Monday, June 18, 2012

Social Penetration Theory of Interpersonal Relationships



Many people come into and go out of our lives; some have a larger impact than others. As humans we interact with each other on a daily basis and relationships are developed, some you may refer to as acquaintances, some friends, and others as intimate friends. This is a very complex process that we go through every day of our lives, repeating it over and over, encountering people that we may end up either knowing or not until the day we die. 

About Social Penetration Theory

Social Penetration Theory proposes that, as relationships develop, interpersonal communication moves from relatively shallow, non-intimate levels to deeper, more personal ones. The theory was formulated by psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor to provide an understanding of the closeness between two individuals.

Social penetration is defined as a process that moves a relationship from non-intimate to intimate. Social Penetration theory states that this process occurs primarily through self-disclosure. This theory is also guided by the assumptions that relationship development is systematic and predictable and also includes deterioration, or growing apart. Social Penetration theory also claims that our relationships progress through four stages before reaching stability where communication is open and partners are highly intimate.

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Altman and Taylor proposed that closeness occurs through a gradual process of self-disclosure, and closeness develops if the participants proceed in a gradual and orderly fashion from superficial to intimate levels of exchange as a function of both immediate and forecast outcomes. This psychological theory, as with many others, is applied in the context of interpersonal communication. It can also be defined as the process of developing deeper intimacy with another person through mutual self-disclosure and other forms of vulnerability. The Social Penetration theory is known as an objective theory, meaning that the theory is based on data drawn from experiments, and not from conclusions based on individuals' specific experiences.

Altman and Taylor believe that only through opening one's self to the main route to social penetration – self-disclosure – by becoming vulnerable to another person can a close relationship develop. Vulnerability can be expressed in a variety of ways, including the giving of anything which is considered to be a personal possession, such as a dresser drawer given to a partner.

Altman and Taylor were convinced that the process of social penetration moves a lot faster in the beginning stages of a relationship but then it slows considerably. Those who are able to develop a long term, positive reward/ cost outcome are the same people who are able to share important matches of breadth categories. The early reward/ cost assessment have a strong impact on the relationships reactions and involvement. When you have expectancies in a relationship regarding the future it plays a major role on the outcome in the relationship.

Social penetration theory is made for explaining the level of intimacy and interaction between people. There are various degrees of how someone could respond to decisions about ethics or personal challenges. The reactions to problems regarding ethics and challenges are also based on personal characteristics, reward/cost assessments and situational factors.

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Social Penetration Theory Development

Social Penetration Theory portrays relationship development as like an onion—suggesting that when individuals "peel off" one layer of information about a relational partner, there is always another layer. Altman and Taylor noted that as people become acquainted, their relationship becomes broader and deeper. When individuals first meet, they exchange very impersonal information and limit the number of different topics they discuss. As they come to know and trust one another more, they will explore more topics (breadth) and share more intimate information about those topics (depth). An enduring romantic relationship would be marked by both breadth and depth. A "spring break fling" typically is one that has great depth but little breadth. Long-term neighbors might share much breadth but little depth.

How do people decide to move from acquaintanceship to an enduring, deep relationship? Drawing from Social Exchange Theories (Burgess and Huston 1979; Homans 1961; Thibaut and Kelley 1959), Altman and Taylor tell us that people move further into a relationship as long as the perceived rewards associated with the relationship exceed the costs. Individuals first meet. If the exchange is pleasing, they continue the relationship. If it is not, they stop. People are constantly calibrating their ratio of rewards and costs. In some relationships, one or both partners may reach a point where they say "that's far enough; this is fun, but if we get any closer, bad things might happen." At that point, partners will not move to deepen or broaden their relationship any further. According to Social Exchange Theories, in addition to assessing how rewarding their relationships are, individuals also consider what other alternative relationships might be available to them and how those potential relationships compare to their current one.

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In 1975, Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese expanded Altman and Taylor's notion of social penetration. Berger and Calabrese suggested that during acquaintanceship people try to reduce their uncertainty about one another. When individuals first meet, they discuss relatively innocuous items—the weather, where they are from, what they do for a living (Berger et al. 1976). Normally, people do not discuss highly charged personal matters such as their fears, anxieties, or fantasies. As their relationship progresses, individuals begin exchanging more intimate information because they have come to "know" each other. Their uncertainty about each other has faded.

Gerald Miller and Mark Steinberg (1975) added to these ideas by suggesting that in relationships individuals make predictions about each other based on three types of information: cultural, sociological, and psychological. Cultural information typically provides only a very general level of prediction: People anticipate how an individual will act based upon his or her culture. There is still a great deal of uncertainty at this level. Sociological information emphasizes a person's group memberships. Someone may make predictions about a person based on the knowledge that the individual is a college freshman, came from a large city, is majoring in mathematics, and plays the violin. Sociological information offers better predictability than cultural information, but it is still stereotypic. Most people who are acquaintances know each other at the sociological level. When individuals know someone at the psychological level, they know him or her so well as to understand how that person differs from the groups he or she belongs to. Thus, for example, someone might know that one of his or her friends plays the violin, loves math, and comes from a big city, but also that the friend is only happy when he is hiking in the wilderness. The fact that the friend is devoted to hiking shows how he is unique or different from individuals in most of the social groups he belongs to. People know relatively few individuals at the psychological level because to know someone at this level requires a great deal of communication. It is important to note that relationships, over time, can exist at different levels of prediction. A college senior may discover that her parents really only know her at the sociological level when once they knew everything about her (i.e., they knew her at the psychological level).

The theories of Altman and Taylor, Berger and Calabrese, and Miller and Steinberg are helpful in understanding the underlying processes involved in relationship development. People meet and try to reduce their uncertainty about each other; they continue to get to know each other as long as their interactions are more pleasurable than punishing, and as long as the alternatives available to them are not as palatable as what they currently have.

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Example (Business Environment)

You are new to a position and your supervisor has been in his or her role for a number of years. Some people at your same level within the organization enjoy a level of knowledge and ease of interaction with your supervisor that you lack. They may have had more time and interactions with the supervisor, but you can still use this theory to gain trust and build a healthy relationship. Recognize that you are unknown to your supervisor and vice versa. Start with superficial conversations that are neutral and nonthreatening, but demonstrate a willingness to engage in communication. Silence early in a relationship can be a sign of respect, but it can also send the message that you are fearful, shy, or lack confidence. It can be interpreted as an unwillingness to communicate, and may actually discourage interaction. If the supervisor picks up the conversation, keep your responses short and light. If not, keep an upbeat attitude and mention the weather.

Over time, the conversations may gradually grow to cross topics beyond the scope of the office, and a relationship may form that involves trust. To a degree, you and your coworkers learn to predict one another’s responses and relax in the knowledge of mutual respect. If, however, you skip from superficial to intimate topics too quickly, you run risk of violating normative expectations. Trust takes time, and with that comes empathy and understanding. But if you share with your supervisor your personal struggles on day one, it may erode your credibility. According to the social penetration theory, people go from superficial to intimate conversations as trust develops through repeated, positive interactions. Self-disclosure is “information, thoughts, or feelings we tell others about ourselves that they would not otherwise know.” Taking it step by step, and not rushing to self-disclose or asking personal questions too soon, can help develop positive business relationships.

Example (Team Environment)

We have all experienced this theory many times throughout our lives.  All of our closest friends were strangers at one point.  For example, my senior year of high school I tried out and became a member of the NC State Dance Team.  I sat in a room full of 29 other girls of which I knew nothing about, besides maybe their name.  It is hard to believe that only two short years later one of these girls is now my best friend and roommate.  As with all relationships we had to start at the beginning.  In this case it was first day of practice and we all sat in a big circle and told everyone our name, our hometown, and what we were planning to major in.  From that point, we saw each other nearly every day for practice and we became more and more comfortable with one another talking and laughing about things such as school, relationships and family.  As we learned to love and respect each other’s personalities and interests we grew even closer and began hanging out outside of practice time.  We would go to dinner, rent a movie or head downtown on college night. As I mentioned before we are now roommates and best friends. We greet each other with hugs and talk openly about everything. While we have had our differences over the past two years they are far outweighed by the fun times we’ve shared together.

Example (Love Story)

The most iconic love story, of Romeo and Juliet from Shakespeare, could be considered as typical illustration of the Social Penetration Theory. This romantic relationship between the two characters started when they first met. Initially, Romeo, who belonged to the Montagues family, was in love with a woman named Rosaline as he wanted to gain the benefit of a romantic relationship. However, the woman did not love him back, as she saw no potential interest in him.


It was not until that he met Juliet, who was a member of the Capulets family, that he would seek a mutual relationship. The problem was that Juliet's family was the enemy of Romeo's own. Despite this fact, he believes that the gain (Juliet's love and the fact that the feeling was mutual) exceeds the costs (Both families' hatred for one another). Due to their mutual benefits, the social penetration went from two people to lovers leading to marriage in secrecy. Their intimacy was so deep, that not even misunderstandings between the families nor death would tear them apart. It can be seen for them, the cost (living without their beloved) was too much for either to bear for their relationship.

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