Social Penetration Theory
Patrick Anderson
Arizona State University
Social penetration theory focuses on the development of interpersonal relationships which triggers the movement of communication among people from being shallow into more intimate ones. This theory involves the growth in the ability of individuals being able to interact with one another. This paper contains a literature review on communication strategies in social penetration theory. Moreover, through this, scholars, practitioners, and the public will be able to know how to improve their relationship status with other people through communication. In providing a summary on social penetration theory, this study will contain a theoretical discussion, synthesis of scholarship and a conclusion. The theoretical discussion contains; a research paradigm and theoretical tradition for social penetration theory, conceptualization of communication by the research tradition, an explanation on why social penetration theory falls under that research paradigm, the ontological, epistemological and axiological assumptions of the paradigm, an explain of the theory’s claims including the key terms, description on how the theory helps us understand human communication and the strengths and weaknesses of the theory. Furthermore, the synthesis of scholarship consists of an organizing scheme; comparison-and- contrast where we will focus on the similarities and differences in the articles used based on social penetration theory. The conclusion contains a summary of the entire research paper.

The Theoretical Discussion
Social penetration theory, a theory formulated by psychologists, Irwin Altman and Davis Taylor in 1973 states that relationships begin and deepen through self-disclosure. An explanation on the difference in communication in relation to the depth of interpersonal relationship is brought about through this theory. Data from this theory is collected from experiments since it is what people go through in their daily lives (Griffin, Ledbetter, ; Sparks, 2015, 3). Furthermore, the research paradigm and theoretical tradition for social penetration theory is symbolic interaction and socio-psychological tradition. Close relationships are characterized by looking for cause-and-effect relationships which will predict the results when people communicate. In order to determine if the relationship between two people might last for a long time, a research can be taken to identify how many more friends an individual has made and feels more closer to them than their best friend. Also, the number of times that one communicates with their best friend determines the diversity and duration of the friendship relationship (Griffin, Ledbetter, ; Sparks, 2015, 3). Consistent communication between an individual and their best friend either face to face, through the phone or letters increases the possibility for the relationship to last longer. When interacting using symbolic interaction, a connection is made by individuals where there is use of verbal and non-verbal communications. When symbolic interaction is often used, individuals are able to have a closer relationship since it brings to light the importance of signs and symbols (Griffin, Ledbetter, ; Sparks, 2015, 3). The more individuals are able to interpret one another’s signs and symbols, the more chances increase for their relationship to grow and last long.
Socio-psychological tradition conceptualizes communication by focusing on thorough observation of individuals without being biased by focusing on what is and what is ought to be. By doing this, there is a high possibility for an individual to be able to determine particular friendships that might stay longer than others (Utz, 2015). Relational closeness which is attributed in socio-psychological tradition is the deterministic factor of how long relationships might last. In addition, social penetration theory falls under symbolic interaction since for relationships to work from being shallow relationships to being more intimate and self disclosed, individuals have to be able to interpret one another’s non-verbal cues (Griffin, Ledbetter, ; Sparks, 2015, 3) . Upon relating with each other verbally and non-verbally, a more intimate relationship is more likely to be formed since individuals are able to understand different signs and symbols expressed by the people they are sharing a relationship with.

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The ontological assumption of symbolic interaction is that language, meaning, and thinking lead to the creation of a person’s self, socialization, and a larger society. Therefore, through language, meaning, and thinking an individual’s relationship is characterized into existence (Beike, Brandon, ; Cole, 2016). The epistemological assumption of symbolic interaction is based on the theory of an individual’s self. An individual is able to relate with others and end up building a relationship with other people when they are able to understand their own self and reflect it in the mirror their friends or individuals they share with a relationship (Griffin, Ledbetter, & Sparks, 2015, 3). Additionally, understanding characterized in friendship relationships is based on identifying things that are of value to others. By the use of signs and symbols with consistent interaction, an axiological assumption of symbolic interaction is made. Individuals are able to identify what other people value most due to consistent mentioning by individuals repeatedly.
Furthermore, according to social penetration theory the first time individuals meet at the beginning of their friendship, the communication between individuals is shallow and non-intimate. Upon consistent interaction, the relationship develops to a more intimate level. In relation to social penetration theory, self disclosure is the main development for relationships since people open their inner selves to one another (Griffin, Ledbetter, & Sparks, 2015, 4) . Self disclosure is the process of communication where individuals reveal their personal information to one another. Also, this theory carries an assumption that relationship is systematic and predictable (Griffin, Ledbetter, & Sparks, 2015, 4). Through social penetration theory, understanding of another individual is easy since through communication between individuals, one is able to identify another person’s strengths and weaknesses. Since this theory states self disclosure between individuals as the anchor of long lasting relationships, through expressions and one relating with other people’s experiences, understanding of one another is efficient and more productive (Tang & Wang, 2012). However, just like any other theory, social penetration theory has a number of strengths and weaknesses. When individuals are not very close enough with a more intimate relationship, it might be difficult for them to converse especially when one has a problem which is a weakness. Nevertheless, relationships of individuals which have developed to a more intimate are hard to be broken thus one can depend on the other.
The Synthesis of Scholarship
Social penetration is evidently one of the most efficient theories that can be depended on when building strong relationships among people. This theory is based on a number of assumption (Beike, Brandon, & Cole, 2016). The beginning of a relationship starts form shallow relationships to more intimate relationships. When individuals first meet, conversations between one another is roughly about common things like individuals’ likes and hobbies and on the growth of the relationship, people feel comfortable talking about their personal experiences. Also, interpersonal relationships develop in a predictable and systematic manner. In cases where individuals in a relationship have self-disclosure between each other, it is predictable that the relationship is prone to last for a long time (Gibbs, Ellison, ; Heino, 2006). However, in cases where individuals rarely communicate and relate with one another, high chances of the relationship to end increase. Development in relationships could move backward and fortify to fights and dissolutions making individuals to end up breaking their relationship. Arguments and fighting between people in a relationship is an assumption to the ending of a relationship between individuals. Additionally, self-disclosure is the greatest object that can facilitate the relationship between individuals to becoming very intimate and lasting long (Tal-Or ; Hershman-Shitrit, 2014). Upon sharing, one opens themselves to the other individuals and shares their inner selves which creates a more diverse bond in a relationship thus dissolution of the relationship becomes much more difficult.

This study uses comparison- and- contrast as the main organizing scheme where it focuses on the commonalities and differences between the articles used. In all the articles used in this research, it is evident that self-disclosure is the amplitude cause of every successful relationship. Moreover, open, honest, and non-insulting communication between individuals in a relationship is evident to be the cause of a successful and lasting relationship (Määttä ; Uusiautti, 2013). Moreover, according to the articles, relating with people who are self-disclosing themselves whether on television or close friends enables an individual be able to relate to the person and makes them feel close to the individual disclosing himself or herself (Griffin, Ledbetter, ; Sparks, 2015). However, there are no evident differences used in these articles to explain social learning theory since they all focus on self-disclosure as the key to a lasting relationship. With the use of self-disclosure in all the articles, we find self-disclosure to be the main dialect in the formation and sustenance of interpersonal relationships.
Additionally, self-disclosure is the dependent variable in social learning theory. In all the experiments conducted and observed in the articles, self-disclosure is the dependency on the working or failure of relationships (Dunleavy ; Booth-Butterfield, 2009). The percentage of interpersonal relationships that are a success due to self-disclosure is higher than those without self-disclosure. Precisely, many relationships dissolve due individuals not expressing and communicating solely (Rains, Brunner, ; Oman, 2014). Despite self-disclosure being the common factor in all the theories, usage of social penetration theory is also another. The articles describe this theory as the most commendable in the development of individuals’ communication ability and growth of relationships.

Evaluation of Social Penetration Theory
According to the activities that take place in relation to interpersonal relations, are built through self-disclosure. This theory depends on the emotional interaction between individuals and positive association between people in a relationship. Partners that often disclose their personal information with one another create a strong bond with great relational action and stability (Berger, 2005). According to this theory, for a relationship to be stable, intimacy and disclosure have to align and be present from the beginning of the relationship. The basis of this theory is also founded through exchange of information between individuals. The exchange of information develops from non-intimate areas to deeper degrees of selves when interacting (Gibbs, Ellison, & Heino, 2006). Unlike other theories, social penetration theory brings forward the aspect of an individual’s self and facilitates the development of relationships symmetrically.
In summary, social penetration theory is the most effective theory in the construction and the stabilizing of relationships. When using this theory to help in building relationships, individuals need to be willing to open themselves and share all the information with their partners to ensure that a bond is built and their emotional status is locked together. Through this theory, individuals can be able to be emotionally stable due to having people that are ready to listen to them and to whom they open to. Additionally, the more an individual opens themselves up to another person the more their relationship with this person strengthens. For this theory to work, the level of trust between people in a relationship should great so that when one is being honest with the other, they are comfortable that the information is sustained between them. In future research projects, the researchers ought to collect both qualitative and quantitative data on how effective social penetration theory is in relationships. Also, identification of whether relationships that are built based on social learning theory can easily be dissolved due top fights and arguments which is an assumption of this theory.
Beike, D. R., Brandon, N. R., ; Cole, H. E. (2016). Is sharing specific autobiographical memories a distinct form of self-disclosure? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(4), 434-450. doi:10.1037/xge0000143
Berger, C. R. (2005). Interpersonal Communication: Theoretical Perspectives, Future Prospects. Journal of Communication, 55(3), 415-447. doi:10.1093/joc/55.3.415
Dunleavy, K. N., ; Booth-Butterfield, M. (2009). Idiomatic communication in the stages of coming together and falling apart. Communication Quarterly, 57(4), 416-432. doi:10.1080/01463370903320906
Gibbs, J. L., Ellison, N. B., ; Heino, R. D. (2006). Self-Presentation in Online Personals The Role of Anticipated Future Interaction, Self-Disclosure, and Perceived Success in Internet Dating. Communication Research, 33(2), 152-177. doi:10.1177/0093650205285368
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Rains, S. A., Brunner, S. R., ; Oman, K. (2014). Self-disclosure and new communication technologies. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33(1), 42-61. doi:10.1177/0265407514562561
Tal-Or, N., ; Hershman-Shitrit, M. (2014). Self-disclosure and the liking of participants in reality TV. Human Communication Research, 41(2), 245-267. doi:10.1111/hcre.12047
Tang, J., ; Wang, C. (2012). Self-Disclosure Among Bloggers: Re-Examination of Social Penetration Theory. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15(5), 245-250. doi:10.1089/cyber.2011.0403
Tsay-Vogel, M., ; Beth Oliver, M. (2014). Is watching others self-disclose enjoyable? Journal of Media Psychology, 26(3), 111-124. doi:10.1027/1864-1105/a000116
Utz, S. (2015). The function of self-disclosure on social network sites: Not only intimate, but also positive and entertaining self-disclosures increase the feeling of connection. Computers in Human Behavior, 45, 1-10. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.11.076