Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Social Penetration Theory (Altman and Taylor)

Key Points of Social Penetration Theory:

Altman and Taylor established the Social Penetration Theory as a step by step methodological process of developing close interpersonal relationships. Their theory suggests that in order to achieve closeness in a relationship, there is a proper orderly way in which it has to be done, failing which closeness will not be possible. Altman and Taylor suggest that one’s personality is multi-layered just as an onion is. They use the onion to illustrate the outer layer of the onion as a representation of a person’s portrayal of oneself in public and the deepest layer of the onion as the person’s so called “secrets” of his/her personality that he/she would never share with anyone, no matter how close they get with anyone. The theory states that social penetration only becomes possible when certain boundaries are relaxed and that the main way in which to attain deep social penetration is through self-disclosure. However, just as each layer of an onion gets thicker and thicker as we peel deeper and deeper, a person would seem to find it easier to relax and self-disclose the first few layers of his personality before he/she starts to have difficulties or doubts.

Although the theory seems to focus more on the depth involved in self-disclosure, it also acknowledges the issue of breadth in self-disclosure as well. At the initial stage of self-disclosure, a person may not necessarily deem every segment of his/her life to be appropriate to be shared with the other person. Just like the depth, the breadth too takes a similar route to be penetrated to attain closeness in a relationship. But, if you have heard of the saying, “It is not how long you know the person, but how well you know him/her” Altman and Taylor too believe that the depth of the penetration is more important rather than the breadth in predicting intimacy. Hence, they concluded that the depth of penetration (self-disclosure), signals the degree of intimacy between people who are trying to get close to one another. The deeper the penetration, the deeper the intimacy, be it verbal, non-verbal and/or sexual. Lastly, Altman and Taylor’s theory also briefly suggests that as a person progresses from one level of self-disclosure to another, he/she analyzes the cost and benefits before becoming encouraged proceeding taking the next step. If the costs outweigh the benefits at any level, a relationship withdrawal starts to occur in the exact opposite fashion as a relationship bonding would.


Compose a scenario in which this theory may operate and/or predict communicative behavior and/or outcomes (in Micro/Meso/Macro levels of everyday life).


I feel that the speed-dating phenomenon would best illustrate the key principles of the Social Penetration Theory. In speed dating, couples are given only about five minutes with each one of them before they get matched up with a different date. Within the five minutes, one has to be able to tell about themselves on a more impersonal level. Some typical information would include their names, their profession and their hobbies and interests. During this short period of time, participants of the speed-dating will have to decide, based on the little information that they have gathered, with whom they would like to go on a next date. This would ideally illustrate the initial stage of self-disclosure in the Social Penetration theory.

When a couple decides to go on a date, then, that is where opportunity for further self-disclosure is created, with more time on their hands. During their date, they would most probably elaborate on their jobs that they do and also their interests. However, it is a known thing in the dating scene that one does not discuss about their past relationships at that time. Hence, doing just that would not only be inappropriate but also may cause the other party to start to withdraw his/her level of self-disclosure and may even not want to date that person again.


Provide your own comments and analysis of the theory

I personally do not feel comfortable with the theory as it seems to imply that all close relationships are built in the same orderly and deliberate manner. A situation that such a theory would not apply is in an arranged marriage. In such a marriage, intimacy is forced onto the married couple the moment they tie the knot and there are no progressive levels to it. In fact, because the couple has a role, husband and wife, attached upon marriage, there are many cultures (E.g. Indian) that start of the couple on their marriage journey by letting them consummate their marriage. This, I feel, is in one of the deepest levels of self-disclosure in my opinion and it proves quite contrary to the Social Penetration Theory.

I also feel that to suggest that everyone in an intimate relationship constantly weighs their cost and benefits before allowing deeper penetration to be quite precarious. We have sometimes heard of stories in the news where a mother refuses to pull the plug on her son, even though she knows that he will remain a vegetable throughout his entire life. The costs do outweigh the benefits in such a situation but the mother does not start to terminate her close relationship with her son. There are indeed situations that the theory still does not fit as far as I am concerned.

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