What Is Social Penetration Theory? Social Penetration Theory In A Nutshell

Social penetration theory was developed by fellow psychologists Dalmas Taylor and Irwin Altman in their 1973 article Social Penetration: The Development of Interpersonal Relationships. Social penetration theory (SPT) posits that as a relationship develops, shallow and non-intimate communication evolves and becomes deeper and more intimate.

Understanding social penetration theory

In essence, Taylor and Altman discovered that the more time we spend with others, the more likely it is that each of us will disclose personal or intimate details about our lives.

The pair is also credited with the now infamous onion metaphor, which describes the idea that personality is multi-layered and must be “peeled back” one layer at a time.

Described in more scientific terms, the onion metaphor serves as a framework for a process called social penetration.

This is a broad concept that describes the behavior in a social interaction and also the self-reflection that occurs before, during, and after the interaction itself. 

Behavior may be:

  1. Verbal – the exchange of information via words.
  2. Non-verbal – where information is exchanged through body language such as facial expression and posture, and
  3. Environmental – that is, how do the individuals utilize the space? How much distance is there between each person? Are they interacting with physical objects in the area?

When communication takes place, the individual receiving information uses these behaviors to form a subjective opinion of the other.

Rather than consider positive or negative behaviors in isolation, the individual assesses them collectively as the basis for forming a social bond.

Social penetration theory also considers the rewards and costs of social penetration and has influenced multiple information management and relationship development-based theories.

The four stages of social penetration theory

As hinted at in the previous section, social penetration is a linear, one-way process that progresses at its own pace over time.

This progression can be explained across four stages:


The orientation stage is where two strangers meet and first start to form an impression of each other.

This stage is characterized by pleasantries, small talk, and other topics that are considered socially acceptable or non-offensive.

Exploratory affective

In the second stage, a casual friendship may form if each individual finds the other agreeable.

The friendship is characterized by both revealing aspects of themselves, expressing their opinions, and asking the other to do the same. Note that the relationship nevertheless sticks to safer topics such as movies or sport. 


Another layer of the onion is peeled off in the affective stage as the relationship becomes more intimate and substantive.

Here, some personal information is revealed but the disclosure tends to be more fun and spontaneous than serious and restrained.

The two individuals may joke, make sarcastic remarks, or create nicknames for each other. Healthy conflict may also occur in the affective stage.

Stable exchange

In the final stage, the layers of an individual’s personality have been stripped away to reveal the authentic person beneath.

Conversational topics are characterized by breadth, depth, and openness, with both feelings comfortable expressing their thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs without fear of persecution.

Few relationships are maintained to this extent. Indeed, most are reserved for close friends, family members, and romantic partners.

Social Penetration Theory vs. Uncertainty Reduction Theory

Uncertainty reduction theory was first proposed in 1975 by American communication theorists Charles R. Berger and Richard J. Calabrese. Uncertainty reduction theory suggests people are uncomfortable with uncertainty and seek ways of predicting the trajectory of social interactions.

Whereas the Uncertainty Reduction Theory suggests, people are uncomfortable with uncertainty and seek ways of predicting the trajectory of social interactions. 

According to this theory, individuals leverage seven axioms to reduce uncertainty during communication:

  • Verbal communication.
  • Non-verbal warmth.
  • Information seeking.
  • Self-disclosure.
  • Reciprocity.
  • Similarity.
  • Liking.

Whereas social penetration theory is also a linear-communication theory that explains how relationships move from shallow to deeper and more intimate as they go through four distinct stages: orientation, exploratory affective, affective, and stable exchange.

Social Penetration Theory vs. Social Exchange Theory

Social exchange theory posits that an individual’s social behavior is the result of an exchange process where they seek to maximize benefits and minimize costs.

In a social exchange theory, individuals deal with each other simply looking at two factors:

This is a highly simplified and economical/materialistic view of relationships.

While this is a much-simplified version than also Social Penetration Theory, this might work well in a business context, where many relationships are modeled around the economic incentives built into the relationship.,

In other words, the social penetration theory gives a more subtle view of human relationships.

The social exchange theory implies a much-simplified view, which is more limited, yet it might help to better model relationships at scale within organizations, especially in structuring employees’ relationships.

Of course, this theory must be balanced with other more comprehensive theories like Social Penetration or the Uncertainty Reduction Theory.

Key takeaways

  • Social penetration theory posits that as a relationship develops, shallow and non-intimate communication evolves and becomes deeper and more intimate.
  • Social penetration theory is based on the idea of social penetration, a broad concept describing various verbal, non-verbal, and environmental factors that impact relationship development.
  • Social penetration theory has four distinct stages: orientation, exploratory affective, affective, and stable exchange. The final stage represents the sort of deep relationship a person normally maintains with a close friend, family member, or spouse.

Connected Business Concepts


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A SMART goal is any goal with a carefully planned, concise, and trackable objective. To be such a goal needs to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. Bringing structure and trackability to goal setting increases the chances goals will be achieved, and it helps align the organization around those goals.

Balanced Scorecard

First proposed by accounting academic Robert Kaplan, the balanced scorecard is a management system that allows an organization to focus on big-picture strategic goals. The four perspectives of the balanced scorecard include financial, customer, business process, and organizational capacity. From there, according to the balanced scorecard, it’s possible to have a holistic view of the business.


Businesses use backcasting to plan for a desired future by determining the steps required to achieve that future. Backcasting is the opposite of forecasting, where a business sets future goals and works toward them by maintaining the status quo.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was developed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow. His hierarchy, often depicted in the shape of a pyramid, helped explain his research on basic human needs and desires. In marketing, the hierarchy (and its basis in psychology) can be used to market to specific groups of people based on their similarly specific needs, desires, and resultant actions.

Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

Herzberg’s two-factor theory argues that certain workplace factors cause job satisfaction while others cause job dissatisfaction. The theory was developed by American psychologist and business management analyst Frederick Herzberg. Until his death in 2000, Herzberg was widely regarded as a pioneering thinker in motivational theory.

Lightning Decision Jam

The theory was developed by psychologist Edwin Locke who also has a background in motivation and leadership research. Locke’s goal-setting theory of motivation provides a framework for setting effective and motivating goals. Locke was able to demonstrate that goal setting was linked to performance.

Nadler-Tushman Congruence Model

The Nadler-Tushman Congruence Model was created by David Nadler and Michael Tushman at Columbia University. The Nadler-Tushman Congruence Model is a diagnostic tool that identifies problem areas within a company. In the context of business, congruence occurs when the goals of different people or interest groups coincide.

Personal SWOT Analysis

The SWOT analysis is commonly used as a strategic planning tool in business. However, it is also well suited for personal use in addressing a specific goal or problem. A personal SWOT analysis helps individuals identify their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

OGSM Framework

The OGSM framework is a means of creating a well-structured and actionable marketing strategy. Fundamentally, the OGSM framework allows businesses to first define what they want to achieve and then determine how they will get there. To provide direction for marketing teams, the acronym of OGSM (objectives, goals, strategies, measures) should be followed in sequential order. Here is a look at each in more detail.

McKinsey 7-S Model

The McKinsey 7-S Model was developed in the late 1970s by Robert Waterman and Thomas Peters, who were consultants at McKinsey & Company. Waterman and Peters created seven key internal elements that inform a business of how well positioned it is to achieve its goals, based on three hard elements and four soft elements.

Personal Mission Statement

A personal mission statement clarifies what is important in life to an individual. A personal mission statement is a written statement of purpose that allows individuals to define their calling in life. It helps clarify goals, values, beliefs, or passions, communicate them, and better execute a personal growth strategy.

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