How Was the Social Penetration Theory Developed?


Vincent White

How Was the Social Penetration Theory Developed?

The Social Penetration Theory is a well-known theory in the field of interpersonal communication that explains how relationships develop and evolve over time. This theory was developed by psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor in 1973. Let’s delve into the history and key concepts behind this influential theory.

The Roots of Social Penetration Theory

Altman and Taylor’s Background:

Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor were both esteemed psychologists who were interested in understanding how individuals form and maintain relationships. They believed that interpersonal communication played a crucial role in the development of these relationships.

Inspiration from Sigmund Freud:

Altman and Taylor drew inspiration from Sigmund Freud’s concept of “depth psychology.” Freud proposed that individuals have various layers of consciousness, including both surface-level thoughts and deeper, unconscious desires. This concept intrigued Altman and Taylor, leading them to explore its application in interpersonal relationships.

The Onion Metaphor

Peeling Back the Layers:

To explain their theory, Altman and Taylor used an onion metaphor. They likened individuals to onions with multiple layers, with each layer representing different aspects of their personality. These layers can be peeled back through self-disclosure – the process of revealing personal information about oneself to another person.

Breadth vs. Depth:

The Social Penetration Theory distinguishes between breadth and depth of self-disclosure. Breadth refers to the range of topics discussed, while depth refers to the level of intimacy or personal significance associated with those topics. According to Altman and Taylor, as relationships progress, individuals move from superficial, narrow discussions (low breadth and depth) to deeper, more intimate conversations (high breadth and depth).

The Onion Model

Outer Layers:

Altman and Taylor divided the onion model into several layers. The outermost layer, known as the public layer, encompasses topics that are readily shared with anyone, such as hobbies or favorite movies. These topics require minimal self-disclosure and are considered safe for casual acquaintances.

Moving inward, the next layer is known as the social layer. In this layer, individuals share information about themselves that is somewhat more personal but still relatively shallow. Examples may include opinions on current events or general life experiences.

Inner Layers:

The third layer is called the personal layer. At this stage, individuals begin sharing more private information about themselves, including emotional experiences and personal values. This level of self-disclosure requires a higher level of trust and comfort within the relationship.

The core layer represents an individual’s most intimate thoughts and feelings. It includes deeply personal experiences, fears, dreams, and desires that are reserved for only the closest relationships.

Critiques and Further Developments

Critiques of Social Penetration Theory:

While the Social Penetration Theory has gained significant recognition in interpersonal communication research, it has also faced some criticism. Some argue that it oversimplifies human relationships by reducing them to a linear progression from superficiality to intimacy.

Further Developments:

Over time, scholars have expanded upon Altman and Taylor’s theory by considering cultural factors that influence self-disclosure patterns and exploring how technology impacts relationship development in modern society.

In conclusion,

The Social Penetration Theory, developed by Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor, offers valuable insights into how relationships develop through the process of self-disclosure. By understanding the layers of personality and the gradual deepening of conversations, individuals can navigate relationship building more effectively.