too much information: a theory about how & why we self-disclose

Yesterday, I was at the grocery store with Hus and our twins when a woman came up to me and said, "Awww, they're so cute. How old are they?" I told her that they were three months and then she proceeded to tell me that she had 5 week old twin girls. We talked for a minute about the usual things that I talk about when I meet someone who also has multiples. Their names, how much they weighed at birth, how much they weigh now, whether they were in the NICU, yadda yadda yadda. But then, out of nowhere, this woman told me that her nipples were killing her from breast feeding and she asked me if they would get better over time. I was baffled. She didn't know me from Sam and there she was, talking to me about her cracked nipples. I told her that I didn't know and quickly changed the subject. About a minute later I started to move away from her trying to indicate that I was done with the conversation. She caught on and we parted ways. Hus and I continued to shop. On our way toward the check-out lanes, we stopped at the baby section to peruse the clearance racks. Gasp! There she was again. But this time I wasn't the victim of her inappropriate self-disclosing. Instead, she was talking to another random woman about her sex life while being pregnant with twins. "My belly got so big that the only way we could do it was..." Yikes! That was all I had to hear to make a break for it. Hus and I quickly ran to the front of the store.

There are a variety of communication and psychological theories used to explain how and why individuals self-disclose. Unfortunately, none of them are able to explain the type of inappropriate self-disclosure I experienced last week. Instead, most theories of self-disclosure focus on communicating information between two individuals who are involved in some sort of relationship with each other (i.e. friendship, romantic relationship, work relationship, etc). Altman and Taylor’s (1973) social penetration theory is one of the most prominent self-disclosure theories in academia.

Social penetration theory (Altman & Taylor, 1973) explains how self-disclosure plays an integral role in the development and deterioration of close relationships. At its most basic form, breadth and depth of disclosures, along with perceived relationship rewards and costs and amount of reciprocity, influence how fast or slow the penetration or depenetration process takes place. Specifically, social penetration theory claims that as a relationship progresses and as rewards within a relationship increase, communication exchange between two individuals also increases in both breadth and depth in order to subsequently increase feelings of intimacy and closeness within their relationship.

In social penetration theory, breadth can be explained in three ways. First, there are breadth categories, which involve the number of topics individuals reveal or discuss with their relationship partners. Second, breadth frequency is concerned with how often a certain topic is discussed. Lastly, there is breadth time, which refers to the amount of time one spends interacting with their relationship partner. Social penetration theory claims that the number of breadth categories may be high at the beginning of a relationship, yet as a relationship grows, breadth frequency increases within each breadth category. For example, when Alaina and Anderson first met, they may have discussed many different topics including their education, hobbies, and their families, indicating a high number of breadth categories. In this early stage of their relationship, the two may only reveal their siblings’ names and ages when discussing their families. However, as that relationship progresses, Alaina and Anderson may begin to discuss their families more frequently, indicating high breadth frequency within their “family” category.

Depth, on the other hand, refers to the intimacy of topics individuals discuss with their relationship partners. As relationships progress, individuals tend to discuss more intimate aspects of their lives and personalities with each other. For instance, on their first date, Alaina and Anderson may discuss very superficial topics such as where they grew up or what they studied in college, whereas once they have been in a relationship for 3 months, they may begin to share more personal aspects of their lives such as their political or religious beliefs.

Altman and Taylor (1973) further explain that interpersonal rewards and costs also influence the social penetration process. Interpersonal rewards and costs refer to the positive and negative aspects of a relationship. “The greater the ratio of rewards to costs, the more rapid the penetration process” (Altman & Taylor, 1973, p. 42). Additionally, the magnitude of rewards and costs must also be taken into consideration. For instance, Alaina may think that her new boyfriend is very funny and she likes the way he calls her every night (2 rewards), but she also is not physically attracted to him (1 cost). The penetration process in this relationship may be slowed down due to the importance (i.e. magnitude) that Alaina places on being physically attracted to her mate. Even though there are more rewards than costs, the magnitude of the one cost may prevail when determining how fast or slow the relationship develops. The beliefs that people have about potential rewards and costs in the future of their relationships can also affect the penetration process. Back to the previous example, if Alaina believes that she is never going to be physically attracted to her new boyfriend, and being physically attracted to her mate is very important to her, the penetration process will likely slow down or even stop.

Reciprocity of disclosures is another important aspect of the penetration process (Altman & Taylor, 1973). If one relationship partner discloses information and the other partner fails to reciprocate, the penetration process could be delayed. Likewise, the intimacy of reciprocity can also influence penetration. For example, even though Alaina and her friend Violet disclose the same amount of information about their families to each other, if the intimacy of their information is not at the same level of depth, the relationship may develop at a slow rate. Alaina may feel that Violet is not disclosing at the same intimacy level as her because she does not like her, which could lower Alaina’s motivation to interact with Violet.

When discussing the deterioration of relationships, Altman and Taylor (1973) hypothesize that this process is just as systematic as the process of relationship development. Depenetration, therefore, is hypothesized to occur in reverse of the penetration process. “Interpersonal exchange should proceed backwards from more to less intimate areas, should decrease in breadth and volume, and, as a result, the total cumulative wedge of exchange should shrink” (p. 174).

To sum, social penetration theory focuses on how communication, specifically the use of self-disclosure, affects relationship development and deterioration. Social penetration is a process, in that it moves from one stage to another. Breadth and depth of disclosures along with reciprocity and perceived relationship rewards and costs influence how fast or slow the penetration or depenetration process takes place.

So, if building a relationship is the main goal of self-disclosing, why do strangers, who usually have no intent of starting up a new relationship, sometimes self-disclose their deepest darkest secrets? Why did this woman feel the urge to tell me about her breast-feeding problems and another woman about her pregnancy sex life? The world may never know.

Related Love Lesson Posts:

  • Altman, I., & Taylor, D. A. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  • Taylor, D. A., & Altman, I. (1987). Communication in interpersonal relationships: Social penetration processes. In M. E. Rolloff & G. R. Miller (Eds.), Interpersonal processes: New directions in communication research (pp. 257- 277). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  • Vangelisti, A., Caughlin, J., & Timmerman, L. (2001). Criteria for revealing family secrets. Communication Monographs, 68, 1-27.


Pants said...

LOVE the social penetration theory.

Judy said...

my girls would've called home and put her on the line! they've done it before! we help where we can...

Anonymous said...

That woman was probably bored with nothing to lose. So why not put it out there to see what she gets back? Fact searching with a shock factor. I do it sometimes, not to that extent, because it amuses me and shocks people. Kinda like charity. Being shocked by someone helps to either not take life so seriously or gives people something to talk about.

Anonymous said...

There's nothing wrong with what that woman did or said. It only made you uncomfortable because you're insecure about self disclosure. That's why you're reading so much about it and that's why you made a value judgement on her. You said her use of self-disclosure was inappropriate. She was being raw and honest. That's refreshing, and just a different way of being. Just because someone acts different than the norm, doesn't mean that such behaviour should be judged negatively. She is just an open individual. You don't define others by judging them, you define yourself.

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