What is Co-Dependents Anonymous?


Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) is a twelve-step programme for people who share a common desire to develop functional and healthy relationships.

Refer to Codependency.


Co-Dependents Anonymous was founded by Ken and Mary Richardson and the first CoDA meeting attended by 30 people was held October 22, 1986 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Within four weeks there were 100 people and before the year was up there were 120 groups.

CoDA held its first National Service Conference the next year with 29 representatives from seven states.

CoDA has stabilised at about a thousand meetings in the US, and with meetings active in 60 other countries and dozens online that can be reached at http://www.coda.org.

This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Co-Dependents_Anonymous >; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA.

What is Codependency?


In sociology, codependency is a theory that attempts to explain imbalanced relationships where one person enables another person’s self-destructive behaviour such as addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement.

Definitions of codependency vary, but typically include high self-sacrifice, a focus on others’ needs, suppression of one’s own emotions, and attempts to control or fix other people’s problems. People who self-identify as codependent exhibit low self-esteem, but it is unclear whether this is a cause or an effect of characteristics associated with codependency. Codependency is not limited to married, partnered, or romantic relationships, as co-workers, friends, and family members can be codependent as well.

Refer to Co-Dependents Anonymous.

Brief History

The term “codependency” most likely developed in Minnesota in the late 1970s from “co-alcoholic”, when alcoholism and other drug dependencies were grouped together as “chemical dependency.” The term is most often identified with Alcoholics Anonymous and the realisation that the alcoholism was not solely about the addict but also about the family and friends who constitute a network for the alcoholic.

The term “codependent” was first used to describe how family members and friends might interfere with the recovery of a person affected by a substance use disorder by “overhelping”. Application of the concept of codependency was driven by the self-help community.

In 1986, Psychiatrist Timmen Cermak wrote Diagnosing and Treating Co-Dependence: A Guide for Professionals. In that book and an article published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Cermak argued unsuccessfully for the inclusion of codependency as a separate personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-III-R. He found that the condition could affect people close to people with any mental disorder, not just addiction.

Melody Beattie popularised the concept of codependency in 1986 with the book Codependent No More which sold eight million copies, with updated editions released in 1992 and 2022. Drawing on her personal experience with substance abuse and caring for someone with it, she also interviewed people helped by Al-Anon. Beattie’s work formed the underpinning of a twelve-step organisation called Co-Dependents Anonymous, founded in 1986, although the group does not endorse any definition of or diagnostic criteria for codependency.


Codependency has no established definition or diagnostic criteria within the mental health community. It has not been included as a condition in any edition of the DSM or ICD.

Codependency carries three potential levels of meaning. First, it can describe a didactic tool that, once explained to families, helps them normalise the feelings that they are experiencing and allows them to shift their focus from the dependent person to their own dysfunctional behaviour patterns. Second, it can describe a psychological concept, a shorthand means of describing and explaining human behaviour. Third, it can describe a psychological disorder, implying that there is a consistent pattern of traits or behaviours across individuals that can create significant dysfunction.

Discussion of codependency tends to focus on the disease model of the term, although there is no agreement that codependency is a disorder at all, or how such a disease entity might be defined or diagnosed.  In an early attempt to define codependency as a diagnosable disorder, Timmen Cermak wrote:

“Co-dependence is a recognisable pattern of personality traits, predictably found within most members of chemically dependent families, which are capable of creating sufficient dysfunction to warrant the diagnosis of Mixed Personality Disorder as outlined in DSM III.”

Timmen proceeded to list the traits he identified in self-suppressing supporting partners of people with chemical dependence or disordered personalities, and to provide a DSM-style set of diagnostic criteria.

In her self-help book, Melody Beattie proposes that, “The obvious definition [of codependency] would be: being a partner in dependency. This definition is close to the truth but still unclear.” Beattie elaborates, “A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behaviour affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behaviour.” Another self-help author, Darlene Lancer, asserts that “A codependent is a person who can’t function from his or her innate self and instead organizes thinking and behavior around a substance, process, or other person(s).” Lancer includes all addicts in her definition. She believes a “lost self” is the core of codependency.

Co-Dependents Anonymous, a self-help organization for people who seek to develop healthy and functional relationships, “offer[s] no definition or diagnostic criteria for codependence”, but provides a list of “patterns and characteristics of codependence” that can be used by laypeople for self-evaluation. The organisation identifies patterns that may occur in codependency.

The Medical Subject Heading utilised by the United States National Library of Medicine describes codependency as “A relational pattern in which a person attempts to derive a sense of purpose through relationships with others.”


Under theories of codependency as a psychological disorder, the codependent partner in a relationship is often described as displaying self-perception, attitudes and behaviours that serve to increase problems within the relationship instead of decreasing them. It is often suggested that people who are codependent were raised in dysfunctional families or with early exposure to addiction behaviour, resulting in their allowance of similar patterns of behaviour by their partner.


Codependent relationships are often described as being marked by intimacy problems, dependency, control (including caretaking), denial, dysfunctional communication and boundaries, and high reactivity. There may be imbalance within the relationship, where one person is abusive or in control or supports or enables another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement.

Under this conception of codependency, the codependent person’s sense of purpose within a relationship is based on making extreme sacrifices to satisfy their partner’s needs. Codependent relationships signify a degree of unhealthy “clinginess” and needy behaviour, where one person does not have self-sufficiency or autonomy. One or both parties depend on their loved one for fulfilment. The mood and emotions of the codependent are often determined by how they think other individuals perceive them (especially loved ones). This perception is self-inflicted and often leads to clingy, needy behaviour which can hurt the health of the relationship.

Personality Disorders

Codependency may occur within the context of relationships with people with diagnosable personality disorders.

  • Borderline personality disorder: There is a tendency for loved ones of people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) to slip into “caretaker” roles, giving priority and focus to problems in the life of the person with BPD rather than to issues in their own lives. The codependent partner may gain a sense of worth by being perceived as “the sane one” or “the responsible one”.
  • Narcissistic personality disorder: Narcissists, with their ability to get others to “buy into their vision” and help them make it a reality, seek and attract partners who will put others’ needs before their own. A codependent person can provide the narcissist with an obedient and attentive audience. Among the reciprocally interlocking interactions of the pair are the narcissist’s overpowering need to feel important and special and the codependent person’s strong need to help others feel that way.

Family Dynamics

In the dysfunctional family the child learns to become attuned to the parent’s needs and feelings instead of the other way around. Parenting is a role that requires a certain amount of self-sacrifice and giving a child’s needs a high priority. A parent can be codependent toward their own child. Generally, a parent who takes care of their own needs (emotional and physical) in a healthy way will be a better caretaker, whereas a codependent parent may be less effective, or may even do harm to a child. Codependent relationships often manifest through enabling behaviours, especially between parents and their children. Another way to look at it is that the needs of an infant are necessary but temporary, whereas the needs of the codependent are constant. Children of codependent parents who ignore or negate their own feelings may become codependent.

Recovery and Prognosis

With no consensus as to how codependency should be defined, and with no recognised diagnostic criteria, mental health professionals hold a range of opinions about the diagnosis and treatment of codependency. Caring for an individual with a physical addiction is not necessarily treating a pathology. The caregiver may only require assertiveness skills and the ability to place responsibility for the addiction on the other. There are various recovery paths for individuals who struggle with codependency. For example, some may choose cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy, sometimes accompanied by chemical therapy for accompanying depression. There also exist support groups for codependency, such as Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA), Al-Anon/Alateen, Nar-Anon, and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA), which are based on the twelve-step programme model of Alcoholics Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery and Life Recovery a Christian 12 step Bible-based group. Many self-help guides have been written on the subject of codependency.

It has been proposed that, in attempts to recover from codependency, people may go from being overly passive or overly giving to being overly aggressive or excessively selfish. Therapists may seek to help a client develop a balance through healthy assertiveness, which leaves room for being a caring person and also engaging in healthy caring behaviour, while minimising selfishness, bully, or behaviours that might reflect conflict addiction. Developing a permanent stance of being a victim (having a victim mentality) does not constitute recovery from codependency. A victim mentality could also be seen as a part of one’s original state of codependency (lack of empowerment causing one to feel like the “subject” of events rather than being an empowered actor). Someone truly recovered from codependency would feel empowered and like an author of their life and actions rather than being at the mercy of outside forces. A victim mentality may also occur in combination with passive-aggressive control issues. From the perspective of moving beyond victim-hood, the capacity to forgive and let go (with exception of cases of very severe abuse) could also be signs of real recovery from codependency, but the willingness to endure further abuse would not.

It is theorized that unresolved patterns of codependency may lead to more serious problems like alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, sex addiction, psychosomatic illnesses, and other self-destructive or self-defeating behaviours. People with codependency may be more likely to attract further abuse from aggressive individuals (such as those with BPD or NPD), more likely to stay in stressful jobs or relationships, less likely to seek medical attention when needed and are also less likely to get promotions and tend to earn less money than those without codependency patterns. For some people, the social insecurity caused by codependency may progress into full-blown social anxiety disorders like social phobia, avoidant personality disorder or painful shyness. Other stress-related disorders like panic disorder, depression or PTSD may also be present.


Codependency is not a diagnosable mental health condition, there is no medical consensus as to its definition, and there is no evidence that codependency is caused by a disease process. Without clinical definition, the term is easily applicable to many behaviours and has been overused by some self-help authors and support communities. In an article in Psychology Today, clinician Kristi Pikiewicz suggested that the term codependency has been overused to the point of becoming a cliché, and labelling a patient as codependent can shift the focus on how their traumas shaped their current relationships.

Some scholars and treatment providers assert that codependency should be understood as a positive impulse gone awry, and challenge the idea that interpersonal behaviours should be conceptualised as addictions or diseases, as well as the pathologising of personality characteristics associated with women. A study of the characteristics associated with codependency found that non-codependency was associated with masculine character traits, while codependency was associated with negative feminine traits, such as being self-denying, self-sacrificing, or displaying low self-esteem.

This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codependency >; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA.

What are Personal Boundaries?


Personal boundaries or the act of setting boundaries is a life skill that has been popularised by self help authors and support groups since the mid 1980s.

It is the practice of openly communicating and asserting personal values as way to preserve and protect against having them compromised or violated. The term “boundary” is a metaphor – with in-bounds meaning acceptable and out-of-bounds meaning unacceptable. Without values and boundaries our identities become diffused and often controlled by the definitions offered by others. The concept of boundaries has been widely adopted by the counselling profession.

Usage and Application

This life skill is particularly applicable in environments with controlling people or people not taking responsibility for their own life.

Co-Dependents Anonymous recommends setting limits on what members will do to and for people and on what members will allow people to do to and for them, as part of their efforts to establish autonomy from being controlled by other people’s thoughts, feelings and problems.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) tells its members that establishing and maintaining values and boundaries will improve the sense of security, stability, predictability and order, in a family even when some members of the family resist. NAMI contends that boundaries encourage a more relaxed, non-judgemental atmosphere and that the presence of boundaries need not conflict with the need for maintaining an understanding atmosphere.


The three critical aspects of managing personal boundaries are:

Defining ValuesA healthy relationship is an “inter-dependent” relationship of two “independent” people. Healthy individuals should establish values that they honour and defend regardless of the nature of a relationship (core or independent values). Healthy individuals should also have values that they negotiate and adapt in an effort to bond with and collaborate with others (inter-dependent values).
Asserting BoundariesIn this model, individuals use verbal and nonverbal communications to assert intentions, preferences and define what is inbounds and out-of-bounds with respect to their core or independent values. When asserting values and boundaries, communications should be present, appropriate, clear, firm, protective, flexible, receptive, and collaborative.
Honouring and DefendingMaking decision consistent with the personal values when presented with life choices or confronted or challenged by controlling people or people not taking responsibility for their own life.

Having healthy values and boundaries is a lifestyle, not a quick fix to an relationship dispute.

Values are constructed from a mix of conclusions, beliefs, opinions, attitudes, past experiences and social learning. Jacques Lacan considers values to be layered in a hierarchy, reflecting “all the successive envelopes of the biological and social status of the person” from the most primitive to the most advanced.

Personal values and boundaries operate in two directions, affecting both the incoming and outgoing interactions between people. These are sometimes referred to as the ‘protection’ and ‘containment’ functions.


The three most commonly mentioned categories of values and boundaries are:

  • Physical: Personal space and touch considerations; physical intimacy.
  • Mental: Thoughts and opinions.
  • Emotional: Feelings; emotional intimacy.

Some authors have expanded this list with additional or specialised categories such as spirituality, truth, and time/punctuality.

Assertiveness Levels

Nina Brown proposed four boundary types:

Boundary TypeOutline
SoftA person with soft boundaries merges with other people’s boundaries. Someone with a soft boundary is easily a victim of psychological manipulation.
SpongyA person with spongy boundaries is like a combination of having soft and rigid boundaries. They permit less emotional contagion than soft boundaries but more than those with rigid. People with spongy boundaries are unsure of what to let in and what to keep out.
RigidA person with rigid boundaries is closed or walled off so nobody can get close either physically or emotionally. This is often the case if someone has been the victim of physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual abuse. Rigid boundaries can be selective which depend on time, place or circumstances and are usually based on a bad previous experience in a similar situation.
FlexibleSimilar to spongy rigid boundaries but the person exercises more control. The person decides what to let in and what to keep out, is resistant to emotional contagion and psychological manipulation, and is difficult to exploit.

Unilateral vs Collaborative

There are also two main ways that boundaries are constructed:

  • Unilateral boundaries: One person decides to impose a standard on the relationship, regardless of whether others support it. For example, one person may decide to never mention an unwanted subject and to make a habit of leaving the room, ending phone calls, or deleting messages without replying if the subject is mentioned by others.
  • Collaborative boundaries: Everyone in the relationship group agrees, either tacitly or explicitly, that a particular standard should be upheld. For example, the group may decide not to discuss an unwanted subject, and then all members individually avoid mentioning it and work together to change the subject if someone mentions it.

Setting boundaries does not always require telling anyone what the boundary is or what the consequences are for transgressing it. For example, if a person decides to leave a discussion, that person may give an unrelated excuse, such as claiming that it’s time to do something else, rather than saying that the subject must not be mentioned.

Situations that can Challenge Personal Boundaries

Communal Influences

Freud described the loss of conscious boundaries that may occur when an individual is in a unified, fast-moving crowd.

Almost a century later, Steven Pinker took up the theme of the loss of personal boundaries in a communal experience, noting that such occurrences could be triggered by intense shared ordeals like hunger, fear or pain, and that such methods were traditionally used to create liminal conditions in initiation rites. Jung had described this as the absorption of identity into the collective unconscious.

Rave culture has also been said to involve a dissolution of personal boundaries, and a merger into a binding sense of communality.

Unequal Power Relationships

Also unequal relations of political and social power influence the possibilities for marking cultural boundaries and more generally the quality of life of individuals. Unequal power in personal relationships, including abusive relationships, can make it difficult for individuals to mark boundaries.

Dysfunctional Families

Overly Demanding ParentsIn the dysfunctional family the child learns to become attuned to the parent’s needs and feelings instead of the other way around.
Overly Demanding ChildrenParenting is a role that requires a certain amount of self-sacrifice and giving a child’s needs a high priority. A parent can, nevertheless, be codependent towards a child if the caretaking or parental sacrifice reaches unhealthy or destructive levels.
Codependent RelationshipsCodependency often involves placing a lower priority on one’s own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others. Codependency can occur in any type of relationship, including family, work, friendship, and also romantic, peer or community relationships.
While a healthy relationship depends on the emotional space provided by personal boundaries, codependent personalities have difficulties in setting such limits, so that defining and protecting boundaries efficiently may be for them a vital part of regaining mental health.
In a codependent relationship, the codependent’s sense of purpose is based on making extreme sacrifices to satisfy their partner’s needs. Codependent relationships signify a degree of unhealthy clinginess, where one person does not have self-sufficiency or autonomy. One or both parties depend on the other for fulfilment. There is usually an unconscious reason for continuing to put another person’s life first - often the mistaken notion that self-worth comes from other people.
Mental Illness in the FamilyPeople with certain mental conditions are predisposed to controlling behaviour including those with obsessive compulsive disorder, paranoid personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder, attention deficit disorder, and the manic state of bipolar disorder.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD): There is a tendency for loved ones of people with BPD to slip into caretaker roles, giving priority and focus to problems in the life of the person with BPD rather than to issues in their own lives. Too often in these relationships, the codependent will gain a sense of worth by being “the sane one” or “the responsible one”. Often, this shows up prominently in families with strong Asian cultures because of beliefs tied to the cultures.
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD): For those involved with a person with NPD, values and boundaries are often challenged as narcissists have a poor sense of self and often do not recognise that others are fully separate and not extensions of themselves. Those who meet their needs and those who provide gratification may be treated as if they are part of the narcissist and expected to live up to their expectations.


Anger is a normal emotion that involves a strong uncomfortable and emotional response to a perceived provocation. Often, it indicates when one’s personal boundaries are violated. Anger may be utilised effectively by setting boundaries or escaping from dangerous situations.

This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_boundaries >; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA.

What is the Scale of Protective Factors?


The Scale of Protective Factors (SPF) is a measure of aspects of social relationships, planning behaviours and confidence. These factors contribute to psychological resilience in emerging adults and adults.

Brief History

The SPF was developed by Dr. Elisabeth Ponce-Garcia at the science of protective factors laboratory (SPF Lab) to capture multiple aspects of adult resilience. A Confirmatory Factor Analysis was subsequently published as collaborative research. The SPF was found to assess resilience effectively in both men and women, across risk and socio-economic status, and ethnic/racial categories.

In order to verify effectiveness in comparison to other measures, Madewell and Ponce-Garcia (2016) analysed the SPF and four other commonly used measures of adult resilience. They found that the SPF was the only measure that assessed social and cognitive aspects and that it outperformed three other measures and performed comparably with a fourth.

The structure of the SPF in comparison to four other adult resilience measures, as well as comparison data, is available as a Data in Brief article. Noticing the absence of research examining the effectiveness of adult resilience measures in child or adult sexual assault, Ponce-Garcia, Madewell and Brown (2016) demonstrated SPF’s effectiveness in that domain. An investigation of the effectiveness of the SPF in the Southern Plains Tribes of the Native American and American Indian community in 2016.

A brief version of the 24 item SPF was developed in 2019 to result in 12 item measure that can be taken as a self-assessment. The SPF-24 and the SPF-12 have been used throughout the United States and in several other countries to include Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Australia, Malesia, Paraguay, Mexico, and Canada. It is listed as a resource by Harvard University, was included in the United States Army Substance Abuse Programme (ASAP-Fort Sill, OK), and is provided by the State of Oklahoma ReEntry Programme.


The SPF consists of twenty-four statements for which individuals are asked to rate the degree to which each statement describes them. The SPF assesses a wider range of protective factors than other scales. The SPF is the only measure that has been shown to assess social and cognitive protective factors. The SPF includes four sub-scales that indicate the strengths and weaknesses that contribute to overall resilience. The SPF is the only measure to have been used in measuring resilience in sexual assault survivors within the United States.


The SPF consists of four sub-scales, two social protective factors and two cognitive protective factors.

Social Subscales

Social support measures the availability of social resources in the form of family and/or friends. Social skill measures the ability to make and maintain relationships. The two should be positively correlated. Higher scores on the social sub-scales indicate unity with friends and/or family, friend/family group optimism and general friend/family support.

Cognitive Subscales

The goal efficacy sub-scale measures confidence in the ability to achieve goals. The planning and prioritising behaviour sub-scale measures the ability to recognise the relative importance of tasks, the tendency to approach tasks in order of importance, and the use of lists for organisation.


Adding the scores from the four sub-scales results in an overall resilience score. Adding scores from either the two social sub-scales or the two cognitive sub-scales results in a social resilience or cognitive resilience score, respectively. The sub-scale scores can also be viewed as an individual profile of strengths and deficits to indicate priorities for therapeutic plans.

This additive approach could theoretically allow varying subscale scores to cancel each other out and incorrectly indicate low overall resilience. However, research shows that social and cognitive characteristics work together to support resilience. This concern is also not supported by the characteristics of the SPF. Rather than assessing the number of friends or the frequency of social interaction, the SPF assesses the level of comfort in interacting socially. Similarly, rather than assessing the number of goals or tasks, the SPF assesses confidence in reaching goals once set.

The sub-scales are moderately positively correlated and that they all contribute to overall resilience.

This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scale_of_Protective_Factors >; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA.

What is the Scale of Protective Factors?


The Scale of Protective Factors (SPF) is a measure of aspects of social relationships, planning behaviours and confidence.

These factors contribute to psychological resilience in emerging adults and adults.

Brief History

The SPF was developed by Dr. Elisabeth Ponce-Garcia at the science of protective factors laboratory (SPF Lab) to capture multiple aspects of adult resilience. A Confirmatory Factor Analysis was subsequently published as collaborative research. The SPF was found to assess resilience effectively in both men and women, across risk and socio-economic status, and ethnic/racial categories.

In order to verify effectiveness in comparison to other measures, Madewell and Ponce-Garcia (2016) analysed the SPF and four other commonly used measures of adult resilience. They found that the SPF was the only measure that assessed social and cognitive aspects and that it outperformed three other measures and performed comparably with a fourth.

The structure of the SPF in comparison to four other adult resilience measures, as well as comparison data, is available as a Data in Brief article. Noticing the absence of research examining the effectiveness of adult resilience measures in child or adult sexual assault, Ponce-Garcia, Madewell and Brown (2016) demonstrated SPF’s effectiveness in that domain. An investigation of the effectiveness of the SPF in the Southern Plains Tribes of the Native American and American Indian community in 2016.

A brief version of the 24 item SPF was developed in 2019 to result in 12 item measure that can be taken as a self-assessment. The SPF-24 and the SPF-12 have been used throughout the United States and in several other countries to include Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Australia, Malesia, Paraguay, Mexico, and Canada. It is listed as a resource by Harvard University, was included in the United States Army Substance Abuse Programme (ASAP-Fort Sill, OK), and is provided by the State of Oklahoma ReEntry Programme.


The SPF consists of twenty-four statements for which individuals are asked to rate the degree to which each statement describes them. The SPF assesses a wider range of protective factors than other scales. The SPF is the only measure that has been shown to assess social and cognitive protective factors. The SPF includes four sub-scales that indicate the strengths and weaknesses that contribute to overall resilience. The SPF is the only measure to have been used in measuring resilience in sexual assault survivors within the United States.


The SPF consists of four sub-scales, two social protective factors and two cognitive protective factors.

Social Subscales

Social support measures the availability of social resources in the form of family and/or friends. Social skill measures the ability to make and maintain relationships. The two should be positively correlated. Higher scores on the social sub-scales indicate unity with friends and/or family, friend/family group optimism and general friend/family support.

Cognitive Subscales

The goal efficacy sub-scale measures confidence in the ability to achieve goals. The planning and prioritising behaviour sub-scale measures the ability to recognise the relative importance of tasks, the tendency to approach tasks in order of importance, and the use of lists for organisation.


Adding the scores from the four sub-scales results in an overall resilience score. Adding scores from either the two social sub-scales or the two cognitive sub-scales results in a social resilience or cognitive resilience score, respectively. The sub-scale scores can also be viewed as an individual profile of strengths and deficits to indicate priorities for therapeutic plans.

This additive approach could theoretically allow varying subscale scores to cancel each other out and incorrectly indicate low overall resilience. However, research shows that social and cognitive characteristics work together to support resilience. This concern is also not supported by the characteristics of the SPF. Rather than assessing the number of friends or the frequency of social interaction, the SPF assesses the level of comfort in interacting socially. Similarly, rather than assessing the number of goals or tasks, the SPF assesses confidence in reaching goals once set.

The sub-scales are moderately positively correlated and that they all contribute to overall resilience.

This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scale_of_Protective_Factors >; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA.

What is Identity Negotiation?


Identity negotiation refers to the processes through which people reach agreements regarding “who is who” in their relationships. Once these agreements are reached, people are expected to remain faithful to the identities they have agreed to assume. The process of identity negotiation thus establishes what people can expect of one another. Identity negotiation thus provides the interpersonal “glue” that holds relationships together.

The idea that identities are negotiated originated in the sociological literature during the middle of the 20th century. A leading figure in this movement was Goffman (1959, 1961), who asserted that the first order of business in social interaction is establishing a “working consensus” or agreement regarding the roles each person will assume in the interaction. Weinstein and Deutschberger (1964), and later McCall and Simmons (1966), built on this work by elaborating the interpersonal processes that unfold after interaction partners reach an initial working consensus. Within psychology, these ideas were elaborated by Secord and Backman (1965) and Schlenker (1985). The actual phrase “identity negotiation” was introduced by Swann (1987), who emphasized the tension between two competing processes in social interaction, behavioural confirmation and self-verification. Behavioral confirmation occurs when one person (the “perceiver”) encourages another person (the “target”) to behave in ways that confirm the expectancies of the perceiver (e.g. Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968; Snyder & Klein, 2005; Snyder, Tanke, & Berscheid, 1977). Self-verification occurs when the “target” persuades the “perceiver” to behave in a manner that verifies the target’s firmly held self-views or identities (Swann, 1983; 1996).

Psychological View

When the expectancies of perceivers clash with the self-views of targets, a “battle of wills” may occur (Swann & Ely, 1984). Such “battles” can range from short-lived, mild disagreements that are quickly and easily solved to highly pitched confrontations that are combative and contentious. On such occasions, the identity negotiation process represents the means through which these conflicting tendencies are reconciled.

More often than not, the identity negotiation process seems to favour self-verification, which means that people tend to develop expectancies that are congruent with the self-views of target persons (e.g., Major, Cozzarelli, Testa, & McFarlin, 1988); McNulty & Swann, 1994; Swann, Milton, & Polzer, 2000; Swann & Ely, 1984). Such congruence is personally adaptive for targets because it allows them to maintain stable identities and having stable identities is generally adaptive. That is, stable identities not only tell people how to behave, they also afford people with a sense of psychological coherence that reinforces their conviction that they know what to do and the consequences of doing it.

Groups also benefit when there is congruence among group members. When people maintain stable images of themselves, other members of the organiaation can count on them to “be” the same person day in and day out and the identity negotiation process can unfold automatically. This may free people to devote their conscious attention to the work at hand, which may explain why researchers have found that groups characterised by high levels of congruence perform better (Swann et al., 2000). Also, just as demographic diversity tends to undermine group performance when congruence is low, diversity improves performance when congruence is high (Polzer, Milton, & Swann, 2003; Swann, Polzer, Seyle, & Ko, 2004).

Some instances of incongruence in relationships are inevitable. Sudden or unanticipated changes of status or role of one person, or even the introduction of a novel person into a group, may produce discrepancies between people’s self-views and the expectancies of others. In work settings, promotions can foment expectancy violations (cf, Burgoon, 1978) if some members of the organisation refuse to update their appraisals of the recently promoted person. When incongruence occurs, it will disturb the normal flow of social interaction. Instead of going about their routine tasks, interaction partners will be compelled to shift their conscious attention to the task of accommodating the identity change that is the source of the disruption. Frequent or difficult-to-resolve disruptions could be damaging to the quality of social interactions and ultimately interfere with relationship quality, satisfaction and productivity.


  • Burgoon, J. K. (1978). A communication model of personal space violation: Explication and an initial test. Human Communication Research, 4, 129-142.
  • Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday – Anchor.
  • Goffman, E. (1961). Encounters. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
  • Major, B., Cozzarelli, C., Testa, M., & McFarlin, D. B. (1988). Self-verification versus expectancy confirmation in social interaction: The impact of self-focus. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14, 346-359.
  • McCall, G. J., & Simmons, J. L. (1966). Identities and interactions. New York: Free Press.
  • McNulty, S. E., & Swann, W. B., Jr. (1994). Identity negotiation in roommate relationships: The self as architect and consequence of social reality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 1012-1023.
  • Polzer, J. T., Milton, L. P., & Swann, W. B., Jr. (2002). Capitalizing on diversity: Interpersonal congruence in small work groups. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47, 296-324.
  • Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectations and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
  • Schlenker, B. R. (1985). Identity and self-identification. In B. R. Schlenker (Ed.), The self and social life (pp. 65–99). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Secord, P. E, & Backman, C. W. (1965). An interpersonal approach to personality. In B. Maher (Ed.), Progress in experimental personality research (Vol. 2, pp. 91–125). New York: Academic Press.
  • Snyder, M., & Klein, O. (2005). Construing and constructing others: On the reality and the generality of the behavioral confirmation scenario. Interaction Studies, 6, 53-67.
  • Snyder, M., Tanke, E. D., & Berscheid, E. (1977). Social perception and interpersonal behavior: On the self-fulfilling nature of social stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 656-666.
  • Swann, W. B., Jr. (1983). Self-verification: Bringing social reality into harmony with the self. In J. Suls & A. G. Greenwald (Eds.), Psychological perspectives on the self (Vol. II, pp. 33–66). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum.
  • Swann, W. B., Jr. (1987). Identity negotiation: Where two roads meet. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 1038-1051.
  • Swann, W. B., Jr. (1999). Resilient identities: Self, relationships, and the construction of social reality. New York: Basic Books.
  • Swann, W.B., Jr. & Bosson, J. (2008). Identity negotiation: A Theory of Self and Social Interaction. In O. John, R. Robins, & L. Pervin (Eds.) Handbook of Personality Psychology: Theory and Research I (pp. 448–471). New York: Guilford.
  • Swann, W.B., Jr., Johnson, R.E., & Bosson, J. (in press). Identity negotiation in the workplace. Chapter prepared for B. Staw & A. Brief (Eds.), Research in organizational behavior. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Elsevier
  • Swann, W. B., Jr., & Ely, R. J. (1984). A battle of wills: Self-verification versus behavioral confirmation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 1287-1302.
  • Swann, W. B., Jr., Milton, L. P., & Polzer, J. T. (2000). Should we create a niche or fall in line? Identity negotiation and small group effectiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 238-250.
  • Swann, W. B., Jr., Polzer, J. T., Seyle, D. C., & Ko, S. J. (2004). Finding value in diversity: Verification of personal and social self-views in diverse groups. Academy of Management Review, 29, 9-27.
  • Swann, William and Bosson, Jennifer (2009). Self and Identity. In Self as a Mental Representation, chap. 16.
  • Swann, William (2005). The Self and Identity Negotiation. In Interaction Studies 6:1 John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Ting-Toomey, S. (1993). Communication resourcefulness: An identity-negotiation perspective. In R. Wiseman & J. Koester (Eds.), Intercultural communication competence (pp. 72–111). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  • Ting-Toomey, S.(1999). Communication across Cultures. New York, London:TheGuilfordPress.
  • Weinstein, E. A., & Deutschberger, P. (1964). Tasks, bargains, and identities in social interaction. Social Forces, 42, 451-455.

This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identity_negotiation >; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA.

What is Social Exchange Theory?


Social exchange theory is a sociological and psychological theory that studies the social behaviour in the interaction of two parties that implement a cost-benefit analysis to determine risks and benefits.

The theory also involves economic relationships – the cost-benefit analysis occurs when each party has goods that the other parties value. Social exchange theory suggests that these calculations occur in romantic relationships, friendships, professional relationships, and ephemeral relationships as simple as exchanging words with a customer at the cash register. Social exchange theory says that if the costs of the relationship are higher than the rewards, such as if a lot of effort or money were put into a relationship and not reciprocated, then the relationship may be terminated or abandoned.

Refer to Self-Disclosure and Social Penetration Theory.


The most comprehensive social exchange theories are those of the American social psychologists John W. Thibaut (1917-1986) and Harold H. Kelley (1921-2003), the American sociologists George C. Homans (1910-1989), Peter M. Blau (1918-2002), Richard Marc Emerson (d. 1982), and Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009). Homans defined social exchange as the exchange of activity, tangible or intangible, and more or less rewarding or costing between at least two persons. After Homans founded the theory, other theorists continued to write about it, particularly Peter M. Blau and Richard M. Emerson, who in addition to Homans are generally thought of as the major developers of the exchange perspective within sociology. Homans’ work emphasized the individual behaviour of actors in interaction with one another. Although there are various modes of exchange, Homans centred his studies on dyadic exchange. John Thibaut and Harold Kelley are recognized for focusing their studies within the theory on the psychological concepts, the dyad and small group. Lévi-Strauss is recognised for contributing to the emergence of this theoretical perspective from his work on anthropology focused on systems of generalised exchange, such as kinship systems and gift exchange.

Thibaut and Kelley

Thibaut and Kelley based their theory on small groups related with dyadic relationships. They used the reward-cost matrices from Game Theory and discovered some clues of individuals’ interdependence such as the power of a party over each other, also known as the “correspondence” versus “noncorrespondence” of outcomes. Additionally, they suggest that an individual can unilaterally affect her or his own outcomes in a relationship through chosen behaviours. They could predict the possible course of a social interaction through the analysis of aspects of power in an encounter. They also experimented on how the outcomes received in a relationship could define a person’s attractions to relationships


Homans based his theory on concepts of equilibration, expectancy and distributive justice in dyadic exchange. With this, he tries to explain the social interaction in small groups and the rewards received proportional to their costs and investments. Homans summarizes the system in three propositions: success, stimulus, and deprivation-satiation proposition, described below:

  1. Success proposition: When one finds they are rewarded for their actions, they tend to repeat the action.
  2. Stimulus proposition: The more often a particular stimulus has resulted in a reward in the past, the more likely it is that a person will respond to it.
  3. Deprivation-satiation proposition: The more often in the recent past a person has received a particular reward, the less valuable any further unit of that reward becomes.


Blau’s theory is very similar to Homans’. However, he uses more economics terms and it is based principally on emergent social structure in social exchange patterns in small groups. His theory analyses the development of exchange theory in economics without emphasizing on the psychological assumptions. He contributed to the idea of distinguishing between social and economic exchanges and exchange and power. The goal of his theory was to identify complex and simple processes without ignoring emergent properties. Blau’s utilitarian focus encouraged the theorist to look forward, as in what they anticipated the reward would be in regards to their next social interaction. Blau felt that if individuals focused too much on the psychological concepts within the theory, they would refrain from learning the developing aspects of social exchange. Blau emphasized technical economic analysis whereas Homans concentrated more on the psychology of instrumental behaviour.


Emerson was inspired by Homans and Blau’s ideas. He focused on the interaction and relationship between individuals and parties. His view of social exchange theory emphasizes the resource availability, power, and dependence as primary dynamics. He thought that relations were organised in different manners, and they could differ depending on the type and amount of the resources exchanged. He poses the idea that power and dependence are the main aspects that define a relationship. According to Emerson, Exchange is not a theory, but a framework from which other theories can converge and be compared to structural functionalism. Emerson’s perspective was similar to Blau’s since they both focused on the relationship power had with the exchange process. Emerson says that social exchange theory is an approach in sociology that is described for simplicity as an economic analysis of noneconomic social situations. Exchange theory brings a quasi-economic form of analysis into those situations.


Strauss was a social exchange theorist in the context of anthropology. He is recognized for contributing to the emergence of this theoretical perspective from his work on anthropology focused on systems of generalised exchange, such as kinship systems and gift exchange. He based his kinship systems on Mauss’s investigation. As it works in the form of indirect reciprocities, Levi-Strauss suggested the concept of generalised exchange.

Self-Interest and Interdependence

Self-interest and interdependence are central properties of social exchange. These are the basic forms of interaction when two or more actors have something of value to each other, and they have to decide whether to exchange and in what amounts. Homans uses the concepts of individualism to explain exchange processes. To him, the meaning of individual self-interest is a combination of economic and psychological needs. Fulfilling self-interest is often common within the economic realm of the social exchange theory where competition and greed can be common. In social exchange, self-interest is not a negative thing; rather, when self-interest is recognised, it will act as the guiding force of interpersonal relationships for the advancement of both parties’ self-interest. Thibaut and Kelley see the mutual interdependence of persons as the central problem for the study of social behaviour. They developed a theoretical framework based on the interdependence of actors. They also highlighted social implications of different forms of interdependence such as reciprocal control. According to their interdependence definition, outcomes are based on a combination of parties’ efforts and mutual and complementary arrangements.

Basic Concepts

Social exchange theory views exchange as a social behaviour that may result both in economic and social outcomes. Social exchange theory has been generally analysed by comparing human interactions with the marketplace. The study of the theory from the microeconomics perspective is attributed to Blau. Under his perspective every individual is trying to maximize his wins. Blau stated that once this concept is understood, it is possible to observe social exchanges everywhere, not only in market relations, but also in other social relations like friendship. Social exchange process brings satisfaction when people receive fair returns for their expenditures. The major difference between social and economic exchange is the nature of the exchange between parties. Neoclassic economic theory views the actor as dealing not with another actor but with a market and environmental parameters, such as market price. Unlike economic exchange, the elements of social exchange are quite varied and cannot be reduced to a single quantitative exchange rate. According to Stafford, social exchanges involve a connection with another person; involve trust and not legal obligations; are more flexible; and rarely involve explicit bargaining.

Cost and Rewards

Simple social exchange models assume that rewards and costs drive relationship decisions. Both parties in a social exchange take responsibility for one another and depend on each other. The elements of relational life include:

  • Costs are the elements of relational life that have negative value to a person, such as the effort put into a relationship and the negatives of a partner (Costs can be time, money, effort etc.).
  • Rewards are the elements of a relationship that have positive value (Rewards can be sense of acceptance, support, and companionship etc.).

As with everything dealing with the social exchange theory, it has as its outcome satisfaction and dependence of relationships. The social-exchange perspective argues that people calculate the overall worth of a particular relationship by subtracting its costs from the rewards it provides.

  • Worth = Rewards – Costs

If worth is a positive number, it is a positive relationship. On the contrary, a negative number indicates a negative relationship. The worth of a relationship influences its outcome, or whether people will continue with a relationship or terminate it. Positive relationships are expected to endure, whereas negative relationships will probably terminate. In a mutually beneficial exchange, each party supplies the wants of the other party at lower cost to self than the value of the resources the other party provides. In such a model, mutual relationship satisfaction ensures relationship stability.

Outcome = Rewards – Costs

Homans based his theory on behaviourism to conclude that people pursue rewards to minimise costs. The “satisfactory-ness” of the rewards that a party gains from an exchange relationship is judged relative to some standard, which may vary from party to party.

Reciprocity Norm

Summarised by Gouldner, the reciprocity norm states that a benefit should be returned and the one who gives the benefit should not be harmed. This is used to stabilise relationships and to identify egoism. This norm suggests independence in relationships and invite the individual to consider more than one’s self-interest.

The Social Penetration Theory

Altman and D. Taylor introduced social penetration theory, which studies the nature and quality of social exchange and close bonds. It suggests that once the individuals start to give more of their resources to one another, relationships evolve progressively from exchanging superficial goods to other, more meaningful exchanges. It progresses to the point called “self-disclosure”, where the individuals share innermost thoughts and feelings with one another.

Equity and Inequity

In this process, the individuals will compare their rewards with others’ in relation to their costs. Equity can be defined as the balance between a person’s inputs and outcomes on the job. Some examples of inputs can be qualifications, promotions, interest on the job and how hard one works. Some outcomes can be pay, fringe benefits, and power status. The individual will mainly expect an equitable input-outcome ratio. Inequity happens when the individual perceives an unbalanced ratio of their outcomes and other’s outcomes. This can occur in a direct exchange of the two parties, or there can be a third party involved. An individual’s point of view of equity or inequity can differ depending on the individual.


The basis of social exchange theory is to explain social change and stability as a process of negotiating exchanges between parties. These changes can occur over a person’s life course through the various relationships, opportunities, and means of support. An example of this is the convoy model of support, this model uses concentric circles to describe relationships around an individual with the strongest relationships in the closet circle. As a person ages, these relationships form a convoy that moves along with the person and exchanges in support and assistance through different circumstances that occur. It also changes through the directionality of support given to and by the individual with the people within their support network. Within this model, there are different types of support (social support) a person can receive, those being intangible, tangible, instrumental, and informational. Intangible support can either be social or emotional and can be love, friendship and appreciation that comes with valuable relationships. Tangible support are physical gifts given to someone such as land, gifts, money, transportation, food, and completing chores. Instrumental support are services given to someone in a relationship. Finally, informational support is the delivering of information that is helpful to an individual.

Theoretical Propositions

Ivan Nye came up with twelve theoretical propositions that aid in understanding the exchange theory:

  1. Rewards being equal, they choose alternatives from which they anticipate the fewest costs.
  2. Immediate outcomes being equal, they choose those alternatives that promise better long- term outcomes.
  3. Long-term outcomes being perceived as equal, they choose alternatives providing better immediate outcomes.
  4. Costs and other rewards being equal, individuals choose the alternatives that supply or can be expected to supply the most social approval (or those that promise the least social disapproval).
  5. Costs and other rewards being equal, individuals choose statuses and relationships that provide the most autonomy.
  6. Other rewards and costs equal, individuals choose alternatives characterized by the least ambiguity in terms of expected future events and outcomes.
  7. Other costs and rewards equal, they choose alternatives that offer the most security for them.
  8. Other rewards and costs equal, they choose to associate with, marry, and form other relationships with those whose values and opinions generally are in agreement with their own and reject or avoid those with whom they chronically disagree.
  9. Other rewards and costs equal, they are more likely to associate with, marry, and form other relationships with their equals, than those above or below them (Equality here is viewed as the sum of abilities, performances, characteristics, and statuses that determine one’s desirability in the social marketplace).
  10. In industrial societies, other costs and rewards equal, individuals choose alternatives that promise the greatest financial gains for the least financial expenditures.

In his article published in 1978, Nye originally proposed seven propositions that were common in all types of relationship. A few years later he would expand the propositions to a total of twelve. The first five propositions listed are classified as general propositions and are substance free-meaning, the propositions themselves can stand alone within the theory. Proposition number six has been identified by scholars as a notion that there is a general assumption of a need for social approval as a reward and can therefore act as a drive force behind actions. Proposition seven will only work if the individual has the freedom to be excluded from outside factors while in a social exchange relationship. The twelfth and final proposition is directed towards the way our society has a heightened value placed on monetary funds.


Even though Homans took an individualistic approach, a major goal of his work was to explicate the micro-foundations of social structures and social exchange. By studying such forms of behaviour he hoped to illuminate the informal sub-institutional bases of more complex social behaviour, typically more formal and often institutionalised. According to Homans, social structures emerge from elementary forms of behaviour. His vision of the underpinnings of social structure and institutional forms is linked to the actions of individuals, for example to their responses to rewarding and punishment circumstances.

Homans developed five key propositions that assist in structuring individuals’ behaviours based on rewards and costs. This set of theoretical ideas represents the core of Homans’s version of social exchange theory.

  • The first proposition: the Success Proposition states that behaviour that creates positive outcomes is likely to be repeated.
  • The second proposition: the Stimulus Proposition believes that if an individual’s behaviour is rewarded in the past, the individual will continue the previous behaviour.
  • The third proposition: the Value proposition believes that if the result of a behavioural action is considered valuable to the individual, it is more likely for that behaviour to occur.
  • The fourth proposition: the Deprivation-satiation proposition believes that if an individual has received the same reward several times, the value of that reward will diminish.
  • The fifth proposition discusses when emotions occur due to different reward situations. Those who receive more than they expect or do not receive anticipated punishment will be happy and will behave approvingly.


Based on economics, Frazer’s theory about social exchange emphasizes the importance of power and status differentiations in social exchange. Frazer’s theory had a particular interest in the cross-cousin marriage.


With his Kula exchange, Malinowski drew a sharp differentiation between economic exchange and social exchange. Using his Kula exchange, Malinowski states that the motives of exchange can be mainly social and psychological.


Mauss’s theory tries to identify the role played by morality and religion in the social exchange. Mauss argues the exchange found in the society is influenced by social behaviours, while morality and religion influence all aspects of life.


Bohannan focuses his theory on economic problems such as multi-centrism, and modes of exchange. He contributed to the social exchange theory finding the role and function of markets in tribal subsistence economies, makes a distinction of economic redistribution and market exchange from social relationships.


He proposes three principles to create a new idea for socioeconomic change, transforming traditional economies, and political economic development. These principles are: reciprocity, redistribution and marketing.


He presents the idea that the economy is a category of behaviour instead of just a simple category of culture.


Social exchange theory is not one theory but a frame of reference within which many theories can speak to another, whether in argument or mutual support. All these theories are built upon several assumptions about human nature and the nature of relationships. Thibaut and Kelley have based their theory on two conceptualisations: one that focuses on the nature of individuals and one that describes the relationships between two people. Thus, the assumptions they make also fall into these categories. The assumptions that social exchange theory makes about human nature include the following:

  • Humans seek rewards and avoid punishments.
  • Humans are rational beings.
  • The standards that humans use to evaluate costs and rewards vary over time and from person to person.

The assumptions social exchange theory makes about the nature of relationships include the following:

  • Relationships are interdependent.
  • Relational life is a process.

The prisoner’s dilemma is a widely used example in game theory that attempts to illustrate why or how two individuals may not cooperate with each other, even if it is in their best interest to do so. It demonstrates that while cooperation would give the best outcome, people might nevertheless act selfishly. All relationships involve exchanges although the balance of this exchange is not always equal. We cannot achieve our goals alone so as humans sometimes we have to become actors. In the world today we see actors as unemotional people but that is not the case once we reach our goals in the end.

Comparison Levels

Social exchange includes “both a notion of a relationship, and some notion of a shared obligation in which both parties perceive responsibilities to each other”. John Thibaut and Harold Kelley proposed two comparison standards to differentiate between relationship satisfaction and relationship stability. This evaluation rests on two types of comparisons: Comparison Level and Comparison Level for Alternative. According to Thibaut and Kelley, the Comparison Level (CL) is a standard representing what people feel they should receive in the way of rewards and costs from a particular relationship. An individual’s comparison level can be considered the standard by which an outcome seems to satisfy the individual. The Comparison Level for Alternative (CLalt) refers to “the lowest level of relational rewards a person is willing to accept given available rewards from alternative relationships or being alone”. In other words, when using this evaluation tool, an individual will consider other alternative payoffs or rewards outside of the current relationship or exchange. CLalt provides a measure of stability rather than satisfaction. If people see no alternative and fear being alone more than being in the relationship, social exchange theory predicts they will stay.

Modes of Exchange

According to Kelley and Thibaut, people engage in Behavioural Sequence, or a series of actions designed to achieve their goal. This is congruent with their assumption that human beings are rational. When people engage in these behavioural sequences, they are dependent to some extent on their relational partner. In order for behavioural sequences to lead to social exchange, two conditions must be achieved: “It must be oriented towards ends that can only be achieved through interaction with other persons, and it must seek to adapt means to further the achievement of these ends”. The concept of reciprocity also derives from this pattern. The reciprocity principle refers to the mutual reinforcement by two parties of each other’s actions. The process begins when at least one participant makes a “move”, and if the other reciprocates, new rounds of exchange initiate. Once the process is in motion, each consequence can create a self-reinforcing cycle. Even though the norm of reciprocity may be a universally accepted principle, the degree to which people and cultures apply this concept varies.

Power Dependence Relations

Several definitions of power have been offered by exchange theorists. For instance, some theorists view power as distinct from exchanges, some view it as a kind of exchange and others believe power is a medium of exchange. However, the most useful definition of power is that proposed by Emerson,[40] who developed a theory of power-dependence relations. According to this theory, the dependence a person has on another brings up the concept of power. Power differentiation affects social structures by causing inequalities between members of different groups, such as an individual having superiority over another. Power within the theory is governed by two variables : the structure of power in exchange networks and strategic use. Experimental data show that the position an actor occupies in a social exchange network determines relative dependence and therefore power.

According to Thibaut and Kelley, there are two types of power:

  • Fate control is the ability to affect a partner’s outcomes.
  • Behaviour control is the power to cause another’s behaviour to change by changing one’s own behaviour.


People develop patterns of exchange to cope with power differentials and to deal with the costs associated with exercising power. These patterns describe behavioural rules or norms that indicate how people trade resources in an attempt to maximise rewards and minimise costs. Three different matrices have been described by Thibaut and Kelley to illustrate the patterns people develop. These are given matrix, the effective matrix and the dispositional matrix.

  • The given matrix represents the behavioural choices and outcomes that are determined by a combination of external factors (environment) and internal factors (the specific skills each interactant possesses).
  • The effective matrix “which represents an expansion of alternative behaviours and/or outcomes which ultimately determines the behavioural choices in social exchange”
  • The dispositional matrix represents the way two people believe that rewards ought to be exchanged between them.

There are three forms within these matrices:

  • Reciprocity;
  • Generalised Exchange; and
  • Productive Exchange.

In a direct exchange, reciprocation is confined to the two actors. One social actor provides value to another one and the other reciprocates. There are three different types of reciprocity:

  • Reciprocity as a transactional pattern of interdependent exchanges.
  • Reciprocity as a folk belief.
  • Reciprocity as a moral norm.

A generalised exchange involves indirect reciprocity between three or more individuals. For example, one person gives to another and the recipient responds by giving to another person other than the first person. Productive exchange means that both actors have to contribute for either one of them to benefit. Both people incur benefits and costs simultaneously.

Another common form of exchange is negotiated exchange which focuses on the negotiation of rules in order for both parties to reach a beneficial agreement. Reciprocal exchanges and negotiated exchanges are often analysed and compared to discover their essential differences. One major difference between the two exchanges is the level of risks associated with the exchange and the uncertainty these risks create. Negotiated exchange can consist of binding and non-binding negotiations. When comparing the levels of risk within these exchanges, reciprocal exchange has the highest level of risk which in result produces the most uncertainty. An example of a risk that could occur during the reciprocal exchange is the factor that the second party could end up not returning the favour and completing the reciprocal exchange. Binding negotiated exchanges involve the least amount of risks which will result the individuals feeling low levels of uncertainty. Whereas non-binding negotiated exchanges and their level of risks and uncertainty fall in between the amount of risks associated with reciprocal and binding negotiated exchanges. Since there is not a binding agreement involved, one party involved in the exchange could decide to not cooperate with the agreement.


Katherine Miller outlines several major objections to or problems with the social exchange theory as developed from early seminal works:

  • The theory reduces human interaction to a purely rational process that arises from economic theory.
  • The theory favours openness as it was developed in the 1970s when ideas of freedom and openness were preferred, but there may be times when openness isn’t the best option in a relationship.
  • The theory assumes that the ultimate goal of a relationship is intimacy when this might not always be the case.
  • The theory places relationships in a linear structure, when some relationships might skip steps or go backwards in terms of intimacy.

Russell Cropanzano and Marie S. Mitchell discuss how one of the major issues within the social exchange theory is the lack of information within studies on the various exchange rules. Reciprocity is a major exchange rule discussed but, Cropanzano and Mitchell write that the theory would be better understood if more research programmes discussed a variety of exchange rules such as altruism, group gain, status consistency and competition. Meeker points out that within the exchange process, each unit takes into account at least the following elements: reciprocity, rationality, altruism (social responsibility), group gain, status, consistency, and competition (rivalry).

Rosenfeld (2005) has noted significant limitations to Social Exchange Theory and its application in the selection of mates/partners. Specifically, Rosenfeld looked at the limitations of interracial couples and the application of social exchange theory. His analysis suggest that in modern society, there is less of a gap between interracial partners education level, socioeconomic status, and social class level which in turn, makes the previously understood application of social exchange moot.


The most extensive application of social exchange has been in the area of interpersonal relationships. However, social exchange theory materialises in many different situations with the same idea of the exchange of resources. Self-Interest can encourage individuals to make decisions that will benefit themselves overall. Homans once summarised the theory by stating:

Social behavior is an exchange of goods, material goods but also non-material ones, such as the symbols of approval or prestige. Persons that give much to others try to get much from them, and persons that get much from others are under pressure to give much to them. This process of influence tends to work out at equilibrium to a balance in the exchanges. For a person in an exchange, what he gives may be a cost to him, just as what he gets may be a reward, and his behavior changes less as the difference of the two, profit, tends to a maximum (“Theories Used in Research”).


Other applications that developed the idea of exchange include field of anthropology as evidenced in an article by Harumi Befu, which discusses cultural ideas and norms. Lévi-Strauss is considered as one of the major contributors to the anthropology of exchange. Within this field, self-interest, human sentiment and motivational process are not considered. Lévi-Strauss uses a collectivist approach to explain exchanges. To Lévi-Strauss, a social exchange is defined as a regulated form of behaviour in the context of societal rules and norms. This contrasts with psychological studies of exchange in which behaviours are studied ignoring the culture. Social exchanges from the anthropological perspective have been analysed using the gift-giving phenomena. The concept of reciprocity under this perspective states that individuals can directly reward his benefactor or another person in the social exchange process. Lévi-Strauss developed the theory of cousin marriage based on the pervasiveness of gift-giving in primitive societies. The basis of this theory is the distinction between restricted exchanges, which is only capable of connecting pairs of social groups, and generalise exchange, which integrates indefinite numbers of groups.


Throughout the theory, one can also end up losing relationships that were already established because the feeling of no longer being beneficial. One feels as if there is not longer a need for a relationship or communication due to lack of rewards. Once this happens, the process of looking for new partners and resources occurs. This allows a continuation of networking. One may go through this process quite frequently. A study applied this theory to new media (online dating). The study discovers the different factors involved when an individual decides to establish an online relationship. Overall the study followed the social exchange theory’s idea, “people are attracted to those who grant them rewards”.

Another example is Berg’s study about development of friendship between roommates. The research found how social exchange processes changed during the year by measuring self disclosure. According to the study, the amount one person rewards another and the comparison levels for alternatives become the most important factors in determining liking and satisfaction. Auld, C. and Alan C. conducted a study to discover what processes occur and what is experienced during social leisure relationships. They use the concept of reciprocity to understand their findings. The study concluded that meeting new people is often given as a major reason for participation in leisure activities, and meeting new people may be conceptualised as an exercise of reciprocity. In this case, reciprocity is perceived as a starting mechanism for new social relationships because people are willing to be helped by others, expecting that the help will eventually be returned. A study conducted by Paul, G., called Exchange and access in field work tries to understand the relationships between the researchers and subjects. This study concludes that Bargaining helps to satisfy the more specific needs of the parties because greater risks are taken to obtain more information. This study also introduces the concept of trust (social sciences) to determine the duration of relationships.

Interracial Marriage

Patterns of interracial marriage have been explained using social exchange theory. Kalmijn suggests that ethnic status is offset against educational or financial resources. This process has been used to explain why there are more marriages between black men and white women than between white men and black women. This asymmetry in marriage patterns has been used to support the idea of a racial hierarchy. Lewis, however, explains that the same patterns of marriage can be accounted for in terms of simple facial attractiveness patterns of the different gender by race groupings. Recent changes have seen an increase in black women marrying white men and a decrease in raw prevalence of interracial marriages when it comes to black women. There has also been a shift in the concentration of interracial marriage from mostly being between those with low education levels to those with higher levels of education.


Social exchange theory has served as a theoretical foundation to explain different situations in business practices. It has contributed to the study of organisation-stakeholder relationships and relationship marketing. The investment model proposed by Caryl Rusbult is a useful version of social exchange theory. According to this model, investments serve to stabilize relationships. The greater the non-transferable investments a person has in a given relationship, the more stable the relationship is likely to be. The same investment concept is applied in relationship marketing. Databases are the major instrument to build differentiated relationships between organizations and customers. Through the information process, companies identify the customer’s own individual needs. From this perspective, a client becomes an investment. If a customer decides to choose another competitor, the investment will be lost. When people find they have invested too much to quit a relationship or enterprise, they pour additional resources into the relationship to salvage their initial investment. Exchange has been a central research thrust in business-to-business relational exchange. According to the study conducted by Lambe, C. Jay, C. Michael Wittmann, and Robert E. Spekman firms evaluate economic and social outcomes from each transaction and compare them to what they feel they deserve. Firms also look for additional benefits provided by other potential exchange partners. The initial transaction between companies is crucial to determine if their relationship will expand, remain the same or will dissolve.

Work Settings

A study conducted by A. Saks serves as an example to explain engagement of employees in organisations. This study uses one of the tenets of social exchange theory to explain that obligations are generated through a series of interactions between parties who are in a state of reciprocal interdependence. The research identified that when individuals receive economic and socioemotional resources from their organisation, they feel obliged to respond in kind and repay the organisation. This is a description of engagement as a two-way relationship between the employer and employee. One way for individuals to repay their organisation is through their level of engagement. The more engaged the employee are to their work, the greater amounts of cognitive, emotional, and physical resources they will devote to perform their job duties. When the organisation fails to provide economic or emotional resources, the employees are more likely to withdraw and disengage themselves from their roles.

Citizenship Behaviour

Social exchange theory is a theoretical explanation for organisational citizenship behaviour. This study examines a model of clear leadership and relational building between head and teachers as antecedents, and organisational citizenship behaviour as a consequence of teacher-school exchange. Citizenship behaviour can also be shown with employees and their employers. This is shown through organisational identification which plays an important role in organisational citizenship behaviour. An employees identification with their employer plays a significant role in supporting and promoting organised citizenship behaviour, serving as a mediating mechanism with citizenship behaviours, perceived organisational justice, and organisational support based on both the social exchange and social identity theory.

Online Social Networking and Self-Disclosure

Understanding interpersonal disclosure in online social networking is an ideal application of social networking theory. Researchers have leveraged SET to explain self-disclosure in a cross-cultural context of French and British working professionals. They discover that reciprocation is the primary benefit of self-disclosure, whereas risk is the foundational cost of self-disclosure. They find that positive social influence to use an online community increases online community self-disclosure; reciprocity increases self-disclosure; online community trust increases self-disclosure; and privacy risk beliefs decrease self-disclosure. Meanwhile, a tendency toward collectivism increases self-disclosure. Similar research also leveraged SET to examine privacy concerns versus desire for interpersonal awareness in driving the use of self-disclosure technologies in the context of instant messaging. This study was also a cross-cultural study, but instead compared US and Chinese participants.

Affect Theory

The actors in social exchange are normally viewed as unemotional beings who have information, cognitively process it, and make decisions concerning the pattern and nature of exchange with others. Affect theory of social exchange complements social exchange theory by incorporating emotion as part of the exchange process. Formalised by Lawler (2001), the affect theory examines the structural conditions of exchange that produce emotions and feelings and then identifies how individuals attribute these emotions to different social units (exchange partners, groups, or networks). These attributions of emotion, in turn, dictate how strongly individuals feel attached to their partners or groups, which drives collectively oriented behaviour and commitment to the relationship.


Most social exchange models have three basic assumptions in common: behaviour in a social sense is based on exchanges, if an individual allows someone to receives a reward the person then feels the need to reciprocate due to social pressure and individuals will try to minimise their cost while gaining the most from the reward. The affect theory of social exchange is based on assumptions that stem from social exchange theory and affect theory:

  • There are three or more individuals who have the opportunity to make exchanges with one another. These actors are able to make decisions about whether to exchange, with whom to exchange, and under what terms to execute an exchange.
  • Social exchange produces emotions that are positive to negative
  • Emotions can be construed as reward or punishment (i.e. feeling good has a positive value and feeling bad has a negative value).
  • Individuals try to avoid negative emotions and to reproduce positive emotions in social exchange.
  • Individuals will try to understand the source or cause of feelings produced by social exchange. In this way, emotions become attributed to the object that caused them.
  • Individuals interpret and exchange their feelings with respect to social relationships (e.g. partners, groups, networks). Positive emotions produced by exchange will increase solidarity in these relationships, while negative emotions will decrease solidarity.

Theoretical Propositions

Affect theory of social exchange shows how the conditions of exchanges promote interpersonal and group relationships through emotions and affective processes. The theoretical arguments centre on the following five claims:

Emotions Produced by Exchange are Involuntary, Internal Responses

Individuals experience emotions (general feelings of pleasantness or unpleasantness) depending on whether their exchange is successful. These emotions are construed as a reward (or punishment) and individuals strive to repeat actions that reproduce positive emotions or avoid negative emotions.

Individuals Attempt to Understand what in a Social Exchange Situation Produces Emotions

Individuals will use the exchange task to understand the source (partners, groups, or networks) of their emotions. Individuals are more likely to attribute their emotions to their exchange partners or groups when the task can only be completed with one or more partners, when the task requires interdependent (non-separable) contributions, and when there is a shared sense of responsibility for the success or failure of the exchange.

The Mode of Exchange Determines the Features of the Exchange Task and Influences the Attribution of the Emotion Produced

The mode of exchange (productive, negotiated, reciprocal, or generalised) provides a description of the exchange task. The task features are defined by the degree of interdependence (separability of tasks) and shared responsibility between partners to complete the task. These features influence the strength of the emotion felt. Productive exchanges are interdependent and this high degree of non-separability generates the strongest emotions. Reciprocal exchanges are separable which reduces the perceptions of shared responsibility. The exchange produces little emotional response, but individuals instead express emotions in response to the asymmetrical transaction. Generalised exchanges do not occur directly, but interdependence is still high and coordination between partners is difficult. Because there is no direct emotional foundation, emotions produced are low. Negotiated exchanges may produce conflicting emotions due to the mixed-motive nature of negotiations; even when transactions are successful, individuals may feel like they had the ability to do better, creating emotional ambivalence. Overall, productive exchanges produce the strongest attributions of emotions, generalised (indirect) exchange the weakest, with negotiated and reciprocal exchanges in between.

The Attribution of Emotions Resulting from Different Exchange Modes Impact the Solidarity Felt with Partners or Groups

The different types of exchange (productive, reciprocal, and generalised) also impact the solidarity or identification that an individual will feel with their exchange partners or group. The different exchange types help dictate the target of felt emotions and influences an individual’s attachment. Affective attachment occurs when a social unit (partner or group) is the target of positive feelings from exchange; affective detachment (alienation) occurs when a social unit is the target of negative feelings from failure to exchange. Affective attachment increases solidarity. Similar to the attribution of emotion, productive exchange produces the strongest affective attachments, generalised exchange the weakest, and negotiated and reciprocal exchange are in between.

One condition for how social (partner or group) attributions can increase solidarity is by reducing self-serving attributions of credit or blame for the success or failure of the exchange. When individuals have group attributions for positive emotions stemming from success, this eliminates any self-serving biases and enhances both pride in the self and gratitude to the partner. However, group attributions for negative emotions stemming from failure do not eliminate self-serving biases, resulting in more anger toward the partner or group than shame in the self.

Lawler also proposes that the persistence (stability) and ability to control acts by the exchange partner (controllability) provide conditions for affective attachment by attributing credit or blame for the success or failure of the exchange. Following Weiner (1985) affect theory of social exchange extrapolates that the combinations of stability and uncontrollability elicit different emotions. In social exchange, social connections can be sources of stability and controllability. For example, if an exchange partner is perceived as a stable source of positive feelings, and the exchange partner has control in the acts that elicit those positive feelings, this will strengthen affective attachment. Therefore, affect theory of social exchange proposes that stable and controllable sources of positive feelings (i.e. pleasantness, pride, gratitude) will elicit affective attachments while stable and uncontrollable sources of negative feelings (i.e. unpleasantness, shame, anger) will elicit affective detachment.

Through these Emotional Processes, Networks can develop Group Properties

Repeated exchanges allow a network to evolve into a group. Affect theory highlights the contributions of emotions in producing group properties. Successful interactions generate positive feelings for the involved individuals, which motivates them to interact with the same partners in the future. As exchanges repeat, the strong relationships become visible to other parties, making salient their role as a group and helping to generate a group identity that continues to bind the partners together in a network. Affect theory predicts that networks of negotiated and reciprocal exchange will tend to promote stronger relational ties within partners; productive or generalised exchange will promote stronger network or group-level ties.

This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_exchange_theory >; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA.

What is Self-Disclosure?


Self-disclosure is a process of communication by which one person reveals information about themselves to another. The information can be descriptive or evaluative, and can include thoughts, feelings, aspirations, goals, failures, successes, fears, and dreams, as well as one’s likes, dislikes, and favourites. Its opposite is self-concealment.

Social penetration theory posits that there are two dimensions to self-disclosure: breadth and depth. Both are crucial in developing a fully intimate relationship. The range of topics discussed by two individuals is the breadth of disclosure. The degree to which the information revealed is private or personal is the depth of that disclosure. It is easier for breadth to be expanded first in a relationship because of its more accessible features; it consists of outer layers of personality and everyday lives, such as occupations and preferences. Depth is more difficult to reach, and includes painful memories and more unusual traits that we might hesitate to share with others. One reveals itself most thoroughly and discusses the widest range of topics with our spouses and loved ones.

Self-disclosure is an important building block for intimacy, which cannot be achieved without it. Reciprocal and appropriate self-disclosure is expected. Self-disclosure can be assessed by an analysis of cost and rewards which can be further explained by social exchange theory. Most self-disclosure occurs early in relational development, but more intimate self-disclosure occurs later.

Refer to Social Exchange Theory.

In Intimate Relationships

Social Penetration Theory

Social penetration theory states that the development of a relationship is closely linked to systematic changes in communication. Relationships generally begin with the exchange of superficial information and gradually move on to more meaningful conversations. In order to develop a more intimate relationship, partners must increase the breadth and depth of their conversations. Breadth includes the variety of topics two people discuss and depth is the personal significance of these topics.

Altman and Taylor use a wedge to explain this theory. In this example, the beginning of a relationship is represented by a narrow and shallow wedge because only a few topics are discussed. However, as the relationship goes on, the wedge should become broader and deeper, including more topics of personal significance. The wedge must drive through three “layers” in order for intimacy to develop. The first is superficial “small talk” with little personal information about the speakers. The next layer is intimate, with increasing breadth and depth and more personal details. The third is the very intimate level, where extremely private information is shared.

Intimacy in these relationships can develop only if the persons involved reciprocate disclosures. Intimacy will not develop if only one partner discloses and the other continues to reveal only superficial information. Reciprocity must be gradual and match the intimacy of the other’s disclosures. Too rapid, too personal disclosure creates an imbalance in a relationship that can be discomfiting. This gradual process varies from relationship to relationship and can depend on the specific partner with whom one is communicating.

Reciprocity and Intimacy

Reciprocity is a positive response from the person with whom one is sharing information, whereby the person who received the disclosure self-discloses in turn. Self-disclosure usually influences whether two people will want to interact again. Research has shown that when one person self-discloses, another person is more likely to self-disclose. Initially, the process is started by one partner’s reveal of personal information to the other partner. In return, the other will disclose something and behave in such a way so as to be responsive to the initial disclosure’s content, while also conveying a degree of understanding and validation for what was revealed.

Research has found that people who consider themselves to be high in disclosure are likely to be good at eliciting more disclosure from those with whom they interact. Three theories describe reciprocity:

  1. The social attraction-trust hypothesis: Suggest that people disclose to one another because they believe the person who disclosed to them likes and trusts them.
  2. The social exchange theory: Explains that people attempt to maintain equality in self-disclosure because an imbalance in this makes them uncomfortable.
  3. The norm of reciprocity: Argues that reciprocating disclosure is a social norm and violating it makes a person uncomfortable.

There are two types of reciprocity:

  • Turn-taking reciprocity: This is when partners immediately self-disclose with one another.
  • Extended reciprocity: This is when disclosure happens over a period of time, in which one partner may be the only one disclosing while the other just listens.

Those who engage in turn taking reciprocity are shown to like their interaction partners more than those who engage in extended reciprocity. Turn taking partners are also shown to feel closer and similar to each other and to enjoy the other’s company more than extended pairs. This can be explained by the social attraction-trust hypothesis because the partners perceive the discloser as liking and trusting them because they disclosed personal information. Those who engage in extended reciprocity are affected by the social exchange theory and the norm of reciprocity which can account for the lower degree of liking. Since extended reciprocity limits reciprocating disclosure it creates an imbalance in disclosure which violates both of these theories. That said, people usually report that they themselves are disclosing more than the other partner. This is called perceived partner reciprocity, and it is critical to the self-disclosure process in developing relationships.

Two key components for intimacy are disclosure and partner responsiveness. It is extremely important that when a speaker discloses personal information their partner also discloses something personally relevant. It is also essential that the listener understand, validate and care about what the speaker is disclosing. If the speaker does not feel accepted by the listener then they may not disclose something to them in the future, which stops the development of intimacy. Emotional disclosures are also shown to foster intimacy more than factual disclosures. Factual disclosures reveal facts and information about the self (e.g. “I am divorced from my husband.”) while emotional disclosures reveal a person’s feelings, thoughts and judgements (e.g. “My divorce was so painful it has made it difficult for me to trust a romantic partner again”). Emotional disclosures can increase intimacy because they allow the listener to confirm and support the discloser’s self-view. The transition from sharing impersonal to personal facts is crucial to the building of an intimate relationship. One must feel accepted in order to feel comfortable enough to self-disclose. Without acceptance, one partner will withdraw and fail to reveal personal facts within the relationship. Sharing ourselves also brings us out of our imaginary worlds and allows us to see the realities of the world we live in. We are most comfortable sharing with those whom we like and feel like us. There is also evidence that someone who introduces themself with more intimacy is more likely to facilitate self-disclosure and intimacy with the recipient. Thus, self-disclosure breeds intimacy. This is why we reveal ourselves most and discuss the widest range of topics with our spouses and loved ones.

We often perceive our own self-disclosure as higher than our partner’s, which can lead to ill feelings. It is hard for humans to accurately judge how fully another is disclosing to them.

Individual Differences in Reciprocity


According to Snyder (1974) self-monitoring is the personality difference in individual’s degree of preference to both self-expression and self-presentation. Self-monitoring is a form of impression management in which a person examines a situation and behaves accordingly. Although self-monitoring is measured on a continuous scale, researchers often group individuals into two types: high and low self-monitors. Someone who is a high self-monitor tends to examine a situation more closely and adjusts their behaviour in order to “fit in” with others in the scenario. High self-monitors tend to behave in a friendlier and extroverted manner in order to be well liked by peers. A low self-monitor does not do this and tends to follow their own emotions and thoughts when behaving in public. Since they are more attuned to social cues, high self-monitors are generally better at assessing the level of intimacy a partner is disclosing. By noticing these cues, high self-monitors tend to reciprocate equally in their self-disclosures.

This can be explained by the norm of reciprocity because the high self-monitors can pick up on these cues easily and know that they need to respond with their own disclosure. It can also be explained by social exchange theory. Research shows that high self-monitors are more uncomfortable when paired with a low self-monitor because low self-monitors do not tend to disclose intimate details so the balance in the conversation is uneven. High self-monitors are also shown to be the “pace-setters” of the conversation and generally initiate and maintain the flow of a conversation.


Those in a positive mood have been found to disclose more intimately than those in a negative mood. This may be because of informational effects whereby happy people tend to access more positive information which leads them to behave in a more optimistic and confident manner. Unhappy people tend to access more negative information which increases the likelihood of cautious, pessimistic and restrained communications.

This may also be due to processing effects, in particular assimilation and accommodation effects. Assimilation effects rely on an individual’s prior knowledge to guide their behaviour in a situation and accommodation effects rely on careful monitoring of a situation and a greater attention to concrete information. Assimilative processing is ideal for safe, routine situations while accommodative processing is for problematic situations. Happy people tend to use assimilative processing, which leads to more daring and direct disclosures, while unhappy people use accommodative processing, which leads them to be more cautious in their disclosures. These accommodating effects for unhappy people tend to increase reciprocity because these individuals will match the level of disclosure from their partner but will not go beyond that.

However, it can also be said that being distressed, anxious, or fearful (which would be classified as negative mood states) can accelerate disclosure as well. The exception to this is loneliness, for lonely individuals have shown decreased rates of self-disclosure.


Whether or not one sex shares more readily is a heated debate in social psychology, but sex-role identities play a large part in the amount one chooses to reveal to another. Androgynous people disclose more intimately across contexts than do notably masculine and feminine people.

Research findings on gender differences in self-disclosure are mixed. Women self-disclose to enhance a relationship, while men self-disclose relative to their control and vulnerabilities. Men initially disclose more in heterosexual relationships. Women tend to put more emphasis on intimate communication with same-sex friends than men do.

In relationships, there are still other factors that contribute to the likelihood of disclosure. While people with high self-esteem tend to reveal themselves more, the reverse is also true, where self-esteem is enhanced by a partner’s disclosures. In men, self-disclosure and the level of disclosure they perceive from their wives is positively correlated with their self-esteem. For both genders, the state of a relationship and the feelings associated with it are major contributors to how much each spouse reveals themselves. Husbands and wives in a relationship marked with satisfaction, love, and commitment rate their own levels of disclosure highly as well as their perceptions of their spouses’ disclosures.

Additional Individual Differences

Being shy decreases self-disclosure. Among men, those who are or appear more “tough” are less likely to disclose and express themselves.

Motivation for disclosure is also critical: does the individual need to present themself in a certain way in order to gain certain benefits, and does the self-disclosure match the person’s sense of ideal self? We like to present ourselves in ways that we feel are congruent with our own self-concepts, and what we tell others about ourselves often becomes how we actually are.


Sexual self-disclosure is the act of revealing one’s sexual preferences to another, usually to one’s sexual partner. This allows an even deeper level of understanding between two people and fosters even more intimacy as a result of the disclosures. Likewise, relationship satisfaction was found to correlate with sexual disclosures. For men, high levels of sexual self-disclosure predicted higher relationship satisfaction, though this was not found to be true for women. But, sexual satisfaction was linked to higher levels of sexual self-disclosure for both men and women. Further, those who disclose more sexually have been found to have less sexual dysfunction.

In Marriage

Self-disclosure is a method of relationship maintenance, aiming to keep partners satisfied with their relationship. Partners learn a shared communication system, and disclosures are a large part of building that system, which has been found to be very beneficial in highly satisfying relationships. Significant positive relationships have been found between multiple measures of relationship satisfaction and the levels of spouses’ disclosure on the Social Penetration Scale. Further, affection and support are provided to most in the most important ways through marriage. Surveys done by a variety of researchers have found that people list marriage as the ultimate form of intimacy. Spouses feel responsible, in that they need to be responsive to their partners’ self-disclosures, more so than they feel obligated to respond to the disclosures of people in their other relationships.

In a study by Laurenceau and colleagues, several differences were found in the satisfaction of spouses based on their daily-diary recordings of self-disclosures in their daily interactions. The results show that the actual disclosures in the process of self-disclosure may not be the only factors that facilitate intimacy in relationships. Husbands’ intimacy was most strongly predicted by self-disclosure, while perceived responsiveness to disclosure was the stronger predictor for wives’ feelings of intimacy with their husbands. A different study found evidence of wives’ perceptions of their husbands’ self-disclosures as being a strong predictor of how long a couple will stay together. Those who think their husbands are not sharing enough are likely to break up sooner. This finding links to the idea of positive illusions in relationship studies. For husbands, the actual act of self-disclosure is more indicative of their feelings of intimacy with their wives. On the other hand, wives are thought to value more the feelings of being understood and validated by their husbands’ responsiveness to their disclosures, and this is the more important factor in their feelings of intimacy in their marriages.

Related to these findings, those husbands who reported the highest ratings of global marital satisfaction showed the highest ratings in daily intimacy. Similarly, the wives who rated their global satisfaction highest also had higher levels of daily intimacy. Greater marital satisfaction was found among those who had the higher ratings of intimacy. Further, couples with high levels of demand-withdraw communication rated their average daily intimacy as much lower. This suggests a relationship between one’s overall marital satisfaction and the amount of intimacy in a relationship, though no causation can be proven with the present research. Self-esteem has also been found to be a predictor of satisfaction, with couples exhibiting both high self-esteem and high self-disclosure levels being the most satisfied in their relationships.

More disclosures of unpleasant feelings led to less marital satisfaction in recent studies, and disclosure is affected the minute a relationship is stressed, as feelings of less attachment to a spouse promote decreased self-disclosure. Likewise, less intimacy leads to more negative disclosures between partners. However, findings by Tolstedt and Stokes (1984) suggest that the depth of self-disclosure actually increases as the intimacy of a relationship decreases. The breadth of disclosure decreases with decreasing intimacy as originally predicted, but couples actually disclose more deeply. It is speculated that these results come about because a strained relationship causes spouses to restrict their topics of communication (breadth), but that they are also more willing to discuss deeply intimate subjects: the negative ones. Thus, while they are sharing more deeply, it is mostly in a negative light. The researchers then speculated that people might actually avoid disclosing very personal facts in the most satisfying relationships because they are fearful that their positive relationships will be negatively affected.

As time progresses, disclosure in marriage has been found to decrease, often around the time that spouses reach their 40s. It is suggested that at this stage partners know each other quite well and are very satisfied with what they communicate already.


People first disclose facts then emotions and disclose mostly positive information in the early stages of a relationship. Some speculate that disclosures and their respective responses from a spouse lead to intimacy between the partners, and these exchanges accumulate into global and positive evaluations of the relationship by the couple. In support, studies show that couples who report greater levels of intimacy in self-reports of their daily interactions are also those who report increased global relationship functioning in their marriages. Further, the importance of disclosure in a relationship might change over time as it relates in different ways to various factors of a relationship, such as responsiveness and love, especially at the beginning of a relationship.

Effects of Group Size

Disclosure also changes as group size increases. As a group gets larger, people become less willing to disclose. Research has shown that individuals are more willing to disclose in groups of two than in larger groups and are more willing to disclose in a group of three rather than four. The actual disclosures mimic the willingness to disclose as individuals disclose more in pairs than they do in the larger groups. There are also gender differences in disclosure depending on group size. Men feel more inhibited in dyads, match the intimacy of the disclosure from their partner, and do not offer more information. Women, on the other hand, feel more inhibited in larger groups and disclose more personal information in dyads.

Effects of the Environment

The environment is a factor self-disclosure. The environment has the potential to guide one’s decision to disclose personal information in a deeper level. According to Altman, a quiet, dimly lit sit-down restaurant might make one more willing to open up to others rather than uncomfortable seating in a loud food joint. The emphasis on dim lighting suggests that dim conditions were rated as more intimate. The environment can also be manipulated to meet personal privacy and disclosure goals.

In Therapy

Nearly every school of thought is in agreement that self-disclosure is a necessary element of therapeutic technique. Self-disclosure by the therapist is often thought to facilitate increased disclosure by the client, which should result in increased understanding of the problem at hand. It helps to acknowledge the therapeutic relationship as a fundamental healing source, as an alliance between client and therapist is founded on self-disclosure from both parties. In some respects it is similar to modelling appropriate social behaviour. Establishing common interests between therapists and clients is useful to maintain a degree of reality. Establishing such interests is especially beneficial in therapists’ relationships with children, especially teens, who need to understand that the therapist is not an authority in order to fully benefit from therapy.

In studies of self-disclosure in therapy, two types have been identified: immediate and non-immediate. Immediate disclosure shows positive views of the therapeutic process in which the two are engaging and communicates self-involving feelings and information about the therapist’s professional background. Many see the benefits of this type of disclosure. Non-immediate disclosure, however, is the revealing of more about the therapist than their professional background and includes personal insight. This type is rather controversial to psychologists in the present day; many feel it may be more detrimental than it is beneficial in the long-run, but there are significant findings that contradict this claim as well.

Further, there are two methods that therapists use to disclose: direct and indirect. Direct disclosures grant the client information about personal feelings, background, and professional issues. Indirect disclosures are those not explicitly granted, such as pictures on the therapist’s desk and walls or wearing their wedding band.

Therapists’ Reasons to Share Information

Studies have asked therapists to report their reasons to disclose to clients. The most common reasons are: to answer a direct question from the client, to help soothe the client’s feelings of loneliness, to express understanding, to lower a client’s anxiety levels and make their feelings seem more normal, and to build rapport.

The topics discussed by therapists who self-disclose in their sessions can vary. The preferred therapeutic approach and the effectiveness of treatments are two of the most common. Many also reveal their views of raising children, stress-coping methods, items that convey respect for the client, and emotions that will validate those the client has expressed. Anecdotes about sexual attraction, dreams, and personal problems seem to be disclosed to subjects with the least frequency by therapists.

Brief History

The history of therapist disclosure has been a journey based largely on the therapists’ perspectives. Early psychodynamic theorists strongly disagreed with the incorporation of therapist self-disclosure in the client-therapist relationship. Ferenczi notably maintained his belief that self-disclosure was of the utmost importance in children’s therapy for traumas in that a neutral, flat therapist would only cause the child to relive the trauma. Object-relations theorists want the client to be able to see how they are seen by another and how what they share is viewed by another, and the best way to operationalize these factors is through a trusting relationship with a therapist who also discloses. Self-theorists believe much the same as object-relations theorists. Intersubjective and relational schools of thought encourage disclosure due to its ability to bring subjectivity into therapy, which they deem a necessary element to real healing. They maintain that therapeutic relationships cannot be initiated and changed without intentional disclosures from both therapist and client.

In contemporary views, most agree with the inevitability of self-disclosure in therapy. Humanistic theorists want to trigger personal growth in clients and feel that a strong relationship with a therapist is a good facilitator of such, so long as the therapist’s disclosures are genuine. Seeing that weakness and struggle are common among all people, even therapists, is useful to clients in the humanistic therapy setting. In order for existential psychologists to help clients, they try to disclose their own coping methods to serve as sources of inspiration to find one’s own answers to questions of life. For therapists who value feminism, it is important to disclose personal feelings so that their clients have total freedom to choose the correct therapist and to eliminate power fights within the therapeutic setting. The ever-popular cognitive-behavioural approach also encourages disclosure in therapy so that clients can normalize their own thoughts with someone else’s, have their thoughts challenged, and reinforce positive expectations and behaviours.

Humanistic theorists have been the highest in rating self-disclosure as part of their normal therapeutic methods. Clearly, today’s therapists are mostly supportive of disclosure in therapy, as the early psychoanalytic taboo of such is slowly being overridden through the recognition of many schools of thought. Most identify the benefit of self-disclosures in facilitating rewarding relationships and helping to reach therapeutic goals.


It is useful to discuss personal matters in therapy for a variety of reasons. Certain types of disclosures are almost universally recognised as necessary in the early stages of therapy, such as an explanation of the therapeutic approach to be used and particular characteristics of the therapist. Disclosure with another individual facilitates a closeness in that relationship and is strongly believed to lead to a deeper understanding of the self. One will often see their disclosure in a more positive perspective if it is shared with someone else. It is thought that disclosing the details of a traumatic experience can greatly help with the organisation of related thoughts, and the process of retelling is itself a method of healing. An understanding between therapist and client is achieved when the client can share their perceptions without feeling threatened by judgments or unwanted advice. Further, expressing emotions lessens the toll of the autonomic nervous system and has been shown in several studies to improve overall physical health in this way. A disclosing therapist invites their client to compare cognitive perceptions and perhaps realise their own distortions.

The disclosure need not be verbal to be advantageous, as writing about traumas and positive experiences alike has been seen to produce less psychological and physiological distress. The Pennebaker Writing Disclosure Paradigm is a method commonly used in therapy settings to facilitate writing about one’s experiences. Exposure theory also offers support in that reliving and talking about a negative event should help the negative affect to be more accepted by the individual overtime through extinction.

A study by Watkins (1990) formulated four model hypotheses for the use of self-disclosure in therapy sessions. Supported heavily is the idea of mutuality: disclosure by one leads to disclosure by the other. The modelling hypothesis suggests that the client will model the disclosures of the therapist, thereby learning expression and gaining skills in communication. Some argue for the reinforcement model, saying that the use of self-disclosure by therapists is purely to reinforce self-disclosure in their clients. Lastly, the social exchange hypothesis sees the relationship between client and therapist as an interaction that requires a guide: self-disclosure. Clients’ self-reported improvement when a therapist has used disclosure in therapy is high. Regardless, the benefits of validating the client’s thoughts through self-disclosure has been shown to be largely beneficial in the scope of therapy.

Studies have also shown the disadvantageous effects of keeping secrets, for they serve as stressors over time. Concealing one’s thoughts, actions, or ailments does not allow a therapist to examine and work through the client’s problem. Unwanted, recurrent thoughts, feelings of anxiousness and depression, sleeping problems, and many other physiological, psychological, and physical issues have been seen as the results of withholding important information from others.

The treatment of clients with adjustment disorders, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder have been thought to use self-disclosure techniques the most. Therapy sessions for personality disorders, behaviour disorders, impulse control disorders, and psychotic disorders seem to use therapist self-disclosure far less often.

Effects on the Client’s View of the Therapist

Therapists who self-disclose, especially information that validates or reflects the information disclosed by the client, have been rated in studies consistently as demonstrating more warmth and being more personable. A study using participants who were to imagine themselves in hypothetical counselling situations found that therapists who responded to “What would you do if you were me?” when asked by the client, were viewed as more socially attractive, more expert, and more trustworthy. Their likability was increased by their willingness to disclose to their clients. The three dimensions mentioned have been said to be of utmost importance when determining one’s likability. However, these therapists may also been seen as less professional for these disclosures. Additionally, a therapist who discloses too frequently risks losing focus in the session, talking too much about themself and not allowing the client to actually harvest the benefits of the disclosures in the session through client-focused reflection. Much research has found that successful therapy treatments are enhanced when the client has a largely favourable view of the therapist.

Environmental Contributions to Client Disclosures

The atmosphere in which the therapy takes place is crucial too. Research shows that “soft” architecture and décor in a room promotes disclosure from clients. This is achieved with rugs, framed photos, and mellow lighting. It is thought that this environment more closely imitates the setting in which friends would share feelings, and so the same might be facilitated between counsellor and client. Further, a room should not be too crowded nor too small in order to foster good disclosures from the client.


The efficacy of self-disclosure is widely debated by researchers, and findings have yielded a variety of results, both positive and negative. A typical method of researching such ideas involves self-reports of both therapists and clients. The evaluations of therapists on the positive effects of their own disclosures is far less positive than that of clients’ self-reports. Clients are especially likely to assert that the disclosures of their therapists help in their recovery if the disclosures are perceived as more intimate in content. Clients report that disclosures are helpful when they encourage a positive relationship with the therapist, build trust in their therapists’ abilities and general person, create a feeling of being better-understood, and make the therapist seem more human. Much of these results, however, are linked to how skilled the therapist is in disclosing.


Any information revealed that could reverse the effects of therapy or switch the roles of therapist and client is thought to be the most detrimental. Therapists must choose wisely in what they disclose and when. A client who is suffering greatly or facing a horrific crisis is not likely to benefit much from therapist self-disclosures. If a client at any point feels he or she, should be acting as a source of support to the therapist, disclosure is only hindering the healing process. Further, clients might become overwhelmed if their initial ideas of therapy do not include any degree of self-disclosure from their counsellor, and this will not lead to successful therapy sessions either. It is also a risk to reveal too much about a therapist because the client may begin to see the healer as flawed and untrustworthy. Clients should not feel like they are in competition for time to speak and express themselves during therapy sessions.

Despite contradictory findings, self-disclosure is still used frequently in therapy and is often recommended. The American Psychological Association supports the technique, calling it “promising and probably effective”. Therapists are advised, however, to use self-disclosure with a mild frequency, to disclose more immediate-disclosure information, to keep intimacy at a minimum, and to keep the focus on the client promptly after disclosure to ensure optimum effectiveness in therapy sessions. Therapist self-disclosure in a counselling setting is ethical so long as the client is not harmed or exploited.

Self-Involving Statements

Therapists who use self-involving statements are likely to facilitate valuable self-disclosures from their clients. Using “I” statements, a therapist emits a certain level of care not otherwise felt by many clients, and they are likely to benefit from this feeling of being cared for. In cases of a therapist needing to provide feedback, self-involving statements are nearly inevitable, for they must state a true opinion of what the client has disclosed. These sorts of “I” statements, when used correctly and professionally, are usually seen as especially validating by clients. Largely, the use of self-involving statements by therapists is seen as a way of making the interaction more authentic for the client, and such exchanges can have a great impact on the success of the treatment at hand.

Marital Therapy

Couples-therapy is often centred on creating more intimacy in a relationship. Spouses are encouraged, or even required, to disclose unexpressed emotions and feelings to their partners. The partners’ responses are practiced to be non-judgemental and accepting. Therapists utilise techniques like rehearsal and the teaching of listening skills. Some fear that this is of little long-term help to the couple because in their real lives, there is no mediator or guiding therapist’s hand when one is disclosing to another.

Given that self-disclosure is related to husband’s ratings of marital satisfaction, teaching proper ways for a couple to disclose to one another might be a very beneficial skill therapists can use both for prevention and treatment in therapy sessions.

During Childhood

While striving to become more like adults, looking for greater independence, and learning to become more self-reliant, children are also trying to facilitate relationships of equality with their parents. Goals like these, as reported by young people fairly universally, can affect how they disclose to their parents to a large degree. Children’s disclosures with their parents has been studied by many, especially recently, after the discoveries of disclosures’ positive relationships with children’s adjustment levels and psychological and physical health. Some go so far as to use the rate of self-disclosure between parents and children as a dominant measure of the strength of their relationship and its health.

Purpose of Disclosure

In adolescents’ relationships with their parents, self-disclosure is thought to serve three key functions:

  • Intimacy is promoted: When information is withheld, distance is created and closeness is nearly impossible to facilitate.
  • Autonomy is regulated: Teens pick and choose what to tell their parents, thus limiting their control over the teens’ daily activities.
  • Individuation is heightened: Adolescents’ unique preferences and interests are expressed. If these vary from their parents’, they establish an identity of their own.

Children still attempt to maintain a certain amount of control over their parents’ knowledge of their lives by monitoring how and when to disclose to them. Thus, they moderate their parents’ potential reactions. Because of this, it is important for parents to be aware of how they react to their children’s disclosures, for these reactions will be used as judgement calls for the children’s future sharing.

Reasons For

Often, the reason for disclosing given by children in studies is based on the parent’s expectations: “I’ve learned that [Mom or Dad] wants to have this information.” This is adaptive, in that the child has learned what their parents want to know. Other times a reason is that the children do not want their parents to worry about them, and this is called parent-centred disclosures. Disclosing in order to make oneself feel better or to ensure protection from parents is considered to be another reason for youth to disclose, and it is called self-oriented disclosure. On a more manipulative level, some adolescents report telling their parents things based solely on gaining an advantage of some sort, whether this is the right to reveal less or the fact that being more open tends to result in more adolescent privileges. Sometimes children qualify their disclosures by merely stating that they only disclose what they feel they want to their parents. Thus, some information is kept secret. This is dubbed selective self-disclosure. In sum, adolescents feel different pulls that make them self-disclose to their parents that can be based on the parents’ needs and the children’s needs. There has not been a distinct pattern found to predict which reasons will be utilised to explain disclosures by different children. For this reason it is widely believed that the reason for disclosure is largely situation- and context-dependent.


The self-disclosure of children to their parents is the dominant source of information for parents to gain knowledge about their children and their daily lives. Parental knowledge of their children’s whereabouts and daily lives has been linked to several positive outcomes. The more parents know about their kids, the lower the rate of behaviour problems among children, and the higher the children’s well-being. Adolescents who disclose have been found to have lower rates of substance abuse, lower rates of risky sexual behaviours, lower anxiety levels, and lower rates of depression. Additionally, those who are well-adjusted, meaning they exhibit the qualities discussed above, generally want and enjoy parental involvement and are likely to disclose more. In contrast, keeping secrets from one’s parents has been linked to more physical illness, poor behaviour, and depression in all cultural groups. Many theorise that in at least one significant relationship one should feel able to disclose nearly completely in order for a healthy personality to develop. While parental behavioural control was once thought to provide the greatest benefits to children in limiting their activities and serving as a source of forced protection, more recent research strongly suggests that disclosures to parents that provide the parents with information about daily activities actually shows the most promise in fostering positive development through childhood and adolescence.

Development of Reciprocity

Reciprocity in children’s self-disclosures is often examined in children’s friendships. It has been shown that children’s understanding of friendship involves sharing secrets with another person. This mutual exchange of sharing secrets could be the norm of reciprocity, in which individuals disclose because it is a social norm. This norm of reciprocity is shown to begin occurring for children in sixth grade. Sixth graders are able to understand the norm of reciprocity because they realise that relationships require both partners to cooperate and to mutually exchange secrets. They realise this because they possess the cognitive ability to take another person’s perspective into account and are able to understand a third person’s views which allows them to view friendships as an ongoing systematic relationship.

Children in sixth grade are also shown to understand equivalent reciprocity. Equivalent reciprocity requires matching the level of intimacy a partner discloses, therefore, a high-intimacy disclosure would be matched with an equally revealing disclosure while a low-intimacy disclosure would be matched with little information revealed. Another type of reciprocity is covariant reciprocity, in which disclosures are more intimate if a partner communicates a high-intimacy disclosure instead of a low-intimacy disclosure. This differs from equivalent reciprocity, which matches the level of intimacy, while covariant reciprocity only focuses on whether someone disclosed something personal or not. Covariant reciprocity is shown to begin in fourth grade.

It has also been shown that girls across all ages disclose more intimate information than boys, and that the number of disclosures a child reveals increases with age.

Influencing Factors

Early studies note two distinct factors that contribute to how much children self-disclose to their parents. The first is intraindividual factors, which are those that are on the child’s mind and cause them to need social input. Biological development, cultural and social pressures, and individual maturity determine these issues, and, thus, a child’s age, personality, and background also contribute to their level and need of self-disclosure in a relationship with a parent.

The second set of factors is called contextual factors, which include the opportunities and situations that the individual has to disclose as created by the sociocultural environment. These are most directly related, then, to the target of the disclosure; these targets are the parents.

Also, gender contributes: girls are noted for usually disclosing their problems, mostly to their mothers, while boys reveal more about bad grades, behavioural conflicts, and other issues to both parents.

Certain people are more likely to get others to disclose. These are called high openers. Even people known to disclose very little are likely to disclose more to high openers. Thus, if parents are characterised as good listeners, trustworthy, accepting, relaxed, and sympathetic, as are high openers, then they will likely elicit more disclosure from their children. Adolescents who view their parents like this are also said to see them as less controlling and less likely to react negatively to their disclosures. Parental responsiveness has been said to be the dominant factor of influence on adolescents’ rates of self-disclosure; warmth and affection facilitate more disclosures. Parental psychological control has also been linked to increased self-disclosure of personal issues and peer issues among youth. While this sort of control is not often thought of in a positive light, some hypothesize that these kids are likely just feeling coerced to disclose subtly and without being harmed. Much of what children choose to reveal to their parents is based on previous disclosures and their parents’ reactions to them.

Feelings about the parent-child relationship during one’s upbringing have also be found to correlate with the child’s disclosures to the parents. A child with a positive memory of their relationship with a parent during the past years is a predictor of a higher level of self-disclosure. In fact, the view of the parent-child relationship in the past is a stronger predictor than that of the child’s view of the current parent-child relationship. The relationship with the mother, in particular, is extremely predictive of disclosures from adolescents. Such findings suggest to parents that fostering secure attachment early in their children will better set the stage for disclosures in the later years, and their children may then reap the benefits of such a relationship.

Adolescents are able to determine their own amount of parental authority over certain issues by how much or how little they choose to disclose to their parents. Surveys revealed that they are least likely to share information that involves their personal feelings and activities. They actively resist disclosing this to their parents because they do not see the issues as being harmful, or they feel their parents will not listen to them, or because the matters are very private to them.

The way adolescents perceive their parents’ authority as legitimate largely impacts how much they feel obligated to disclose to them. The more authority the children believe their parents rightly possess, the more obligation they perceive to share their lives accordingly. Parents who attempt a large degree of psychological control over their children are unlikely to be disclosed to as frequently, which only makes logical sense given the fact that most children are searching for a sense of autonomy. The adolescents have been found to feel the most obligation to tell their parents about such activities as drinking and smoking but less need to disclose information about personal issues. Not surprising either, less obligation is felt as age increases. Contrary to popular belief though, most adolescents in the US do not consider themselves to be adults between the ages of 18 and 27, and their parents feel the same way. The age at which children feel they no longer are obligated to disclose to their parents has increased over time, and the same trend is predicted over the next few decades.

Often, the motivation to disclose negative behaviours is purely because the children fear that they will not get away with it or feel obligated to share. Adolescents also want to disclose more if they feel that the activities in question are out of their own jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is measured, in the adolescents’ minds, as how short-term and close the activities are. Short-term, close activities are judged as ones to be handled without disclosure to parents, while activities that will take longer or require the adolescent to be farther from home are thought of as being issues to discuss with parents.


Certain events and characteristics of the parent-child relationship make disclosures unlikely:

  • Mood: Nervous, angry, or unhappy parents make children less likely to disclose.
  • Preoccupied: Parents who do not seem accessible to their children do not receive good disclosures.
  • Reluctance: When parents seem unwilling to talk about problems or consistently avoid certain topics of conversation.
  • Questioning: Adolescents are bothered by persistent questions that their parents ask of them.
  • Respect: Children do not disclose as much if they feel their parents are not taking them seriously.
  • Nagging: When parents seem to hag on unimportant matters, children become frustrated.
  • Previous disapproval: Adolescents are not likely to disclose if their parents have previously expressed disapproval of a matter they wish to discuss.

Factors that Discourage Future Disclosures

Certain events and characteristics of the parent-child relationship make the child less willing to disclose to that parent in the future:

  • Distraction: If parents seem inattentive, the child is not likely to try to disclose in the future.
  • Respect: Parents who make jokes about disclosures or tease their children discourage future discussions.
  • Lack of trust: Children are not likely to disclose again when parents have shown doubt about their previous disclosures or checked the information that had been revealed.
  • Interrupting: Parents who interrupt their children do not encourage future disclosure.
  • Lack of relatability: Children will not disclose again if they feel their parents did not try to understand their position in previous disclosures.
  • Lack of receptivity: Parents who seem not to care about the child’s thoughts on matters and who will not listen to arguments discourage future disclosure.
  • Confidentiality: Children feel less inclined to disclose in the future if their parents do not keep their disclosures confidential.
  • Emotion: Parents who have angry outbursts do not encourage further disclosures from their children.
  • Consequences: Disclosures that resulted in punishment serve as discouragement for future disclosures. Additionally, long lectures from parents are not viewed as favourable.
  • Disappointment: When disclosure has made a parent disappointed or sad in their child, the child feels less inclined to disclose again.
  • Silence: Parents who respond to a disclosure with the silent treatment are unlikely to facilitate later disclosures.
  • Withholding permission: If earlier disclosure resulted in parents withholding permissions for children to participate in their desired activities, the children often do not disclose such information again later.


Certain events and characteristics of the parent-child relationship make disclosures likely:

  • Mood: Positive moods (happy and relaxed) in parents make adolescents likely to begin to disclose.
  • Accessibility: When parents seem ready and able to chat without doing other things, children want to disclose to them.
  • Opportunities: Parents who make time for the child, initiate conversations, and prompt disclosures (perhaps with humour) usually facilitate disclosures from their children.
  • Reciprocal disclosure: Children are encouraged if their parents choose to reveal things about themselves.
  • Questions: Open-ended questions give adolescents motivation to disclose.
  • Attention to child’s mood: When parents recognise the affective state of a child, the child feels cared for and is likely to be open to discussing the causes of that mood.
  • Unconditional disclosure: Children feel encouraged to disclose when parents make a point of telling the child to reveal themselves no matter what.
  • Pace: Letting children choose how and how fast they disclose makes them more likely to reveal things to their parents.

Factors that Encourage Future Disclosures

Certain events and characteristics of the parent-child relationship make the child more likely to disclose to that parent in the future:

  • Support: Previous disclosures that have made the child feel emotionally supported positively affect whether or not they will disclose to a parent again.
  • Humour: Parents who can appreciate humour in disclosure, where appropriate, encourage the child to disclose again.
  • Reciprocity: Parental disclosure makes a child more likely to disclose to that parent again.
  • Understanding/empathy: A parent who makes an obvious attempt to understand the child’s position makes the child more willing to share in the future.
  • Attention: Children will likely disclose again when they believe their parents are giving them their full attention without interruption.
  • Appreciations: Parents who express to their adolescents that they value their disclosures encourage such to happen again.
  • Respect: Children want to disclose again if they feel their parents take them seriously.
  • Confidence in the child: Parents who express their trust in the child’s ability to handle their problems will likely be disclosed to in the future.
  • Trustworthiness: Adolescents will want to reveal information to their parents again if they trust that the disclosure will be confidential.
  • Advice: If parents offer good advice and help for a youth’s problems, they are prompted to discuss things with the parent later on.
  • Reactions: Parents will often be told information from their children again if they keep their reactions to disclosures calm.
  • Discussion: Children prefer to talk about their issues, so if adults are willing, children will likely open up to them often.
  • Receptivity: Adults who consider arguments from the child and “hear them out” encourage these children to reveal their thoughts again.
  • Results: If permissions for adolescents’ wishes have been granted after disclosing in the past, the child is more likely to disclose in the future.

On the Internet

There are four major differences between online communication and face to face communication. The first is that Internet users can remain anonymous. The user can choose what personal information (if any) they share with other users. Even if the user decides to use their own name, if communicating with people in others cities or countries they are still relatively anonymous. The second is that physical distance does not limit interaction on the Internet the way it does in real life. The Internet gives the ability to interact with people all over the world and the chance to meet people who have similar interests that one may not have met in their offline life. Visual cues, including those pertaining to physical attractiveness, are also not always present on the Internet. These factors have been shown to influence initial attraction and relationship formation. Finally, Internet users have time to formulate conversations which is not allotted in face to face conversation. This gives a user more control in the conversation because they do not have to give an immediate response.

Features of Online Interaction Affecting Disclosure


Anonymity can allow individuals to take greater risks and discuss how they truly feel with others. A person might take these risks because they are more aware of their private self. Private self-awareness is when a person becomes more aware of personal features of the self. This is in contrast to public self-awareness in which a person realises that they can be judged by others. This type of awareness can lead to evaluation apprehension, where a person fears receiving a negative evaluation from their peers. Public self-awareness is also associated with conforming to group norms even if they go against personal beliefs. With that said, the absence of visual cues from a partner in Internet discussion can activate a person’s private self which encourages self-disclosure. This is because the discloser is not worried about being judged publicly and is able to express their own private thoughts. Anonymity also aids in identity construction. A person can change their gender and the way they relate to others due to anonymity. This can increase life satisfaction because those who can identify with multiple roles are shown to be more satisfied. Since the Internet can allow someone to adopt these roles, that close others may not accept in the real world, it can increase their self-worth and acceptance.

The anonymity that comes with Internet communication also makes it easier to reveal the “true self”. The “true self”, as described by McKenna and her colleagues includes the traits a person possesses but is unable to share freely with others. What they do share is the “actual self” which includes traits they do possess and are able to be shown in social settings. The actual self can be easier to present in face to face conversations because a person’s true self may not fit societal norms. Disclosing one’s “true self” has been shown to create empathetic bonds and aid in forming close relationships.

Anonymity can also help stigmatised groups reveal their “true selves” and allow them to come together to discuss aspects of the self that cannot be discussed in one’s social circle. This can help them in life because it allows them to form a group of similar others and the opportunity to receive emotional support. It has also been found that those who join these groups and disclose their identity were more likely to share this aspect of the self with their close family and friends. Sharing these long kept secrets has also shown to significantly reduce health symptoms over a length of time.

There are some negative consequences to being anonymous on the Internet. Deindividuation, where self-awareness is blocked by environmental conditions, can occur and be problematic. Some consequences of deindividuation include the reduced ability to control one’s behaviour and engage in rational, long-term planning, and the tendency to react immediately and emotionally. A person who is lacking this self-awareness is also less likely to care about other’s opinions of their behaviour. This all can lead to increased hostility towards others and the formation of anonymous hate groups.

There can also be some negative consequences to forming multiple selves. If these identities are not integrated it can lead to an incomplete sense of self. They could also be brought into the real world and lead to delusional and unrealistic behaviour.

One downside to all of the connections that can be formed online regards the effect called the “illusion of large numbers.” This effect means that people overestimate how many people share the same opinion as them. This can be especially harmful if someone holds negative views of a particular group because they may not realise that their views are very different from the mainstream.

Lack of Visual Cues and Physical Attractiveness

Physical attractiveness plays an important role in determining if two people will begin a relationship. In face to face conversation, if initial attraction is not present, the relationship is less likely to form. This, however, does not play a role in Internet communication. Relationships online must form based on things such as similarities, values, interests or an engaging conversation style. Since these relationships form at a deeper level they may be more durable and more important to the individual. Not being seen also assists in presenting ideal qualities (attributes an individual would ideally like to possess) to other users because there is no information to contradict what they say, the way there is in face to face conversation. This can help a person make these ideal qualities a social reality because when someone confirms these traits the individual can make them a part of their self-concept.

An individual is also liked more on the Internet than in face to face conversation. Even if partners think they are communicating with two different people they still like the person from the Internet more than the face to face interaction, even though they were the same person. This greater liking also continues after the initial interaction on the Internet when the pair meets face to face. This greater liking may occur because of the lack of physical information. Physical attractiveness plays an important role in impression formation and once these views are formed they are not likely to be changed even when presented with new information. Since the people communicating online cannot rely on attractiveness these factors may not play a role when they eventually meet face to face. An increase in disclosures can also foster this liking because intimate disclosure is associated with increased intimacy. Online disclosures are generally seen as more intimate than face to face disclosures. Since there is a lack of nonverbal cues in Internet communication, many people form a biased perception of their communication partner. The minimal cues that are available in computer based communication are often over interpreted and the person will attach greater value to them. For example, if there seems to be a similarity between the two communicating, an individual may intensify this perception and idealise their partner. This all then increases the perceived intimacy of the discloser.

Physical Distance and Familiarity

People are more likely to form relationships with those who are in close physical proximity of them. Individuals are also more likely to begin an interaction with someone who is seen on a regular basis, showing that familiarity also influences interactions. Communicating on the Internet can allow individuals to become familiar with those who frequent the pages they converse on by recognising usernames and pages. Regardless of how far away these individuals may be from each other, they are all in one confined space on the Internet which can give the feeling of being in the same place. The Internet also brings people together that may not have met because of physical distance. They can also go to specific websites where people share the same interests so they enter conversations knowing they already have similarities. This can contribute to why Internet relationships form so quickly. These online users do not have to go through the traditional stages that face to face interactions require in order to find similar interests. These face to face interactions usually take longer to find common ground but online users are able to dive right into conversations.

Pace and Control of Conversation

Internet communication differs significantly from face-to-face conversation in the timing and pacing of a conversation. For example, both users do not need to be online at the same time to have a conversation. E-mail, for example, allows individuals to send messages and wait for a reply that may not come for hours or even days. This can allow many people to stay in touch, even if they are in different time zones, which significantly broadens the range of communication.

This communication also allows an individual to take their time when speaking with someone. They do not have to have an immediate response that face-to-face conversation requires. This allows them to carefully select and edit their messages and gives them more control over their side of the conversation that they would not have outside of the Internet. There are also no interruptions in online communication that occur in face-to-face conversation. A person is able to “hold the floor” and say as little or as much as they would like in these communications, allowing them to fully form their point.

This control helps users to take greater risks with their self-disclosures online. These people also begin to incorporate their Internet lives with their non-Internet lives and engage in a presence–control exchange. In this exchange, Internet users start their relationships with relatively high control and gradually trade that for physical closeness as their comfort levels and knowledge of the other person increases. This seems to be the Internet version of social penetration theory, where individuals have a mutual exchange of self-disclosures. As the relationship develops in face-to-face communication the individuals’ disclosures gradually become more revealing and cover a wide range of topics. This equivalent on the Internet includes the partners exchanging control of the conversation for physical closeness. The stages this occurs in could include moving from messaging online, to telephone conversations and eventually face-to-face communication.

Individual Differences


The use of social media for self-disclosure has shown to be very helpful for those with low self-esteem. People with low self-esteem are more socially anxious and shy which can make it difficult to form close relationships with others. This can harm both their physical and mental health because feeling connected to others is considered a fundamental human motivation. Individuals with low self-esteem have difficulty disclosing to others because they are very focused on not revealing their flaws and fear criticism and disapproval from others. Disclosing less, therefore, protects them from the possibility of rejection or being ignored. In light of these fears, social media can provide a safe environment for people with low self-esteem to disclose personal information because they cannot see their partner’s reactions which can help them to more freely express themselves.

While many with low self-esteem do view social media as a safe outlet for disclosure, many do not receive positive feedback for their disclosures. People with low self-esteem tend to post more negative thoughts on social media which has been shown to make them less liked by readers. Negative posts are also more likely to be ignored by readers in hopes that the discloser will stop and begin to post more positively. When someone who frequently shares negative thoughts posts something positive they do receive more positive feedback from readers. In contrast, someone with high self-esteem is more liked by readers and tends to post more positively. If they do post something negative they tend to get more responses than those with low self-esteem do.


Social media can also help those who are lonely. Many social networking sites give access to profiles, pictures and the ability to comment and message others which helps people to feel less lonely. It also aids them in gaining social capital like emotional satisfaction and access to information. These sites can facilitate disclosure because they make it easier to access others who can provide social support for someone to disclose personal information. Social support is extremely important in disclosure as it makes the discloser feel validated and cared for. Social support is also positively related to well-being. It has also been shown that having this social support and forming close relationships online decreases loneliness overtime.

Some research does show that spending too much time on the Internet and forming these close relationships could take away time from existing non-Internet relationships. Neglecting these relationships could make a person lonelier in the long run because they could lose these face to face relationships.

However, other research shows that there are certain personality traits that lead to increased loneliness which then leads to increased use of the Internet. In particular, extroversion and neuroticism have been linked to loneliness. An extrovert is someone who is outgoing, enjoys the company of others, requires stimulation, and is spontaneous, while an introvert prefers their own company, is quiet, and prefers quiet, small gatherings. Introverts can often be seen as distant and unfriendly because of this behaviour which may explain some of their loneliness. A neurotic person is extremely anxious, emotional and reacts in a disproportional way to many situations. Someone high in neuroticism generally has a negative attitude which may push people away and prevent them from forming close relationships which may lead to their loneliness. Both of these groups (introverts and neurotics) have been shown to have increased Internet use and in particular increased use of social service sites (i.e. chatrooms, newsrooms, etc.). This may show that those who are already lonely are more attracted to the Internet as a means of social networking and not that the Internet increases loneliness. Introverts and neurotic individuals have also been shown to feel more comfortable revealing their “true-self” online than in face-to-face conversation and revealing the “real you” has been shown to help the discloser to form close relationships.

Social Anxiety

It can be very difficult for those with social anxiety to engage in face to face communication. These people can become anxious when meeting someone for the first time, speaking with someone attractive, or participating in group activities. This can limit their in-person interactions and deny them their basic needs of intimacy and belonging. With the absence of many of these worries in Internet communication, many with social anxieties use it to form social connections. It has been shown that individuals with social anxiety are more likely to use the Internet to form close relationships. These relationships are also shown to be stronger online relationships as opposed to weaker relationships (i.e. “acquaintances”). Forming these relationships can also help a socially anxious person express their true-self and form their social identity. This identity often involves the groups a person is a part of because belonging to a group frequently becomes a part of one’s self-concept. Someone with social anxiety would be denied this because of their fear of face-to-face interaction. Therefore, disclosing with others online gives a socially anxious person access to a wide variety of people with which they can form relationships and belong to a group.

Socially anxious people are also shown to become less anxious over time if they have formed close online relationships. They have also been shown to broaden their social circles in the “real world” when they have had this time to form online relationships. One possibility for this occurrence may be that these online relationships can give the anxious individuals confidence in forming relationships outside of the Internet. Being able to practice communications online can show them they are capable of communicating and can lessen their anxieties in face to face communication. They are also very likely to bring their online relationships into their offline lives in order to make them a “social reality” by sharing these relationships with family and friends in the real world.

Online Support Groups

Online support groups are another place where people from all over can come together to disclose common struggles. They provide an environment of mutual disclosure and support. People are more likely to use these forums to discuss personal struggles and disclose emotions and thoughts pertaining to these struggles than normal discussion forums. There is also a higher degree of reciprocity in online support groups than in normal discussion forums and reciprocity has been shown to help people feel valued after disclosing. Men and women are also equally likely to use these forums for disclosing personal information.


While there are many benefits to engaging in self-disclosure online there are also some dangers. There is a relationship between Internet abuse, self-disclosure and problematic behaviour. Internet abuse can be defined as, “patterns of using the Internet that result in disturbances in a person’s life but does not imply a specific disease process or addictive behaviour.” When a person is high for Internet abuse and high for self-disclosure it can lead to dangerous behaviours like sending personal information (addresses, home phone number etc.) and photos to online acquaintances. High ratings for Internet abuse and self-disclosure also positively influence online communication with all types of online relationships. These relationship types include long-distance relationships, in which people have met face to face and continue the relationship by communicating online; purely virtual relationships, where people meet online and stay in touch only by using the Internet; and migratory mixed-mode, where the relationship begins online and then proceeds to face to face interaction. The relationship between Internet abuse, self-disclosure and dangerous behaviours could pose an even bigger problem with the high number of communications this group has with others, particularly those they have only communicated with online


The Internet, while providing most with a source of entertainment, knowledge, and social realms, is actually a large threat to children due to the ways in which they self-disclose. Their privacy is often more at risk than is an adult’s because of their openness to sites. Given that they are still developing, researchers say that they are in the “Cued Processors” group between the ages of eight and eleven. At this time, many children are using the Internet and are doing so alone, without the guidance and overseeing of an adult/guardian. Thus, they must use their own judgments to decide how much information to share on the various sites they visit.

As “Cued Processors”, however, they are only able to think logically about concrete events; the notion of their disclosures online being used against them is far in the abstract world. They will likely not think of any sort of consequences that could result from their disclosures, and this is just what online marketers and predators alike expect and are looking for. Combined with behavioural profiling tracking programmes, online advertisers and predators can build a pretty clear image of the child and what they like to do, where they live, their phone number, their school district, and other sources of identifying information that they use to prompt the child to disclose without them really knowing. A common strategy is the use of brand characters in online games who “ask” for the information; children are especially likely to give out very personal information in this sort of setting. The children’s vulnerability online is a product of their cognitive limitations.

Uses and gratifications theory is often used to attempt to explain such things as motivation on the internet. Studies have found that, if applied to the use of the Internet by children and their likelihood to disclose personal information, one can find significant correlations with various types of motivation. Children who use the Internet primarily as a source of information are less likely to give out personal information. Some theorise that these children are simply made to be more aware of the dangers of internet disclosures and are more cautious because of this. But, children who mention social contact on the internet as their first-order use are more often the ones who submit to the attempts of online marketers and predators who seek their personal contact information and behavioural preferences. These children have goals of social acceptance in mind, and it seems to them that acceptance can be easily gained from sharing and communicating with friends and strangers alike. Socialising motives reduce privacy concerns, and children will disclose nearly anything online in order to be seen and responded to socially. It was also discovered that a simple incentive is usually enough to elicit personal information from a child.

Parents’ knowledge of their children’s internet use is rapidly decreasing. Children are withholding more and more from their parents, including how much information they are sharing over the internet. Parent-child self-disclosure about this topic needs to be increased if interventions are to help keep children safer online. Notably, there are many parents who have even admitted to allowing their children to lie about their ages on social media sites in order to gain access to them. Parents, thus, are encouraged to remain open to discussing such things with their children, to use better judgment themselves when making decisions about their children’s Internet usage, and to provide them with education about how privacy on the Internet is a risky notion.

Today, many regulations are being proposed and implemented that will hopefully help protect children’s personal information on the internet. However, these will not be enough to guarantee safe exchanges of self-disclosure, so adults still must be open to discussion with their children.

In Education

Self-disclosure is an important matter to consider in the realm of education. The varying ways that it can impact social relations adds a new and important dynamic to the classroom. There are different results and experiences that students and teachers see from the implementation of self-disclosure in the classroom. The relationships that will be addressed through the lens of self-disclosure include the student to teacher relationship, the student to student relationship and how cultural relations impacts the situation as a whole.

Student to Teacher Relations

The tone of the classroom is set by the attitudes and behaviours of those who participate in it. The teacher often has the most powerful role in leading a classroom and how that class will interact and connect through the subject matter. The practice of self-disclosure in the interactions between the teachers and the students has an impact on the classroom atmosphere and how the people perform in that atmosphere. The decision to practice self-disclosure as a teacher has many benefits and challenges.


When the teacher engages in self-disclosure with the students, it opens up a new channel of communication in the classroom. As the teacher shares more information about who they are and their personal life, the students begin to see a new side of their teacher that is more than the person that stands in the front of their classroom every day. The teacher is seen as a real person with their own difficulties and struggles in life. This would allow the teacher to appear more relatable to the students which would promote better student to teacher communication. Of course, the information shared with the class must be appropriate and relevant. A teacher may use an illustration of a concept using an example from their own life in order to connect with a particular audience in the class. These connections with the teacher promotes a more productive relationship.

As the teacher sets the tone of self-disclosure, students feel more willing to share in the practice of self-disclosure as well. The teacher demonstrates and helps to guide the students in understanding what is appropriate information to share in public discourses. As the students feel more comfortable with the teacher and begin sharing more about their own lives, the environment of the classroom is one of camaraderie and friendship. By understanding the people in the classroom on a deeper level can open up opportunities to provide support to those involved. The teacher can better understand who the students are, what they struggle with, what their strengths are and what they need to succeed. Self-disclosure from student to teacher allows the teacher to best support the students based on their individual needs, therefore providing an improved education.


With implementing self-disclosure into the classroom, comes a set of negative consequences and challenges. As the teacher shares more about their personal life, the students may become overly comfortable with the teacher. This could lead to a lack of respect for the teacher or an inability to maintain appropriate superior relationship. Self-disclosure may blur the lines of the roles between the student and the teacher, which could disrupt the authority the teacher needs to maintain their role in the classroom and have an effective teaching persona. There is the case that not all students will connect to this method of teaching. Some students may not choose to participate in this environment which could lead them to feel alienated. Self-disclosure from the teacher needs to be taken into deep consideration so that the sharing of information does not take away from the education being transferred.

There are some risks involved in bringing self-disclosure into the classroom when students begin sharing information with the teacher. As the student is more open with the teacher, there is the chance that the student could share information that would require the teacher to follow a reporting procedure. If a student reveals information about themself in confidence to the teacher that implies that the students life is potentially at risk, or other matters of equal seriousness that would need to be reported to the school guidance counsellor. Revealing this information although confidentiality was implied would inevitably break the trust the teacher has built with the student, ultimately harming their relationship. This hurt relationship could negatively impact that students ability to learn in the classroom. In another scenario, students may not fully understand the differences between public and private discourse. This would lead students to have conversations of self-disclosure in the classroom when the timing is not appropriate, therefore, taking away from the educational matters at hand.


Self-disclosure, just like anything varies and differs depending on the culture. Collectivistic culture and individualism are two types of ways to explain self disclosure in a culture. If a country is more on the collectivistic side then they will tend to disclose themselves more as an Avatar, like in China and Germany. However, in a more individualist culture setting people open up more about themselves, even personal details, like in America. There is also a difference in the boy vs. girl culture. Girls tend to open up more and easier than most boys.

Each culture has a different idea about what and how much self-disclosure is acceptable. For example, American students tend to share more in class with their peers than Chinese students. They are usually more open about themselves and interests with most of their classmates than students in other countries. The difference is seen in the internet as well. Korean students usually talk more in blog form on social media pages keeping the posts short and to the point. However, American students share more often and share more personal information to their followers. Cultures like Korea and China, the collectivistic cultures, are more reserved whereas, the American culture is more about disclosing a lot of personal details.

This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-disclosure >; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA.

What is Alexithymia?


Alexithymia is a personality trait characterised by the subclinical inability to identify and describe emotions experienced by one’s self.

The core characteristic of alexithymia is marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relation. Furthermore, people with high levels of alexithymia can have difficulty distinguishing and appreciating the emotions of others, which is thought to lead to non-empathic and ineffective emotional responses.

High levels of alexithymia occur in approximately 10% of the population and can occur with a number of psychiatric conditions as well as any neurodevelopmental disorder. Difficulty with recognising and talking about their emotions appears at subclinical levels in men who conform to western cultural notions of masculinity (such as thinking that sadness is a feminine emotion). This is called normative male alexithymia by some researchers. However, both alexithymia itself and its association with traditionally masculine norms are consistent across genders.


The term alexithymia was coined by psychotherapists John Case Nemiah and Peter Sifneos in 1973. The word comes from Greek: ἀ- (a-, ‘not’, privative prefix, alpha privative) + λέξις (léxis, ‘words’) + θῡμός (thȳmós, ‘heart’ or ’emotions’ or ‘seat of speech’) (cf. dyslexia), literally meaning “no words for emotions”.

Another etymology: Greek: Αλεξιθυμία ἀλέξω (to ward off) + θῡμός. Means to push away emotions, feelings

Nonmedical terms describing similar conditions include emotionless and impassive. People with the condition are called alexithymics or alexithymiacs.


Alexithymia is considered to be a personality trait that places affected individuals at risk for other medical and psychiatric disorders while reducing the likelihood that these individuals will respond to conventional treatments for the other conditions. Alexithymia is not classified as a mental disorder in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It is a dimensional personality trait that varies in intensity from person to person. A person’s alexithymia score can be measured with questionnaires such as the Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20), the Perth Alexithymia Questionnaire (PAQ), the Bermond-Vorst Alexithymia Questionnaire (BVAQ), the Levels of Emotional Awareness Scale (LEAS), the Online Alexithymia Questionnaire (OAQ-G2), the Toronto Structured Interview for Alexithymia (TSIA), or the Observer Alexithymia Scale (OAS). It is distinct from the psychiatric personality disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder.

Traditionally, alexithymia has been conceptually defined by four components:

  • Difficulty identifying feelings (DIF).
  • Difficulty describing feelings to other people (DDF).
  • A stimulus-bound, externally oriented thinking style (EOT).
  • Constricted imaginal processes (IMP),

However, there is some ongoing disagreement in the field about the definition of alexithymia. When measured in empirical studies, constricted imaginal processes are often found not to statistically cohere with the other components of alexithymia. Such findings have led to debate in the field about whether IMP is indeed a component of alexithymia. For example, in 2017, Preece and colleagues introduced the attention-appraisal model of alexithymia, where they suggested that IMP be removed from the definition and that alexithymia be conceptually composed only of DIF, DDF, and EOT, as each of these three are specific to deficits in emotion processing. In practice, since the constricted imaginal processes items were removed from earlier versions of the TAS-20 in the 1990s, the most used alexithymia assessment tools (and consequently most alexithymia research studies) have only assessed the construct in terms of DIF, DDF, and EOT.

Studies (using measures of alexithymia assessing DIF, DDF, and EOT) have reported that the prevalence rate of high alexithymia is less than 10% of the population. A less common finding suggests that there may be a higher prevalence of alexithymia amongst males than females, which may be accounted for by difficulties some males have with “describing feelings”, but not by difficulties in “identifying feelings” in which males and females show similar abilities.

Psychologist R. Michael Bagby and psychiatrist Graeme J. Taylor have argued that the alexithymia construct is inversely related to the concepts of psychological mindedness and emotional intelligence and there is “strong empirical support for alexithymia being a stable personality trait rather than just a consequence of psychological distress”.

Signs and Symptoms

Typical deficiencies may include problems identifying, processing, describing, and working with one’s own feelings, often marked by a lack of understanding of the feelings of others; difficulty distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal; confusion of physical sensations often associated with emotions; few dreams or fantasies due to restricted imagination; and concrete, realistic, logical thinking, often to the exclusion of emotional responses to problems. Those who have alexithymia also report very logical and realistic dreams, such as going to the store or eating a meal. Clinical experience suggests it is the structural features of dreams more than the ability to recall them that best characterises alexithymia.

Some alexithymic individuals may appear to contradict the above-mentioned characteristics because they can experience chronic dysphoria or manifest outbursts of crying or rage. However, questioning usually reveals that they are quite incapable of describing their feelings or appear confused by questions inquiring about specifics of feelings.

According to Henry Krystal, individuals exhibiting alexithymia think in an operative way and may appear to be super-adjusted to reality. In psychotherapy, however, a cognitive disturbance becomes apparent as patients tend to recount trivial, chronologically ordered actions, reactions, and events of daily life with monotonous detail. In general, these individuals can, but not always, seem oriented toward things and even treat themselves as robots. These problems seriously limit their responsiveness to psychoanalytic psychotherapy; psychosomatic illness or substance abuse is frequently exacerbated should these individuals enter psychotherapy.

A common misconception about alexithymia is that affected individuals are totally unable to express emotions verbally and that they may even fail to acknowledge that they experience emotions. Even before coining the term, Sifneos (1967) noted patients often mentioned things like anxiety or depression. The distinguishing factor was their inability to elaborate beyond a few limited adjectives such as “happy” or “unhappy” when describing these feelings. The core issue is that people with alexithymia have poorly differentiated emotions limiting their ability to distinguish and describe them to others. This contributes to the sense of emotional detachment from themselves and difficulty connecting with others, making alexithymia negatively associated with life satisfaction even when depression and other confounding factors are controlled for.

Associated Conditions

Alexithymia frequently co-occurs with other disorders. Research indicates that alexithymia overlaps with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). In a 2004 study using the TAS-20, 85% of the adults with ASD fell into the “impaired” category and almost half fell into the “severely impaired” category; in contrast, among the adult control population only 17% were “impaired”, none “severely impaired”. Fitzgerald & Bellgrove pointed out that, “Like alexithymia, Asperger’s syndrome is also characterised by core disturbances in speech and language and social relationships”. Hill & Berthoz agreed with Fitzgerald & Bellgrove (2006) and in response stated that “there is some form of overlap between alexithymia and ASDs”. They also pointed to studies that revealed impaired theory of mind skill in alexithymia, neuroanatomical evidence pointing to a shared aetiology and similar social skills deficits. The exact nature of the overlap is uncertain. Alexithymic traits in ASD may be linked to clinical depression or anxiety; the mediating factors are unknown and it is possible that alexithymia predisposes to anxiety. On the other hand, while the total alexithymia score as well as the difficulty in identifying feelings and externally oriented thinking factors are found to be significantly associated with ADHD, and while the total alexithymia score, the difficulty in identifying feelings, and the difficulty in describing feelings factors are also significantly associated with symptoms of hyperactivity/impulsivity, there is no significant relationship between alexithymia and inattentiveness symptom.

There are many more psychiatric disorders that overlap with alexithymia. One study found that 41% of US veterans of the Vietnam War with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were alexithymic. Another study found higher levels of alexithymia among Holocaust survivors with PTSD compared to those without. Higher levels of alexithymia among mothers with interpersonal violence-related PTSD were found in one study to have proportionally less caregiving sensitivity. This latter study suggested that when treating adult PTSD patients who are parents, alexithymia should be assessed and addressed also with attention to the parent-child relationship and the child’s social-emotional development.

Single study prevalence findings for other disorders include 63% in anorexia nervosa, 56% in bulimia, 45% to 50% in major depressive disorder, 34% in panic disorder, 28% in social phobia, and 50% in substance abusers. Alexithymia is also exhibited by a large proportion of individuals with acquired brain injuries such as stroke or traumatic brain injury.

Alexithymia is correlated with certain personality disorders, particularly schizoid, avoidant, dependent and schizotypal, substance use disorders, some anxiety disorders and sexual disorders as well as certain physical illnesses, such as hypertension, inflammatory bowel disease and functional dyspepsia. Alexithymia is further linked with disorders such as migraine headaches, lower back pain, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, nausea, allergies and fibromyalgia.

An inability to modulate emotions is a possibility in explaining why some people with alexithymia are prone to discharge tension arising from unpleasant emotional states through impulsive acts or compulsive behaviours such as binge eating, substance abuse, perverse sexual behaviour or anorexia nervosa. The failure to regulate emotions cognitively might result in prolonged elevations of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and neuroendocrine systems, which can lead to somatic diseases. People with alexithymia also show a limited ability to experience positive emotions leading Krystal (1988) and Sifneos (1987) to describe many of these individuals as anhedonic.

Alexisomia is a clinical concept that refers to the difficulty in the awareness and expression of somatic, or bodily, sensations. The concept was first proposed in 1979 by Dr. Yujiro Ikemi when he observed characteristics of both alexithymia and alexisomia in patients with psychosomatic diseases.


It is unclear what causes alexithymia, though several theories have been proposed.

Early studies showed evidence that there may be an interhemispheric transfer deficit among people with alexithymia; that is, the emotional information from the right hemisphere of the brain is not being properly transferred to the language regions in the left hemisphere, as can be caused by a decreased corpus callosum, often present in psychiatric patients who have suffered severe childhood abuse. A neuropsychological study in 1997 indicated that alexithymia may be due to a disturbance to the right hemisphere of the brain, which is largely responsible for processing emotions. In addition, another neuropsychological model suggests that alexithymia may be related to a dysfunction of the anterior cingulate cortex. These studies have some shortcomings, however, and the empirical evidence about the neural mechanisms behind alexithymia remains inconclusive.

French psychoanalyst Joyce McDougall objected to the strong focus by clinicians on neurophysiological explanations at the expense of psychological ones for the genesis and operation of alexithymia, and introduced the alternative term “disaffectation” to stand for psychogenic alexithymia. For McDougall, the disaffected individual had at some point “experienced overwhelming emotion that threatened to attack their sense of integrity and identity”, to which they applied psychological defences to pulverise and eject all emotional representations from consciousness. A similar line of interpretation has been taken up using the methods of phenomenology. McDougall has also noted that all infants are born unable to identify, organize, and speak about their emotional experiences (the word infans is from the Latin “not speaking”), and are “by reason of their immaturity inevitably alexithymic”. Based on this fact McDougall proposed in 1985 that the alexithymic part of an adult personality could be “an extremely arrested and infantile psychic structure”. The first language of an infant is nonverbal facial expressions. The parent’s emotional state is important for determining how any child might develop. Neglect or indifference to varying changes in a child’s facial expressions without proper feedback can promote an invalidation of the facial expressions manifested by the child. The parent’s ability to reflect self-awareness to the child is another important factor. If the adult is incapable of recognising and distinguishing emotional expressions in the child, it can influence the child’s capacity to understand emotional expressions.

Molecular genetic research into alexithymia remains minimal, but promising candidates have been identified from studies examining connections between certain genes and alexithymia among those with psychiatric conditions as well as the general population. A study recruiting a test population of Japanese males found higher scores on the Toronto Alexithymia Scale among those with the 5-HTTLPR homozygous long (L) allele. The 5-HTTLPR region on the serotonin transporter gene influences the transcription of the serotonin transporter that removes serotonin from the synaptic cleft, and is well studied for its association with numerous psychiatric disorders. Another study examining the 5-HT1A receptor, a receptor that binds serotonin, found higher levels of alexithymia among those with the G allele of the Rs6295 polymorphism within the HTR1A gene. Also, a study examining alexithymia in subjects with obsessive-compulsive disorder found higher alexithymia levels associated with the Val/Val allele of the Rs4680 polymorphism in the gene that encodes Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT), an enzyme which degrades catecholamine neurotransmitters such as dopamine. These links are tentative, and further research will be needed to clarify how these genes relate to the neurological anomalies found in the brains of people with alexithymia.

Although there is evidence for the role of environmental and neurological factors, the role and influence of genetic factors for developing alexithymia is still unclear. A single large scale Danish study suggested that genetic factors contributed noticeably to the development of alexithymia. However, such twin studies are controversial, as they suffer from the “equal environments assumption” and the “heritability” estimates in no way correspond to actual DNA structures. Traumatic brain injury is also implicated in the development of alexithymia, and those with traumatic brain injury are six times more likely to exhibit alexithymia.

In Relationships

Alexithymia can create interpersonal problems because these individuals tend to avoid emotionally close relationships, or if they do form relationships with others they usually position themselves as either dependent, dominant, or impersonal, “such that the relationship remains superficial”. Inadequate “differentiation” between self and others by alexithymic individuals has also been observed. Their difficulty in processing interpersonal connections often develops where the person lacks a romantic partner.

In a study, a large group of alexithymic individuals completed the 64-item Inventory of Interpersonal Problems (IIP-64) which found that “two interpersonal problems are significantly and stably related to alexithymia: cold/distant and non-assertive social functioning. All other IIP-64 subscales were not significantly related to alexithymia.”

Chaotic interpersonal relations have also been observed by Sifneos. Due to the inherent difficulties identifying and describing emotional states in self and others, alexithymia also negatively affects relationship satisfaction between couples.

In a 2008 study alexithymia was found to be correlated with impaired understanding and demonstration of relational affection, and that this impairment contributes to poorer mental health, poorer relational well-being, and lowered relationship quality. Individuals high on the alexithymia spectrum also report less distress at seeing others in pain and behave less altruistically toward others.

Some individuals working for organisations in which control of emotions is the norm might show alexithymic-like behaviour but not be alexithymic. However, over time the lack of self-expressions can become routine and they may find it harder to identify with others.


Generally speaking, approaches to treating alexithymia are still in their infancy, with not many proven treatment options available.

In 2002, Kennedy and Franklin found that a skills-based intervention is an effective method for treating alexithymia. Kennedy and Franklin’s treatment plan involved giving the participants a series of questionnaires, psychodynamic therapies, cognitive-behavioural and skills-based therapies, and experiential therapies. After treatment, they found that participants were generally less ambivalent about expressing their emotion feelings and more attentive to their emotional states.

In 2017, based on their attention-appraisal model of alexithymia, Preece and colleagues recommended that alexithymia treatment should target trying to improve the developmental level of people’s emotion schemas and reduce people’s use of experiential avoidance of emotions as an emotion regulation strategy (i.e. the mechanisms hypothesized to underlie alexithymia difficulties in the attention-appraisal model of alexithymia).

In 2018, Löf, Clinton, Kaldo, and Rydén found that mentalisation-based treatment is also an effective method for treating alexithymia. Mentalisation is the ability to understand the mental state of oneself or others that underlies overt behaviour, and mentalisation-based treatment helps patients separate their own thoughts and feelings from those around them. This treatment is relational, and it focuses on gaining a better understanding and use of mentalising skills. The researchers found that all of the patients’ symptoms including alexithymia significantly improved, and the treatment promoted affect tolerance and the ability to think flexibly while expressing intense affect rather than impulsive behaviour.

A significant issue impacting alexithymia treatment is that alexithymia has comorbidity with other disorders. Mendelson’s 1982 study showed that alexithymia frequently presented in people with undiagnosed chronic pain. Participants in Kennedy and Franklin’s study all had anxiety disorders in conjunction with alexithymia, while those in Löf et al. were diagnosed with both alexithymia and borderline personality disorder. All these comorbidity issues complicate treatment because it is difficult to examine people who exclusively have alexithymia.

What is Parallel Process?


Parallel process is a phenomenon noted between therapist and supervisor, whereby the therapist recreates, or parallels, the client’s problems by way of relating to the supervisor.

The individual’s transference and the therapist’s countertransference thus re-appear in the mirror of the therapist/supervisor relationship.


Attention to parallel process first emerged in the nineteen-fifties (1950s). The process was termed reflection by Harold Searles in 1955, and two years later T. Hora (1957) first used the actual term parallel process – emphasising that it was rooted in an unconscious identification with the client/patient which could extend to tone of voice and behaviour. The supervisee thus enacts the central problem of the therapy in the supervision, potentially opening up a process of containment and solution, first by the supervisor and then by the therapist.

Alternatively, the supervisor’s own countertransference may be activated in the parallel process, to be reflected in turn between supervisor and consultant, or back into the original patient/helper dyad. Even then, however, careful examination of the material may still illuminate the original therapeutic difficulty, as reflected in the parallel situation.