Thursday, July 26, 2012

Self-Disclosure in Interpersonal Communication

“Please listen carefully and try to hear what I am not saying . . .
What I'd like to be able to say . . .
What for survival I need to say . . .
But what I can't say."

Through my self-disclosure, I let other know my soul. They can know it, really know it, only as I make it known. In fact, I am beginning to suspect that I can't even know my own soul except as I disclose it. I suspect that I will know myself "for real" at the exact moment that I have succeeded in making it known through my disclosure to another person.
Sidney Jourard, The Many Me's of the Self-Monitor

What is Self-Disclosure?

Self-Disclosure is one of the major concepts of the Social Penetration Theory. It refers to the gradual process of unfolding ones’ inner self. This process, in the writings of Altman and Taylor, is possible only after an established intimacy and closeness. It is quite difficult for a person to divulge all his/her secrets to another person he barely knows. And it is nearly impossible for a person to disclose the innermost layers of his/her self.

So, self-disclosure is a process of sharing with someone information which helps him or her understand you. Self-disclosure is most revealing when the sharing is in the present and least revealing when the sharing is about the past. 

Disclosure may include sharing both high-risk and low-risk information as well as personal experiences, ideas and attitudes, feelings and values, past facts and life stories, and even future hopes, dreams, ambitions, and goals. In sharing information about yourself, you make choices about what to share and with whom to share it.

Competent communicators use self-disclosure selectively. They make choices about disclosing information judiciously, with awareness of the positive and negative consequences of doing so. They may weigh the impact that disclosing information might have on the growth and well-being of a relationship. In addition, they may consider how learning personal information about themselves may affect another person, especially in light of that person's receptivity and trustworthiness to respond well to what has been disclosed.

Altman and Taylor developed the social penetration theory to describe self-disclosure as the gradual sharing of information about oneself.

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Self-Disclosure Definitions

There are multiple approaches and multiple definitions of interpersonal self-disclosure. Look at these three concepts:
  • S. Jourard (in The Transparent Self) defines self-disclosure as making ourselves "transparent" to others through our communication--i.e., when we tell others things about ourselves which help them to see our uniqueness as a human being.
  • Culpert distinguishes between self-description vs. self-disclosure. Self-description involves communication that levels "public layers" whereas self-disclosure involves communication that reveals more private, sensitive, and confidential information.
  • Pearce & Sharp make an interesting distinction among three related terms: Self-disclosure, confession, and revelation:
o    Self-disclosure -- voluntarily communication of information about one's self to another.
o    Confession -- forced or coerced communication of information about one's self to another.
o    Revelation -- unintentional or inadvertent communication of information about one's self to another.

The Johari Window

A useful way of viewing self-disclosure is the Johari window. The Johari window is a way of showing how much information you know about yourself and how much others know about you. The window contains four panes:
  • Open Pane – Known to self / Known to others. The Open Pane includes information such as hair color, occupation, and physical appearance.
  • Hidden Pane - Open to Self / Hidden from others. The Hidden Pane contains information you wish to keep private, such as dreams or ambitions.
  • Blind Pane - Blind to self / Seen by others. The Blind Pane includes information that others can see in you, but you cannot see in yourself. You might think you are poor leader, but others think you exhibit strong leadership skills.
  • Unknown Pane - Unknown to self and others. The Unknown Pane includes everything that you and others do not know about yourself. You may have hidden talents, for example, that you have not explored.

Through self-disclosure, we open and close panes so that we may become more intimate with others.

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Rewards and Costs of Self-Disclosure

What motivates you to self-disclose? The kinds of low-level self-disclosures that occur as part of the strategy of uncertainty reduction invite others to reciprocate and share their own information. So, one great payoff of self-disclosing is the reduction of uncertainty and the stress that it creates. And later in a relationship, when a deeper level of self-disclosure occurs, we experience the rewards of having greater intimacy with people we like. We may also self-disclose information in order to gain the help and support of others or to achieve the catharsis that comes from unburdening ourselves from carrying difficult and painful emotional experiences by ourselves. Support, empathy, compassion, and understanding are all powerful rewards that motivate self-disclosure.

At the same time, costs and risks may be incurred as a result of self-disclosure. We may lose face with another or risk a breach of confidence. Sometimes, the cost of disclosure is a burden to the relationship itself, especially when disclosure is associated with demands or expectations that a relational partner does not feel comfortable assuming. In deciding whether to self-disclosure, we must weigh these actual and perceived costs against the anticipated rewards.


Reflecting from his perspective as a gay man, John observes that he faces a quandary in deciding when and with whom to disclose that he is gay. Moreover, it's clear that sharing information about one's sexual orientation and relational status is a matter of breadth for most heterosexuals but an issue of disclosing depth for him:
  • Most straight people that I know don't hesitate to announce to the world if they are married or dating someone. Many of the other teachers at my school have photos of their husbands and kids on their desks that anyone can see. For them, sexual orientation is one of the "outer layers of the onion" for self-disclosure.
  • I don't think it is the same for a lot of gay people. I have to gauge carefully whether to tell someone that I am gay or whether to talk about my partner. That is a matter of disclosing from my depth when you consider the kinds of risks that are involved and the vastly different comfort levels of potential listeners.
  • Sharing what most people consider to be basic facts of life becomes a struggle. I have to weigh the costs against the benefits. There is the fear of being rejected or retaliated against professionally if I am open. On the other hand, if I am not totally honest or open, there is the personal cost of not being authentic or of appearing two -dimensional to friends or co-workers who never hear the day-to-day details of my life or hear them only in guarded or sanitized versions.

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Disclosure of Breadth and Depth

Altman and Taylor describe the process of self-disclosure as social penetration. By this, they mean that self-disclosing and learning about others is the process of penetrating deeper into the selves of those people—and enabling others to penetrate ourselves and gain a deeper understanding of us. This process of penetration is a gradual one, in which each communicator reveals layers of personal depth.

As a way of visualizing this process, Altman and Taylor use the metaphor of an onion and its layers of rings. Disclosure begins on the outer layer and proceeds to the core of the onion. These authors also suggest that there are two levels of disclosure. The first level is called the breadth dimension. This is the skin of the onion and its most outer layers. In terms of self-disclosure, this layer is largely made up of superficial information about ourselves that we commonly share with a number of different people. On this superficial level, there is a great deal of information that will likely cost little to disclose. This peripheral information will likely be exchanged early in a relationship. Moreover, Altman and Taylor observe that when we share superficial information—that is, from the breadth dimension of ourselves—the process of penetration is fairly quick.

Later, in a relationship, communicators gradually share depth of information. Again, using the onion metaphor, these are the inner layers and the core of the onion. Information at the depth level is more significant and more central to who we are. Thus, sharing information from our depth may incur greater risk taking. The information from this dimension of self is typically known by and held in confidence by only a few people. Sometimes, it includes very strong feelings, beliefs, and concerns. It may also include secrets, regrets or hurtful experiences, and painful memories. Information from the depth dimension, which is more private and significant, will likely be exchanged later in a relationship.

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Findings of Self-Disclosure Research

While the research is still ongoing, and there is no bottom to the psychological studies, there certain trends and findings, which were recently uncovered:
  • Disclosure increases with increased relational intimacy.
  • Disclosure increases with the need to reduce uncertainty in a relationship.
  • Disclosure tends to be reciprocal.
  • Disclosure tends to be incremental.
  • Disclosure tends to be symmetrical.
  • Liking is related to positive disclosure, but not to negative ones.
  • Positive disclosure does not necessarily increase with the intimacy of the relationship; but negative disclosure is directly related to the intimacy of the relationship.
  • Relational satisfaction and disclosure have a curvilinear relationship -- satisfaction is highest with moderate levels of disclosure.

Self-Disclosure is Rewarding

For years, psychologists have known that sharing aspects of oneself with other people is a crucial part of human social life. It’s the escalation from small talk to more personal details that often forms the foundation of friendship and romantic intimacy. But the Harvard psychologists wanted to know why people talk about themselves so frequently.

In a series of experiments that utilized methods from neuroscience and cognitive psychology, the researchers found evidence that revealing even relatively mundane facts about oneself - such as reporting whether a person still likes Dr. Seuss books, or enjoys listening to musicals - seems to trigger the brain circuits that respond to rewards such as food and money.

In the first set of experiments, researchers designed experiments in which participants placed in a brain scanner were asked to either disclose their opinions or personality traits or to judge those of another person. The scientists found that when participants were communicating information about themselves, the brain’s reward circuits lighted up with a significantly stronger response than when they disclosed how they felt about others.

In various trials, researchers asked participants to choose among different combinations of questions: a fact-based question, a question about themselves, or a question about another person. The participants were offered differing amounts of compensation, depending on which question they chose to answer.

If all else were equal, people should choose to maximize their income by always answering the question that offered the biggest monetary reward. Instead, the participants were willing to accept a loss of 17 percent of potential earnings to answer questions about themselves, suggesting they placed value on talking about themselves. When the payoffs were equal, people chose to answer questions about themselves more than two-thirds of the time.

In another experiment, the researchers found that participants preferred to share with others those answers about themselves - suggesting that it was not just thinking about themselves but communicating about themselves that was valued.

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Self-Disclosure in Digital Age

When clinical psychologists first began using computers in their offices, one of the applications, besides patient records and billing, was the computerized interview. Clients would sit at a terminal and answer questions about themselves, their problems, and their beliefs about their own behavior, and the computer would dutifully record the responses. The computerized interview was controversial at first, though it was certainly a time saver. Many practitioners thought the client should be talking to a human being and developing a rapport, so even now, not many use it. However, a strange thing started happening. Clients seemed to be more forthcoming when they were interviewed by a computer compared to when they were talking to a person who was jotting notes.

The tendency for people to disclose more to a computer - even when they know a person will be reading what they say - is an important ingredient in what seems to be happening on the Internet. Yes, it can be an impersonal, cold-blooded medium at times. Yet it can also be what Joseph Walther describes as hyperpersonal. You sit at a computer screen feeling relatively anonymous, distant, and physically safe and you sometimes feel closer to the people on the other side of your screen whom you have never seen than to the people in the next room. You may reveal more about yourself to them, feel more attraction to them, and express more emotions - even when all you have is a keyboard. At the keyboard you can concentrate only on yourself, your words, and the feelings you want to convey. You don't have to worry about how you look, what you're wearing, or those extra pounds you meant to shed. "The waist is a terrible thing to mind," as Walther suggests, and online you can reallocate your energies to the message. You can also endlessly idealize those personas with whom you are interacting. Someone you know only as "Moonbeam" who has told you many intimate details of her life - but not her name, address, or phone number - is like a canvas with just a few iridescent brush strokes. You can fill in the rest of that minimalist art work with your imagination.

Sources and Additional Information:

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