Group Contributors: Jennifer Levine, Chera Marshall, Lauren Wood, Maryellen Elliott, Amy Wright

Social Penetration Theory

Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor

Our class presentation can be viewed online at:



The Social Penetration Theory was originally created by Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor. The theory deals with the ways in which relationships develop and progress. It explains how communication enriches the relationship of two or more individuals. The theory states that closeness (penetration) develops if communication begins at relatively shallow non-intimate levels and moves in gradual and orderly fashion to deeper more personal levels. The theory proposes that relationships get more intimate over time when people disclose more information about themselves. The Onion Analogy is used to explain the Social Penetration Theory. Personality is like a multilayered onion, having the public self (height, weight, gender) on the outer and the private self (values, self-concept, deep emotions) on the core.

Key Words:
social penetration theory, onion theory, self disclosure, orientation phase, exploratory effective stage, affective phase, stable phase

Key Terms

Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor
-Social psychologists who created social penetration theory. Altman is a researcher at University of Utah; Taylor, now deceased, was affiliated with Lincoln University, Pennsylvania.

Social Penetration
-The process of developing deeper intimacy with another person through mutual self-disclosure and other forms of vulnerability.

Personality Structure
-Onion-like layers of beliefs and feelings about self, others, and the world; deeper levels are more vulnerable, protected, and central to self-image.

-The voluntary sharing of personal history, preferences, attitudes, feelings, values, secrets, etc., with another person; transparency.

Depth of penetration
-The degree of disclosure in a specific area of an individual’s life.

Law of reciprocity
-A paced and ordered process in which openness in one person leads to openness in the other.

Breadth of penetration
-The range of areas in an individuals life over which disclosure takes place.

Biographical Overview

Irwin Altman was born in New York in 1930. He is a social psychologist at the University of Utah. He received a B.A. from New York State University in 1951. He earned an M.A. in Maryland in 1954 and a PhD from the University of Maryland in 1957. He is actively involved in many professional groups including The International Association of Applied Psychology, American Psychology Association, and the Association for the Advancement of Science.

Dalmas Taylor
Born in Detroit Michigan; died at age 64 in 1998
In 1991 he received a BA in psychology from Western Reserve University in Cleveland, M.S in psychology from Howard University in Washington D.C., and PhD in psychology from the University of Delaware
Received Distinguished contribution to Education and Training Award
Distinguished service Award for outstanding contributions to psychology

Theory Specifics

Social penetration refers to the open interpersonal behaviours which take place through social interaction and the subjective internal process which occurs before, during and after the social exchange. It can be verbal, nonverbal or environmental. Verbal behaviour includes the exchanging of information while non-verbal behaviour includes body language (posture, facial expressions, eye gaze etc.). -Environmental behaviours include the personal distance between people and the use of physical objects and areas.

As one communicates with another, a series of behaviours occur internally which causes an individual to create a subjective picture of what a person is like ie: how they feel about the person both positive and negative etc. In effect when one communicates with another either verbally, non-verbally or environmentally they are setting off a system of behaviours that help us to create social bonds based on the "whole person" rather than individual behaviours taken one at a time.

Social penetration is an orderly process which goes through different stages over time. As interpersonal exchange gradually progresses from the superficial to the more intimate our real selves are revealed, like peeling back the layers of an onion. The four stages to this process are Orientation Stage, Exploratory Affective Stage, Affective Stage and Stable Stage.

Orientation phase:When people first meet, they are revealing their outer superficial shell. Conversations revolve around hobbies, likes, and dislikes.

Exploratory Effective phase: The relationship develops as a few layers of the personality are "peeled off" allowing the personality to show through in verbal and nonverbal communication. The relationship becomes more intimate.

Affective phase: More layers are peeled away until almost the entire personality is revealed. Participants develop and understanding for one another and begin to discuss personal topics.

Stable phase: This is the final stage in the relationship where all layers have been peeled away, exposing the core of the individual's personality.


Critiques of Theory

Social Penetration Theory is an established and familiar explanation of how closeness develops in friendships and romantic relationships but it has many critics:
Petronio thinks that it is simplistic to equate self-disclosure with relational closeness and also challenges the theorists' view of disclosure boundaries as being fixed and increasingly less permeable. She questions if a complex blend of advantages and disadvantages van be reliably reduced to a single index? Are people so consistently selfish that they always opt to act strictly in their own best interests?

Paul Wright believes that friendships often reach a point of such closeness that self-centered concerns are no longer salient.

Altman,I. & Taylor, D. (1973). Social Penetration: The development of interpersonal reltionships. New York:Hold