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Social Penetration Theory (SPT) Essay

Theory is an important aspect in both in the field of academia as well as in professional circles because it is on the basis of theories that one can make predictions and interpret meanings in different situations. According to Mugenda and Mugenda (2003 p 6), “we can make sense of our experience as theoretical constructs have enabled us acknowledge the universals of these experiences”. Communication theories can thus be said to provide grounds for deriving meanings in various communicative contexts. Not only do communication theories guide us in interpreting situations, they also enable us understand why certain behaviour amongst individuals occur and the role of communication in the generation of those behaviours. Turner& West (2010, p. 1) say that we are able to understand others, the community, media, interpersonal relationships and ourselves through communication theories. This paper will be focusing only on social penetration theory (SPT), its definition, concepts, applications and criticisms.

Social penetration theory tries to explain why relationships among people (interpersonal relationship) are developed and maintained and therefore this theory is clustered with others of similar nature. These other theories include uncertainty reduction theory, social exchange theory, relational dialectics theory, and communication privacy management theory. They all deal with relational development.

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The proponents of social penetration theory are Irwin Altman and Dalmas Arnold Taylor and the theory asserts that as relationships develop, communication moves from relatively shallow, non-intimate levels to deeper and more personal levels. The decision to disclose is based on the perceived rewards the person will gain if he or she discloses information. If a person perceives that the cost of disclosing information is greater than the rewards for disclosing information, then no information will be disclosed. The opposite is true as the larger the reward-cost ratio the more disclosure takes place (Oregon State University, 2015). The principle of reciprocity applies to self-disclosure in that when one discloses information about himself/ herself, the other party will do the same and reveal an equal amount of information.

In some instances, people may be hesitant to open up completely (or expose their core layer) because by doing so they may be subject to ridicule or emotional blackmail. Opening up the core may make one vulnerable to malicious behaviour from others and thus individuals are extremely careful on what to say, to whom and when. This brings us to the reward-cost equation.

Littlejohn and Foss (2009, p 980) say that this theory (previously referred to as the onion model) “portrays people as having multiple layers centered on a core. At the core are a person’s deeply held beliefs, values, thoughts and feelings. This core can be conceptualized as the ‘true’ self that is private and protected. People’s layers have both depth and breadth, so there are different topics that we can know about a person (breadth), as well as lots of details about each topic (Depth). As people get to know each other, they self-disclose and ‘shed’ layers, which moves the relationship deeper. Relationships are enhanced as people in a relationship move towards their core layers through communicating their intimate details”. From this we can deduce that in a communicative encounter, relationships are built and developed by simply opening up our intimate details to others. Once we let others get to know information that we harbor in the deepest parts of ourselves we are participating in an act that will grow our relationships. In order to facilitate further understanding Littlejohn & Foss (2009, p 836) while quoting Taylor, say that the layers are:

  1. A superficial layer that is easy to penetrate.
  2. A social or personal layer that is revealed to most friends.
  3. A very intimate layer or core that is seldom revealed but when if is revealed it is to persons one trusts completely.

Concerning this theory little John and Foss (2009, P 980) provide the following stages of disclosure:

  1. Orientation stage. In this stage, people start with short, simple, and usually inconsequential talk.
  2. Exploratory-affective stage. Individuals now start to reveal themselves, expressing personal attitudes about public topics such as government and education. This is the stage of casual friendship and many relationships do not go beyond this stage.
  3. Affective stage. At this stage, people start to talk about private matters. Criticisms and arguments may also arise. There may be intimate touching and hugging at this stage
  4. Stable stage. The relationship now reaches a level where personal things are shared, and one can predict the emotional reactions of the other person.
  5. Depenetration. When relationships starts to breakdown and costs exceed benefits, there is a withdrawal of disclosure that leads to termination of relationship.

It is apparently clear from these stages that communication in a relationship is a process and for it to proceed from just mere acquaintance to intimacy, more disclosure has to take place.

Assumptions of SPT

West and Turner (2010, p.169-177) offer the following assumptions that guide SPT:

  1. Relationships moves from non-intimate to intimate. Communication between people especially those meeting for the first time, takes place at the superficial level and proceed to a more intimate level. The conversations at the non-intimate are normally shallow and they provide an opportunity for an individual to size up the other person.
  2. Relational development is generally systematic and predictable. The way a relationship grows is organized and not haphazard. A pattern is followed.
  3. Relational development includes Depenetration and dissolution. Relationships do crumble (Depenetration) and dissolution follows thereafter. Communication provides for depenetration and dissolution because if communication is always about conflicts and other problems such as disrespect or distrust, the progress of relationship may be negatively impacted and may start to take a downturn.
  4. Self disclosure is at the core of relationship development. Self-disclosure is the activity of revealing details about yourself to others. It is via self-disclosure that relationships move from non-intimate to intimate. Self-disclosure of course happens through communication. Self-disclosure can be strategic meaning that they are planned and are meant to achieve certain objectives or spontaneous where people just disclose information about themselves to others without much thought.

Applications of SPT

  • SPT is used in studies looking into computer mediated communication. Some quarters say that disclosure is more when a person is behind a computer screen because of its impersonal nature.
  • In business. Public relations practitioners will seek to develop some appropriate level of relationship with their publics for purposes of building trust and goodwill. In sales, building rapport with a potential client will

SPT criticisms

Social penetration theory has been widely accepted and has spawned many studies and this could be attributed to fact that it is devoid of complexities and easy to understand. Its constructs are straightforward.

Scholars have questioned the economic model as concerns relational development. They claim that friendships can never be explained via the economic lens or cost-benefit considerations (Littlejohn & Foss, p 981). The original theory did no factor in gender but later on studies concluded that males are less open than men.

Other values that have not been taken into consideration in relation to SPT and could have dire implications on relationships include race, culture, and ethnic background. Some races are private and thus careful to what they disclose.

In conclusion, we can say that SPT has practical application in real life situations and we can explain behaviour resulting from communication based on this theory. It can be argued that a relationship between individuals can grow as a result of mutual exchange of information (communication) between them. The more and deeper the information shared the grater the relational development.


Sample Essay on Social Penetration Theory (SPT)

Altman, I., & Taylor, D., (1973). Social Penetration: The Development of Interpersonal Relationships.

New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston

Littlejohn, S., W., & Foss, K., A. (2009). Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. London: SAGE

Publications Ltd

Mugenda, O., M., & Mugenda, A., G. (2003). Research Methods. Qualitative and Quantitative

Approaches. Nairobi: Acts Press

Oregon State University (2015). Social Penetration Theory. Retrieved from on 12/7/2015

West, R., Turner, L, H. (2010). Introducing Communication Theory. Analysis and Interpretation (4th ed).

New York: McGraw-Hill

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