Everything You Need – Social Penetration Theory


What is Social Penetration Theory?

  • The process of bonding that moves a relationship from superficial to more intimate.
  • The process of personal relation from initial level to intimate and finally to personal (takes time).
  • It is describe about the development of interpersonal communication process. Intentionally to share the self-information.
  • The process of pilling / penetrate the onion or interpersonal relationship development.

Read: Westley Maclean Theory Of Mediated Communication


One: Relationships progress from non-intimate to intimate.

  • Relational communication between people begins at a rather superficial level and moves along a continuum to a more intimate level.
  • Not all relationships fall into the extremes of non-intimate or intimate. We may want only a moderately close relationship.
  • For instance, we may want a relationship with a coworker to remain sufficiently distant so that we do not know what goes on in her house each night or how much money she has in the bank. Yet we need to know enough personal information to have a sense of whether she can complete her part of a team project.

Two: Relationships development is generally systematic and predictable.

  • Social Penetration theorists argue that relationships progress fairly systematically and predictably.
  • Relationships like the communication process are dynamic and ever changing, but even dynamic relationships follow some acceptable standard and pattern of development.
  • Relationships generally move in an organized and predictable manner. Although we may not know precisely the direction of a relationship or be able to predict its exact future, social penetration processes are rather organized and predictable.

Three: Relational development includes de-penetration and dissolution

  • Just as communication allows a relationship to move forward toward intimacy, communication could move a relationship back toward non-intimacy. If the communication is conflictual, for example, and this conflict continues to be destructive and unresolved, the relationship may take a step back and become less close.

Four: Self-disclosure is the core of relationship development.

  • Self-disclosure can be generally defined as the purposeful process of revealing information about yourself to others. Usually, the information that makes up self-disclosure is of a significant nature.
  • For instance, revealing that you like to play the piano may not be all that important. But, revealing a more personal piece of information, such as that you are a practicing Catholic or that you use marijuana for medicinal reasons may significantly influence the evolution of a relationship.

Read: The Schramm Model of Communication Theory



Altman and Taylor first described the process of self-disclosure as peeling back the layers of an onion, which possess both breadth and depth.

Social Penetration Theory
  • “Breadth” refers to the various facets of a person’s life, such as work, family, community and hobbies.
  • “Depth” pertains to the details concerning each of these areas.
  • The outer layers of the onion represent superficial information about a person, such as physical appearance and speech.
  • The deeper layers represent more intimate information, such as the person’s thoughts, feelings and relationships with others. As a person self-discloses to a friend or partner, she peels away the outer layers of he self toward exposing her core nature.
Social Penetration Theory

Cost and Reward

Social Penetration Theory (SPT) is grounded several principles of Social Exchange Theory (SET). The relationship can be conceptualized in term of rewards and costs.

Rewards: the relational events or behaviors that stimulate satisfaction, pleasure, and contentment in relational partner.

Costs: those relational events or behaviors that stimulate negative feelings.

If a relationships provides:

  • more rewards than costs => relationship remain
  • more costs than rewards => relationship dissolution

Read: Condolences – Contoh Ucapan Takziah in English


Altman and Taylor outlined the various stages of intimacy that result from this process of self-disclosure:

  1. Orientation Stage — also known as the “small talk” or “first impression” stage. Communicators become acquainted by observing mannerisms and personal dress and by exchanging non-intimate information about themselves. Interaction adheres to social norms.
  2. Exploratory Affective Stage — Communicators begin to reveal more about themselves, such as their opinions concerning politics and sports teams. Deeply personal information is withheld. Casual friendships develop at this stage, and most relationships stay at this level.
  3. Affective Stage — Communicators begin to disclose personal and private matters. Personal ways of speaking, such as using idioms or unconventional language, is allowed to come through. Communicators feel comfortable enough to argue or criticize each other. Romantic relationships develop at this stage.
  4. Stable Stage — Communicators share a relationship in which disclosure is open and comfortable. They can predict how the other person will react to certain types of information.
  5. De-penetration — Occurs when one or both communicators perceive that the cost of self-disclosure outweighs its benefits. Communicators withdraw from self-disclosure, thus ending the relationship.