others, the more likely we are to self-disclose more initmate thought and details of our life.

Metatheoretical Assumptions:

     Epistimologically, 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).  Axiologically, this theory says that this behavior will take place regardless of values.


     This is a scientific theory that makes predictions about relationship development based on levels of self disclosure.  Based on a sort of cost-reward model, this theory argues that for a relationship to develop, both parties must self disclose. In judging this theory, it is able to make predictions depending on levels of self-disclosure.  It explains what happens in relationships and this theory has some falsifiability.  Its logic is not necessarily logical in that the authors propose a linear model, but this may not be the best way to explain the theory.  It has spawned much of the work in interpersonal context because of the fundamental principles it lays down about interpersonal relationships.

Ideas and Implications:

 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. 

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."


 Pete and John have been friends since they were freshman.  Their friendship was like most guys in that it consisted of hanging out and making fun of each other and others.  Several months ago Pete began dating Jen.  The relationship was exactly what Pete wanted and he soon found himself falling in love with her.  Because Pete and John were such good friends, there were many times that he wished he could confide in John but hesitated in doing so because they hadn't really talked about feelings before.  If he admits these feelings, he's opening himself for some heavy handed kidding or emotional blackmail.  In addition, once that wedge has been penetrated deeply, it will have cut a passage through which it can return again and again with little resistance.  Future privacy may be difficult.  Realizing both of these factors, Pete may be extra cautious about exposing his true feelings.  Perhaps he'll fence off this part of his life for the whole school term.  According to the social penetration theory, a permanent guard will limit the closeness these two young men can achieve.

Relevant Research:

    Berg, J. H., (1984). "Development of Friendship Between Roommates." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 346-256.

Location in Eight (8) Primary Communication Theory Textbooks:

     Anderson, R., & Ross, V. (1998). Questions of communication: A practical introduction to theory (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press. N/A

     Cragan, J. F., & Shields, D.C. (1998). Understanding communication theory: The communicative forces for human action. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. N/A

     Griffin, E. (2000). A first look at communication theory (4th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. pp. 126-35.

     Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. pp.133-152.

      Infante, D. A., Rancer, A. S., & Womack, D. F. (1997). Building communication theory (3rd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. N/A

      Littlejohn, S. W. (1999). Theories of human communication (6th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. pp. 266-7.

      West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2000). Introducing communication theory: Analysis and application. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield. pp. 147-62.

       Wood, J. T. (1997). Communication theories in action: An introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. pp. 236-7.