Nov 7, 2019 in Research

Social Penetration Theory

A big number of people come into and exit others’ lives. Some of the individuals have a larger impact while others do not. Human beings interact with others on a daily basis leading to the development of relationships such as acquaintances, casual and intimate friendships. The interaction process is quite complex because it repeats itself on a day-to-day basis. Whereas some of the people one encounters in life do not leave any impression, and might remain unknown, others prove irresistible leading to a love or hate relationship. Drawing on the social penetration theory developed by Altman & Taylor, probing the idea that relationships become more intimate with time as those involved share their experiences is worth investigating. It is argued that the social penetration theory is significant in understanding human relations despite its shortcomings.

Literature Review

In developing the social penetration theory (SPT), Altman and Taylor assessed the way in which social penetration fell outside social psychology but concentrated on interpersonal dissonance. The authors focused on how people develop bonds with others. Their research led to the emergency of the privacy regulation theory. In carrying out the study, the researchers applied tests to demonstrate the impact of personal space, crowding, territory, and privacy on interactions. The development of the theory proved critical in the understanding of how relationships develop. The SPT employs a scientific approach to understand friendships from the initiation points to the other stages. It also categorizes such relationships based on their stages.

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Altman and Taylor advanced a pattern broken into four stages based on relational development. They described the first phase as the ‘orientation interaction stage’, which they postulated as occurring at the fringes of personality within the public space. During the initial encounters, individuals are only ready to avail a small percentage of themselves to others. The best example of this kind of conduct is seen among people who are attending a party. In case a person is outgoing, the perception that he has a positive attitude is portrayed. However, the behavior of a person extends beyond what is actually displayed consciously to others in such circumstances. Nevertheless, the way a person conducts himself/ herself within public space conveys much information about the characters. Within a social stigma, many ways of portraying oneself exist. For instance, ‘you are what you wear’ which can vary depending on one’s background (an individual from the countryside is likely to be clad differently from one from the city). Similarly, people are able to develop a story about an individual immediately they set eyes on them. Popularly known as the ‘orientation of intervention’ effect’, the first impression is assumed very significant. 

In the second stage, the “exploratory affective exchange”, instances where individuals start to get a feel of the other person’s personality assume significance. At the step, individuals let go their guard by beginning to explore each other. According to Chen and Nakazawa, the stage allows for richness of communication within public areas as individuals become less cautious. The implication is that personal fears have been overcome allowing the persons involved to begin on a new slate. As the individuals become freer, they share more information about themselves. In case the engagement is rewarding, the persons involved show a willingness to move to the next stage.

In simple, the “exploratory affective exchange” phase involves exploration and learning about the other person at a close level. The subsequent step entails expanding the initial information and advancing to a deeper degree. At this stage, relationships are relaxed and friendlier. Apparently, individuals at the stage are likely to move towards an intimate relationship. As Thibaut and Kelley observed, after expanding information about another person, it would be difficult not to be friends because a sense of trust and willingness to engage others increases after going beyond the first step. The emerging openness allows for the sharing of wider information sharing thus cementing the relationship.

The new friendship develops because of the rewards associated with advancement in the ‘exploratory affective exchange’. Although similar to the previous stage, its depth is bigger. Described as the Affective Exchange stage, it involves close and romantic friendships. At the phase, relations are based on free will although casual. The personality layers are open leading to a heightened level of interaction. Some barriers are employed although there is little resistance to open intimate explorations.

Roloff and Miller, view the ‘affective exchange’ as a transitional phase to the highest degree of intimacy. The authors indicate that it comprises the process used to separate people who they wish to stay with from those whom they do not wish to live with. The end stage is the ‘stable exchange’, which is the highest level of penetration. Within this level, relationships are stable and characterized by continuing openness. Roloff and Miller also argue that at the stage, richness across personality layers is enhanced. At the stage, no secrets are involved. However as the authors concede, the reverse process can occur under the process of Depenetration which takes place when one or both partners believe that the cost of self-disclosure overshadows its benefits. The parties withdraw from the relationship leading to the end.


For one to understand the theory, taking a closer examination is mandatory. However, the theory seems convenient and applicable to explaining interactions because each person aspires to get to the stable exchange stage. In order to reach there, learning how to break the layers (barriers) erected to protect people against being hurt is necessary. The fact that individuals meet many people in life, but choose few as friends is testament of the relevancy of the theory.

Besides being limited in scope, the theory lacks support based on data. The theory also fails to take into consideration the role of other significant factors such as gender/ sex on the level of interactions. Another critical issue is that the theory errs in purporting that disclosure increase as a relationship advances. In some instances, the level of disclosure might decline. In addition, disclosure might increase as a relationship deteriorates like in the case of dating.  


There are various methods to select from when conducting a study. In practice, the proposed approach entails focusing on a given case to raise data about a given phenomenon or subject. Social networking is chosen as the case for studying the social penetration theory. 

Case study

Social networking presents one of the best scenarios to examine the social penetration theory. Although studies have been conducted on face-to-face interactions, fewer exist on communication across social media because it is a new phenomenon. When focusing on such media, reference is made to the extent to which an individual is willing to disclose information across the computer networks. Focusing on a site such as Facebook, users are at a position to determine the degree to which they disclose or share information by setting privacy barriers. Relationships expand to a point where closed groups are formed. It is noted that the extent to which individuals exchange information is a function of the trust they accord each other based on a calculation of real or perceived benefits. 


In the case of social networking such as those involving the Facebook platform, individuals come across many people. However, one selects some of those who become friends. In essence, some are accepted while others are not allowed the opportunity to become friends. Based on the initial conversations, certain persons win a certain degree of acceptance while others do not. Those who are viewed as worth engaging are involved, and proceed into the next step. The process goes on until some relationships become intimate. In this regard, the stages of the social penetration theory apply to interactions across social networking sites.


Whether the theory matters in issues pertaining to communication or not, depends on how observers seek to employ it. For instance, the theory is useful for persons interested in tracing the route relationships take from the point of initiation to intimacy or termination. In other words, the theory is important in understanding the formation of relationships.  


Although the theory is useful in understanding human relations, it is limited in a number of ways. For instance, the theory lacks adequate credibility because no data is adduced in its support. It is also apparent that the theory ignores other important factors that influence interactions. Such factors as age, sex/ gender or social status are not addressed by the theory. It is also noted that the theory makes a fundamental error by assuming that as relationships advance, the degree of openness increases. 

Regardless of the criticism, I have learned that the theory is useful in documenting the barriers in forming relationships. Without doubt, the theory gives a close account on the formation of human associations. From this point, conducting additional research to comprehend human relations seems to be an ideal activity. In the future, considering how the issues raised by the theory affect relationships formed within different circumstances would be appropriate. Looking at the associations in different conditions would generate rich data to deepen the theory. 


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