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.

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What is Social Penetration Theory?


The social penetration theory (SPT) proposes that as relationships develop, interpersonal communication moves from relatively shallow, non-intimate levels to deeper, more intimate ones. The theory was formulated by psychologists Irwin Altman of the University of Utah and Dalmas Taylor of the University of Delaware in 1973 to understand relationship development between individuals. Altman and Taylor noted that relationships “involve different levels of intimacy of exchange or degree of social penetration”. SPT is known as an objective theory as opposed to an interpretive theory, meaning it is based on data drawn from actual experiments and not simply from conclusions based on individuals’ specific experiences.

SPT states that the relationship development occurs primarily through self-disclosure – when one intentionally reveals information such as personal motives, desires, feelings, thoughts, and experiences to others. This theory assumes that as people becomes closer with others, positive reinforcement through positive interactions allow people to achieve deeper levels of intimacy. The theory is also guided by the assumptions that relationship development is systematic and predictable. SPT also examines the process of de-penetration, how some relationships regress over time, and eventually end.


SPT is based on four basic assumptions:

  • Relationship development moves from superficial layers to intimate ones. For instance, people tend to present their outer images only, talking about hobbies on a first date. As the relational development progresses, wider and more controversial topics such as political views are included in the dialogues.
  • Interpersonal relationships develop in a generally systematic and predictable manner. This assumption indicates the predictability of relationship development. Although it is impossible to foresee the exact and precise path of relational development, there is a certain trajectory to follow. As Altman and Taylor note, “[p]eople seem to possess very sensitive tuning mechanisms which enable them to program carefully their interpersonal relationships.”
  • Relational development can move backward, resulting in de-penetration and dissolution. For example, after prolonged and fierce fights, a couple who originally planned to get married may decide to break up and ultimately become strangers.
  • Self-disclosure is the key to facilitate relationship development, and involves disclosing and sharing personal information to others. It enables individuals to know each other and plays a crucial role in determining how far a relationship can go, because gradual exploration of mutual selves is essential in the process of social penetration.


Refer to Self-Disclosure.

Self-disclosure is a purposeful disclosure of personal information to another person. Disclosure may include sharing both high-risk and low-risk information as well as personal experiences, ideas, attitudes, feelings, values, past facts and life stories, future hopes, dreams, ambitions, and goals. In sharing information about themselves, people make choices about what to share and with whom to share it. Altman and Taylor believe that opening the inner self to the other individual is the main path to reaching intimate relationships.

As for the speed of self-disclosure, Altman and Taylor were convinced that the process of social penetration moves quickly in the beginning stages of a relationship and slows down considerably in the later stages. Those who are able to develop a long-term, positive reward/cost outcome are the same people who are able to share important matches of breadth categories. The early reward/cost assessment has a strong impact on the relationship’s reactions, involvement, and expectations in a relationship regarding the future, play a major role in the outcome of the relationship.

Uncertainty Reduction Theory

The uncertainty reduction theory (URT) is the process that people experience as they begin new relationships. When two strangers meet, they engage by asking each other questions in order to build a stronger relationship. In the context of both URT and SPT, questions are seen as a tool to learn information about the other in order to receive rewards. These rewards are either physical/material rewards, or abstract rewards that supplement the relationship as it develops.

Through this process of asking questions in a new relationship, uncertainty and anxiety can be reduced and lead to a more developed relationship between the two people. Where social penetration theory postulates that new relationships (either romantic or platonic) steadily evolve into deeper conversations and interactions, uncertainty reduction theory postulates that these new relationships can reach that deep level through question and answer processes. Although SPT primarily focuses on the linear trajectory of the relationship as the two parties get a deeper understanding of one another, URT is relevant in that it focuses on each instance when uncertainty may need to be reduced through question asking on a case-by-case basis (i.e. the two people initially meet and questions are asked and later on in the relationship, one party asks the other to meet their parents and the two engage in URT to reduce the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the situation).

Disclosure Reciprocity

Self-disclosure is reciprocal, especially in the early stages of relationship development. Disclosure reciprocity is an indispensable component in SPT, and is a process where one person reveals personal information of a certain intimacy level, and the other person discloses information of the same level. It is two-way disclosure, or mutual disclosure. Disclosure reciprocity can induce positive and satisfactory feelings and drive forward relational development, because as mutual disclosure take place between individuals, they might feel a sense of emotional equity. Disclosure reciprocity occurs when the openness of one person is reciprocated with the same degree of the openness from the other person. For instance, if someone was to bring up their experience with an intimate topic such as weight gain or having divorced parents, the person they are talking to could reciprocate by sharing their own experience.

Self-disclosure being reciprocated is also a forming foundation for interpersonal relationships. If self-disclosure is not reciprocated in an interpersonal relationship, it moves the relationship to potentially face a stage of de-penetration or “slow deterioration of relationship”. This can happen in a few ways, such as oversharing and undersharing. Oversharing personal information can lead to the end of the relationship, as “[s]ome partners may be ill-equipped and underprepared to know someone so intimately”. Since self-disclosure depends on going back and forth, if one partner does not share that, it leads to an imbalance in the relationship, and the bond is unlikely to progress since the other partner only knows a certain amount. This also causes the partner who shares or discloses not wanting to disclose any further, hindering the interpersonal relationship’s progress because “[t]he greater the depth, the more opportunity for a person to feel vulnerable”. Vulnerability leads the partner to believe that there can be an interpersonal relationship as it translates into trust for partners’ relationship.

Onion Model

SPT uses the onion model, which visualises self-disclosure as a process of removing layers. The onion denotes various layers of personality. It is sometimes called the “onion theory” of personality. Three major factors influence self-revelation and begin the process of the onion theory: personal characteristics, reward/cost assessments, and the situational context.


Relationship development is not automatic, but occurs through the skills of partners in revealing or disclosing first their attitudes and later their personalities, inner character, and true selves. This is done in a reciprocal manner. The main factor that acts as a catalyst in the development of relationships is proper self disclosure. Altman and Taylor proposes that there are four major stages in social penetration:

  1. The orientation stage: individuals engage in small talk and simple, harmless clichés like, ‘Life’s like that’. This first stage follows the standards of social desirability and norms of appropriateness. The outer images are presented and peripheral information are exchanged. The most, but least intimate information is given here.
  2. The exploratory affective stage: individuals start to reveal the inner self bit by bit, expressing personal attitudes about moderate topics such as government and education. This may not be the whole truth as individuals are not yet comfortable to lay themselves bare. This is the stage of casual friendship, and many relationships do not go past this stage.
  3. The affective stage: individuals are getting more comfortable to talk about private and personal matter, and there are some forms of commitment in this stage. Personal idioms, or words and phrases that embody unique meanings between individuals, are used in conversations. Criticism and arguments may arise. A comfortable share of positive and negative reactions occurs in this stage. Relationships become more important to both parties, more meaningful and more enduring. It is a stage of close friendships and intimate partners.
  4. The stable stage: the relationship now reaches a plateau in which some of the deepest personal thoughts, beliefs, and values are shared and each can predict the emotional reactions of the other person. This stage is characterized with complete openness, raw honesty and a high degree of spontaneity. The least, but most intimate information is given here.
  5. De-penetration stage (optional): when the relationship starts to break down and costs exceed benefits, there is a withdrawal of disclosure that causes the relationship to end.


De-penetration is a gradual process of layer-by-layer withdrawal that causes relationship and intimacy levels to regress and fade away. According to Altman and Taylor, when de-penetration occurs, “interpersonal exchange should proceed backwards from more to less intimate areas, should decrease in breadth or volume, and, as a result, the total cumulative wedge of exchange should shrink”. A warm friendship between two people will deteriorate if they begin to close off areas of their lives that had earlier been opened. Relationships are likely to break down not in an explosive argument but in a gradual cooling off of enjoyment and care. Tolstedt and Stokes note that in the de-penetration process, self-disclosure breadth reduces and self-disclosure depth increases. It is because when intimate relationship is dissolving, a wide range of judgments, feelings and evaluations, particularly the negative ones, are involved in conversations.

Idiomatic Communication in Self-Disclosure

Within the coming together and falling apart stages of a relationship, partners oftentimes use unique forms of communication, such as nicknames and idioms, to refer to one another. This is known as idiomatic communication, a phenomenon that is reported to occur more often among couples in the coming together stages of a relationship. Couples falling apart reported that idiomatic communication, which can include teasing insults and other personally provocative language, have an adverse effect overall on the relationship.

Breadth and Depth

Both depth and breadth are related to the onion model. As the wedge penetrates the layers of the onion, the degree of intimacy and the range of areas in an individual’s life that an individual chooses to share increases.

The breadth of penetration is the range of areas in an individual’s life being disclosed, or the range of topics discussed. For instance, one segment could be family, a specific romantic relationship, or academic studies. Each of these segments or areas are not always accessed at the same time. One could be completely open about a family relationship while hiding an aspect of a romantic relationship for various reasons such as abuse or disapproval from family or friends. It takes genuine intimacy with all segments to be able to access all areas of breadth at all times.

The depth of penetration is a degree of intimacy; as individuals overcome common anxiety over self-disclosure, intimacy builds. Deeper intimacy facilitates relational trust and encourages further conversation about deeper things than would be discussed in everyday conversation. This deepening occurs in many relationships: friendship, familial, peer, and romantic.

It is possible to have depth without breadth and vice versa. For instance, depth without breadth could be where only one area of intimacy is accessed. “A relationship that could be depicted from the onion model would be a summer romance. This would be depth without breadth.”[citation needed] On the other hand, breadth without depth would be simple everyday conversations. An example would be when passing by an acquaintance and saying, “Hi, how are you?” without ever really expecting to stop and listen to what this person has to say is common.

The relationship between breadth and depth can be similar to that used in modern technology. Pennington describes in a study that

… With a click of the mouse to accept them as a “friend” roommates across the country can learn: relationships status (single, engaged, it’s complicated), favorite movies, books, TV shows, religious views, political views, and a whole lot more if someone takes the time to fill out an entire Facebook profile.

Because of social media, the breadth of subjects can be wide, as well as the depth of those using the platforms. Users of these platforms seem to feel obligated to share simple information as was listed by Pennington, but also highly personal information that can now be considered general knowledge. Because of social media platforms and users’ willingness to share personal information, the law of reciprocity is replaced by divulging personal information to countless followers and friends without them reciprocating the same level of vulnerability. In cases like this, there is depth without much breadth.


Several factors can affect the amount of self-disclosure between partners: gender, race, religion, personality, social status, and ethnic background. For example, American friends tend to discuss intimate topics with each other, whereas Japanese friends are more likely to discuss superficial topics. One might feel less inclined to disclose personal information if doing so would violate their religious beliefs. Being part of a religious minority can also influence how much one feels comfortable in disclosing personal information. In romantic relationships, women are more likely to self-disclose than their male counterparts. Men often refrain from expressing deep emotions out of fear of social stigma. Such barriers can slow the rate of self-disclosure and even prevent relationships from forming. In theory, the more dissimilar two people are, the more difficult or unlikely self-disclosure becomes.

Stranger-on-the-Train Phenomenon

Most of the time individuals engage in self-disclosure strategically, carefully evaluating what to disclose and what to be reserved, since disclosing too much in the early stage of relationship is generally considered inappropriate, and can end or damage a relationship. In certain contexts, self-disclosure does not follow the pattern. This exception is known as the “stranger-on-the-train” phenomenon, in which individuals rapidly reveal personal information with complete strangers in public spaces. This specific concept can be known as verbal leakage, which is defined by Floyd as “unintentionally telling another person something about yourself”. SPT operates under the impression that the self-disclosure given is not only truthful, meaning the speaker believes what is being said to be true, but intentional. Self-disclosure can be defined as “the voluntary sharing of personal history, preferences, attitudes, feelings, values, secrets, etc., with another person”. The information given in any relationship, whether acquaintance or a well-established relationship, should be voluntarily shared, otherwise it does not follow the laws of reciprocity and is considered verbal leakage, or the stranger-on-the-train phenomenon. Some researchers argue that revealing our inner self to complete strangers is deemed as “cathartic exercise” or “service of confession”, which allows individuals to unload emotions and express deeper thoughts without being haunted by potential unfavourable comments or judgements. This is because people tend to take lightly and dismiss responses from strangers, who do not really matter in their lives. Some researchers suggest that this phenomenon occurs because individuals feel less vulnerable to open up to strangers who they do not expect to see again.

Sexual Communication Anxiety among Couples

The rate of sexual satisfaction in relationships has been observed to relate directly to effective communication between couples. Individuals in a relationship who experience anxiety find it difficult to divulge information regarding their sexuality and desires due to the perceived vulnerabilities in doing so. In a study published by the Archives of Sexual Behaviour, socially anxious individuals generally attribute potential judgement or scrutiny as the main instigators for any insecurities in self-disclosing to their romantic partners. This fear of intimacy, and thus a lower level of sexual self-disclosure within a relationship, is predicted to correlate to a decrease in sexual satisfaction.

Rewards and Costs Assessment

Social Exchange Theory

Refer to Social Exchange Theory.

Social exchange theory states that humans weigh each relationship and interaction with another human on a reward-cost scale without realising it. If the interaction was satisfactory, then that person or relationship is looked upon favourably. When there are positive interactions that produce good reward/cost calculations, the relationship is likely to be more satisfying. If an interaction was unsatisfactory, then the relationship will be evaluated for its costs compared to its rewards or benefits. People try to predict the outcome of an interaction before it takes place. From a scientific standpoint, Altman and Taylor were able to assign letters as mathematical representations of costs and rewards. They also borrowed the concepts from Thibaut and Kelley’s in order to describe the relation of costs and rewards of relationships. Thibaut and Kelley’s key concepts of relational outcome, relational satisfaction, and relational stability serve as the foundation of Irwin and Taylor’s rewards minus costs, comparison level, and comparison level of alternatives.


Interpersonal Communication

The value of SPT initially lies in the area of interpersonal communication. Scholars have been using the concepts and onion model to explore the development of counter-sex/romantic relationships, friendships, parent-child relationships, employer-employee relationships, caregiver-patient relationships and beyond. Some of the key findings are described as follows.

Researchers have found that in parent-child relationships, information derived from the child’s spontaneous disclosure in daily activities was most closely connected to generating and maintaining their trust in parents, indicating the importance of developing shallow but broad relationships with children through everyday conversation rather than long-lasting profound lectures. Honeycutt used the SPT model and the Attraction Paradigm to analyse happiness between married couples. While the SPT model believes that relationships are grounded on effective communication, the Attraction Paradigm believes that relationships are grounded on having shared interests, personality types, and beliefs. The results showed that having a perceived understanding of each other can lead to happiness between married couples. While research notes that it looks only at perceived understanding and not actual understanding, it shows the importance of relationship development. The more that partners in a relationship interact with each other, the more likely they are to understand each other better. Scholars also use this theory to examine other factors influencing the social penetration process in close friendships. As Mitchell and William (1987) state, ethnicity and sex have an impact on friendships. The survey results indicates that more breadth of topics occurs in penetration process in black friendships than white. Regarding caregiver-patient relationships, developing a social penetrated relationship with institution disclosed breadth and depth information and multiple effective penetration strategies is critical to the benefits of the patients

Gender-Based Difference in Self-Disclosure

Research demonstrates that there are significant gender differences in self-disclosure, particularly emotional self-disclosure, or expressing personal feelings and emotions, such as, “Sometimes, I feel lonely to study abroad and to be away from my family.” Emotional self-disclosure is at the core of intimate relationship development, because unlike factual (descriptive) self-disclosure or superficial self-relevant facts, it is more personal and more effective to cultivate intimacy. Emotional self-disclosure makes individuals “transparent” and vulnerable to others. According to previous studies, females are more socially oriented, whereas males are more task-oriented, and thus females are believed to be more socially interdependent than males. In a friendship between females, emotional attachments such as sharing emotions, thoughts, experiences, and supports are fundamental, while friendships between males tend to focus on activities and companionship. Overall, women’s friendships are described as more intimate than men’s friendships.

In addition, there is a gender difference regarding to topics revealed. Men tend to disclose their strengths, while women disclose their fears more. Both men and women are prone to disclose their emotions to same-sex friends more, but women are prone to reveal more than men to both same-sex as well as cross-sex friends. According to research conducted among Pakistani students, women extensively disclose their feelings, while emotions such as depression, anxiety and fear are more likely being disclosed to male friends, because men are perceived as more capable to deal with such emotions.

Self-Disclosure in Intercultural Relationships

Research reveals that there are multiple obstacles and tensions that occur within intercultural and interracial relationships that do not exist in intracultural and intraracial relationships. These challenges are due to the different norms and ideals a person learns within their racial, ethnic, and national group contexts, meaning an individual will feel more comfortable and understood by those who learned and share the same coordinated meanings.

The first obstacle that may occur is in the initial meeting, since cultural and racial differences can hinder a relationship from forming. If a connection develops, the next obstacle is in self disclosure. Through self-disclosure, the relationship evolves from the superficial orientation stage to a more intimate, understanding level.

Self-Disclosure in the LGBT Community

Minority groups have a unique way of creating closeness between each other. For example, lesbian friendships and intimate relationships are reliant on mutual self-disclosure and honesty. Both parties must expose themselves for an authentic and genuine relationship to develop. The problem is that for many lesbians, this process is not always as simple as it may seem. Exposing one’s sexual orientation can be a difficult and gruelling process and because of this, many lesbians avoid disclosing their true identities to new acquaintances, which leads them to turn to their family members or already existing social support systems, and can strain or reduce those relationships. Because of these difficulties, lesbians will limit who they choose to surround themselves with. Many involve themselves in groups that are solely made up of only lesbians or are only made up of heterosexual women to avoid their true lesbian identity. It can be difficult for lesbian individuals to open-up about their sexual identities, because of the fear of being rejected or losing special relationships.

A study was done to examine self-disclosure among LGBT youths. Through a series of interviews, one group described their coming out experiences. They told the interviewers about who they chose to disclose their sexual orientation to and whether the disclosure had a positive or negative effect on their relationships. Results showed that more youths disclosed their sexual orientation to their friends than to their parents. A number of participants chose to disclose their sexual orientation to their teachers. Results also showed both positive and negative reactions. Some youth expressed de-penetration in their friendships after coming out, as well as de-penetration in their sibling relationships. Some participants expressed experiencing other reactions beside positive and negative. There were invalidated reactions, where a participant’s sexual orientation was dismissed as a “phase”, and neutral reactions, where the recipient of the disclosure informed the participant that they were already aware of their sexual orientation. Some participants expressed having mixed and evolving results. For example, a participant who identified as a transgender man said that his mother was initially fine with his sexual orientation, which at the time was a lesbian, but had a negative reaction when he later came out as transgender. A few participants mentioned that they had initially received negative reactions from friends and family after coming out, but that as time went on, their sexual orientation came to be accepted and the relationships remained intact.

LGBT professionals often feel anxiety about disclosing their sexual orientation to their colleagues. Professionals who chose to disclose their sexual orientation have had mixed reactions in how it has affected their relationship with their colleagues. Some had had positive reactions, strengthening their relationships and their overall job satisfaction, while others have had the opposite experience. They feel that disclosing their sexual orientation hurt their professional relationships and their overall job satisfaction. The atmosphere of one’s office can influence their decision to disclose their sexual orientation. If their colleagues are themselves LGBT or if they have voiced support for the LGBT community, the more likely they are to disclose their sexual orientation. If they have little to no colleagues who are openly part of the LGBT community or if there is no vocal support, the less likely they are to come out.

According to a study, LGBT people have different ways of coming out. These varying methods of disclosure include pre-planned, in which someone decides to arrange a conversation; emergent, in which someone decides to come out based on an ongoing conversation; coaxed, in which someone encouraged to come out by someone else; forced, in which someone is coerced to come out; romantic, in which someone comes out by making romantic or sexual advances; or educational, in which someone comes out in order to educate or encourage others, usually in front of an audience.

Patient Self-Disclosure in Psychotherapy

Patient self-disclosure has been a prominent issue in therapy, particularly in psychotherapy. Early studies have shown that patients’ self-disclosure is positively related to treatment outcomes. Freud is a pioneer in encouraging his patients to totally open up in psychotherapy. Many early clinical innovations, such as lying on the couch and therapist’s silence, are aimed to create an environment, an atmosphere, that allows patients to disclose their deepest self, and free them from concerns facilitating conscious suppression of emotions or memories. Even with such efforts, Barry A. Farber says that in psychotherapy, “full disclosure is more of an ideal than an actuality”. Patients are prone to reveal certain topics to the therapists, such as disliked characteristics of themselves, social activities, as well as relationship with friends and significant ones; and tend to avoid discussing certain issues, such as sexual-oriented experiences, immediately experienced negative reactions (e.g. feeling misunderstood or confused) due to conscious inhibition.

In psychotherapy, patients have to deal with the tension between confessional relief and confessional shame all the time. It has been shown that the length of therapy and the strength of the therapeutic alliance (the bond between the patient and the therapist) are two major factors that affect self-disclosure in psychotherapy. As SPT indicates, the longer patients spent time with their therapists, the range of issues being discussed broadens, and more topics are marked with depth. The greater the depth of the discussions, the more likely the patient feels being vulnerable. To strengthen the alliance, cultivating a comfortable atmosphere for self-disclosure and self-discovery is important.

Ethical Decision Making

Ethical and moral decision making has been the topic of contentious academic debate for some time. According to a study, SPT was found to be one of the most applicable communication theories to explain the way people make their decisions based on their ethical and moral compass. The theory shows strong correlation between self disclosure and reinforcement patterns, which are shown to have a big impact on one’s perceived ethical code. This can be applied to a number of fields including communications, psychology, ethics, philosophy, and sociology.

Patient/Therapist Self-Disclosure

The condition of patients with eating disorders have been shown to improve with therapist self-disclosure. In 2017, a study was conducted and 120 participants (95% women) were surveyed. For the purpose of the study, appropriate therapist self-disclosure was defined as sharing positive feelings towards participants in therapy and discussing one’s training background.

The results found that 84% of people said their therapist disclosed positive feelings to them while in therapy. The study found that when therapists disclosed positive feelings, it had a positive effect on the patient’s eating problems. Eating disorders generally got better with therapist self-disclosure. When the therapist shared self-referent information to the patient it created trust and the patients perceived the therapist as being more “human.” Patients with eating disorders saw the therapist disclosure as a strengthening therapeutic relationship. However, personal self-disclosure of the therapist – sexuality, personal values, and negative feelings – was considered inappropriate by patients.

Self-Disclosure and Individuals with Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a disorder in which individuals experience overwhelming levels of fear in social situations and interactions. They tend to adopt strategic avoidance of social interactions, which makes it challenging for them to disclose themselves to others and reveal emotions. Self-disclosure is the key to foster intimate relationship, in which individuals can receive needed social support. Close friendships and romantic relationships are two major sources for social supports, which have protective effects and play a crucial role in helping individuals with social phobia to cope with distress. Due to the profound impacts of the anxiety disorder, it has been found that late marriage or staying unmarried is prevalent among individuals with SAD. This is problematic, because being unable to gain needed social supports from intimate ones further confines the social phobic in the loneliness and depression that they have been suffering from. In response to the problem, Sparrevohn and Rapee suggest that improving communication skill, particularly self-disclosure and emotional expression, should be included in future social phobia treatment, so the quality of life of individuals with social phobia can be improved.

Server-Patron Mutual Disclosure in Restaurant Industry

As social penetration theory suggests, disclosure reciprocity induces positive emotion which is essential for retaining close and enduring relationships. In the service industry, compared with securing new customers, maintaining long-term relationships with existing customers is more cost-effective. Hwang et al. indicates that mutual disclosure is the vital factor for establishing trust between customers and servers. Effective server disclosure, such as sincere advice about menu choices and personal favourite dishes, can elicit reciprocity of information exchange between servers and customers. The received information regarding to the taste and preference of the customers then can be used to provide tailored services, which in turn can positively strengthen customers’ trust, commitment and loyalty toward the restaurant.

Hwang et al. suggest that server disclosure is more effective to evoke customer disclosure in female customers, who are more likely to reveal personal information than their male counterparts. In addition, studies have shown that factors such as expertise (e.g. servers’ knowledge and experience), customer-oriented attribute (e.g. listening to the concerns from the customers attentively), as well as marital status influence mutual disclosure in the restaurant setting. Expertise is positively correlated to both customer and server disclosure. Server disclosure is only effective in inducing disclosure and positive feelings from unmarried patrons who feel more comfortable to have a conversation with the servers.

Organisational Communication

The ideas posited by the theory have been researched and re-examined by scholars when looking at organisational communication. Some scholars explored the arena of company policy making, demonstrating that the effect company policies have on the employees, ranging from slight attitudinal responses (such as dissatisfaction) to radical behavioural reactions (such as conflicts, fights and resignation). In this way, sophisticated implementation of controversial policies is required (Baack, 1991). SPT offers a framework allowing for an explanation of the potential issues.

Media-Mediated Communication

Self-Disclosure in Reality TV

Reality television is a genre characterised by real-life situations and very intimate self-disclosure. Self-disclosure on reality shows can be considered to be self-disclosure by media characters, and the relationship between the audience and the media character is parasocial.

In reality shows, self-disclosure are usually delivered as monologues, which is similar real-life self-disclosure and gives the audience the illusion that the messages are directed to them. According to social penetration theory, self-disclosure should follow certain stages, moving from the superficial layers to the central layers gradually. Nonetheless, rapid self-disclosure of intimate layers is a norm in reality TV shows, and unlike interpersonal interactions, viewers prefer early intimate disclosure and such disclosure leads to positive rather than inducing uncomfortable feelings.

Computer-Mediated Communication

Computer-mediated communication (CMC) is another way in which people can develop relationships. Technology is seen as a medium that connects people, who would otherwise be strangers, through shared interests or cultures. The Internet has been thought to broaden the way people communicate and build relationships by providing a medium in which people could be open-minded and unconventional and circumvent traditional limitations like time and place. Before social media and online dating sites, strangers communicated with each other through pen-pal organisations or face-to-face in public locations. With the influx of CMC and the advancement of technology, strangers can decide whether they will invest time in and develop a relationship based on information that is provided in a profile. When someone sees that a person included a similar interest to them in their profile, the uncertainty becomes reduced and the two strangers utilise CMC to connect over their shared interests.

As time has progressed, the stigma around online dating has reduced significantly and more research on SPT and CMC is being done. When engaging in a new relationship through CMC, there are some missing elements and nonverbal cues, which increases the uncertainty in the relationship. With the prominent use of online dating services, relationship development has changed. Before CMC influenced relationships, couples solely relied on face-to-face interactions, nonverbal cues, and first impressions to decide if they would continue to develop the relationship further. The introduction of CMC in romantic relationships has added an element for all parties to consider when beginning their relationships.

Some researchers found that self-disclosure online tends to reassure people that if they are rejected, it is more likely to be by strangers and not family or friends, which reinforces the desire to self-disclose online rather than face-to-face. Not only are people meeting new people to make friends, but many people are meeting and initiating romantic relationships online. In another study, it was found that “CMC dyads compensated for the limitations of the channel by making their questions more intimate than those who exhibited face-to-face”.

Celebrities’ Self-Disclosure on Social Media

On social media, the boundaries between interpersonal and mass communication is blurred, and parasocial interaction (PSI) is adopted strategically by celebrities to enhance liking, intimacy, and credibility from their followers. “During PSI, people interact with a media figure, to some extent, as if they were in an actual interpersonal relationships with the target entity.” For celebrities, professional self-disclosure (e.g. information about upcoming events) and personal self-disclosure such as emotions and feelings are two primary ways to cultivate illusory intimacy with their followers and to expand their fan bases. Unlike real-life interpersonal relationships, disclosure reciprocity is not expected in parasocial interactions, although through imagined interactions on social medias, followers feel they are connected to the media figures.

Social Networking

Self-disclosure has been studied when it comes to face-to-face interactions. There have been surveys conducted about how social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, hi5, myyearbook, or Friendster affect interactions between human beings. On Facebook, users are able to determine their level and degree of self-disclosure by setting their privacy settings. People achieve breadth by posting about their lives and sharing surface information, and develop intimate relationships with depth by sending private Facebook messages and creating closed groups.

The level of intimacy that one chooses to disclose depends on the type of website they are using to communicate. Disclosing personal information online is a goal-oriented process; if one’s goal is to build a relationship with someone, they would likely disclose personal information over instant messaging (IM) and on social media. It is highly unlikely that they would choose to share that information in a website that is used for online shopping. With online shopping, the goal is to make a purchase, so the individual would share only the information needed (i.e. name and address) to make a purchase. When disclosing information over IM and in social media, the individual is much more selective in what they choose to disclose.

“The hyperpersonal perspective suggests that the limited cues in CMC are likely to result in over attribution and exaggerated or idealized perceptions of others and that those who meet and interact via CMC use such limited cues to engage in optimized or selective self-presentation”. There is the possibility that someone could mislead another person because there are more opportunities to build a more desirable identity without fear of persecution. If there is no chance of ever meeting the person on the other end of the computer, then there is a high risk of falsifying information and credentials.

Research has been done to see what kinds of people tend to benefit most from online self-disclosure. The “social compensation” or “poor-get-richer” hypothesis suggests that those who have poor social networks and social anxiety can benefit by disclosing themselves freely and creating new relationships through the Internet. However, other research has been performed to observe that extraverts are more likely to disclose information online. This brings in the “rich-get-richer” hypothesis, which states that “the Internet primarily benefits extraverted individuals…[and] online communication…increases the opportunities for extraverted adolescents to make friends… [the research concluded that] extraverted individuals disclosed more online than introverted”.

Another study found that while it may be easier for many people to disclose information and dive into their social penetration more quickly online, it also had less favourable outcomes for the closeness individuals may feel when disclosing information online as opposed to in person.

Online Dating

Some scholars posit that when initiating a romantic relationship, there are important differences between internet dating sites and other spaces, such as the depth and breadth of the self-disclosed information given before they go further to one-on-one conversation. Studies have shown that in real life, adolescents tend to engage in sexual disclosure according to the level of relationship intimacy, which supports the social penetration model; in cyberspace, men present a stronger willingness and interest to communicate without regarding the current intimacy status or degree. There are also many counter-examples of the theory that exist in romantic relationship development. Some adolescents discuss the most intimate information when they first meet online or have sex without knowing each other thoroughly. Contrary to the path stated by SPT, the relationship would have developed from the core – the highest depth – to the superficial surface of large breadth. In this way, sexual disclosure on the part of adolescents under certain circumstances departs from the perspective of SPT.

Gibbs, Ellison, and Heino conducted a study analysing self-disclosure in online dating. They found that the desire for an intimate face-to-face relationship could be a decision factor into how much information one chose to disclose in online dating. This might mean presenting an honest depiction of one’s self online as opposed to a positive one. Having an honest depiction can potentially prevent dating from occurring, especially if the depiction is seen as negative. This could be beneficial, as it would prevent the formation of a relationship that would likely fail. It could also cause the potential date to self-disclose about themselves in response, adding to the possibility of making a connection.

Some individuals might focus more on having a positive depiction, which may cause them to be more selective in the information they disclose. An individual who presents themselves honestly could argue that disclosing their negative information is necessary as in a long-term relationship, one’s partner would eventually learn of their flaws. An individual who presents themselves positively could argue it is more appropriate to wait until the relationship develops before sharing negative information.

In a separate study, Ellison, Heino, and Gibbs analysed specifically how one chose to present themselves in online dating. They found that most individuals thought of themselves as being honest in how they presented themselves, and that they could not understand why someone would present themselves dishonestly. Most people present an ideal self – what one would like themselves to be as opposed to what they actually are in reality. One could justify this by believing that they could become their ideal self in the future. Some users might present themselves in a way that is not necessarily false, but not fully true either. For example, one could say that they enjoy activities such as scuba diving and hiking, but go several years without partaking in them. This could come across as misleading to a potential date who partakes in these activities regularly. Weight is a common area in which one might present an ideal self as opposed to an honest self. Some users might use older pictures or lie about their weight with the intention of losing it. For some individuals, they might present themselves in a way that is inaccurate but is how they see themselves. This is known as the “foggy mirror” phenomenon.

Blogging and Online Chatting

With the advent of the Internet, blogs and online chatrooms have become ubiquitous. Generally, those who blog on a professional level do not disclose personal information; they only disclose information relative to the company they work for. However, those who blog on a personal level have also made a career out of their blogging – there are many who are making money for sharing their lives with the world.

Further, bloggers tend to have significantly different patterns of self-disclosure for different target audiences. The online survey that asked 1,027 Taiwanese bloggers examined the depth and breath of what bloggers disclosed to the online audience, best friends, and parents, as well as nine topics they discussed. Based on a research study on the relationship between the social penetration theory and blogging, it was discovered that “bloggers disclose their thoughts, feelings, and experiences to their best friends in the real world the deepest and widest, rather than to their parents and online audiences. Bloggers seem to express their personal interests and experiences in a wide range of topics online to document their lives or to maintain their online social networks.” Another study looked at online chatting, and noted that “once a norm of self-disclosure forms, it is reinforced by statements supportive of self-disclosures but not of non-self disclosures”.

Cross-Cultural Social Penetration

Studies have rarely considered the differences that cultural nuances can play in social penetration, particularly when it is between two cultures which are either high context or low context. However, it was found that social penetration theory can be generalized to North American-Japanese dyads, which was further supported when comparing the research to the highest level of intimacy marital communication. The same held to be true when it came to analysing the level of intimacy between different dyads across the spectrum, but it was found that “the results from the analysis of the dispersion scores revealed that mixed dyads had significantly less agreement than low intimacy dyads on the amount of personalized communication and less, but not significantly less, agreement than low intimacy dyads.” Therefore, conflict came more from differences in intimacy than from differences in cultural contexts. The study also found that opposite-sex dyads were generally more personalised than same-sex dyads, regardless of culture. Perceived difficulty of communication had a high negative correlation, suggesting that as communicative difficulty is reduced, a relationship may grow. The opposite was found to be true.


One of the common criticisms of SPT is that it can have a narrow, linear approach to explaining how human beings interact with one another and disclose information. SPT also focuses more on early stages of human connection, and does not take into account the various ways people get close, and how multi-layered and varied closer relationships can be. It does not apply as well to co-workers, neighbours, acquaintances, or other forms of fleeing relationships, and has been criticized for assuming all relationships will follow the same direction. Likewise, the theory is criticised for not being as concise when describing established relationships, such as lifelong friends, family members, or couples that have been married for several decades and would presumably be as intimate as possible. Another concept called into question is the idea of reciprocity and when it is the most impactful. It is assumed that reciprocity is highest in the middle stages of a relationship rather than later on as SPT suggests.

This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_penetration_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-Concealment?


Self-concealment is a psychological construct defined as “a predisposition to actively conceal from others personal information that one perceives as distressing or negative”. Its opposite is self-disclosure.

The concealed personal information (thoughts, feelings, actions, or events) is highly intimate, negative in valence and has three characteristics: it is a subset of private information, can be consciously accessed, and is actively concealed from others. Self-concealment significantly contributes to negative psychological health.

Historical Context

Secrets and secret keeping have been a longstanding interest of psychologists and psychotherapists. Jourard’s work on self-disclosure and Pennebaker’s research on the health benefits of disclosing traumatic events and secrets set the stage for the conceptualisation and measurement of self-concealment.

Jourard’s research pointed to the conclusion that stress and illness result not only from low self-disclosure, but more so from the intentional avoidance of being known by another person. In a later line of research, Pennebaker and his colleagues examined the confiding-illness relation or the inhibition-disease link and found that not expressing thoughts and feelings about traumatic events is associated with long-term health effects. Pennebaker attributed the unwillingness to disclose distressing personal information to either circumstances or individual differences. The self-concealment construct, and the scale for its measurement, the Self-Concealment Scale, were introduced to permit assessment and conceptualisation of individual differences on this personality dimension.

Psychological Effects

Self-concealment uniquely and significantly contributes to the prediction of anxiety, depression, and physical symptoms. Subsequent research has examined the effects of self-concealment on subjective well-being and coping, finding that high self-concealment is associated with psychological distress and self-reported physical symptoms, anxiety and depression, shyness, negative self-esteem, loneliness, rumination, trait social anxiety, social anxiety, and self-silencing, ambivalence over emotional expressiveness, maladaptive mood regulation, and acute and chronic pain.

Individuals with increased inferiority feelings have a higher tendency toward self-concealment, which in turn results in an increase in loneliness and a decrease in happiness.


Theoretical models offered to explain the consistent finding of negative health effects for self-concealment include:

  • An inhibition model developed by Pennebaker, which would attribute these effects to the physiological work that is a consequence of the behavioural inhibition accompanying the self-concealment process.
  • A preoccupation model based on the work of Wegner that sees the thought suppression associated with self-concealment as ironically leading to intrusive thoughts and even greater preoccupation with distressing personal information, which in turn leads to poor well-being.
  • Self-perception theory, which argues that behaviour influences attitudes – the self-concealing person observes his or her own concealing behaviour and concludes that there must be a good reason for the behaviour, leading to negative characterological self-attributions that fit with this conclusion (e.g. “I must be bad because I am concealing this aspect of myself”).
  • Self-determination theory, which explains the negative health effects of self-concealment as the consequence of the frustration of the individual’s basic needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

Kelly offers a comprehensive review of several explanatory models and the evidence supporting each of them, concluding that a genetic component shared by high self-concealers might make them both more prone to self-conceal and more vulnerable to physical and psychological problems.

Research studies have focused on the relation of self-concealment to attachment orientations, help seeking and attitudes toward counselling, desire for greater (physical) interpersonal distance, stigma, distress disclosure, lying behaviour and authenticity, and psychotherapy process.

Research also focuses on self-concealment in specific populations: LGBT, multicultural, and adolescents, families, and romantic partners.

A recent review of 137 studies using the Self-Concealment Scale presented a working model for the antecedents of self-concealment and the mechanisms of action for its health effects. The authors conceptualise self-concealment as a:

“complex trait-like motivational construct where high levels of SC motivation energize a range of goal-directed behaviours (e.g. keeping secrets, behavioral avoidance, lying) and dysfunctional strategies for the regulation of emotions (e.g. expressive suppression) which serve to conceal negative or distressing personal information.”

These mechanisms are seen as then affecting health through direct and indirect pathways, and as being:

“energized by a conflict between urges to conceal, and reveal—a dual-motive conflict which eventually leads to adverse physiological effects and a breakdown of self-regulatory resources”.

Self-Concealment Scale

The 10-item Self-Concealment Scale (SCS) measures the degree to which a person tends to conceal personal information perceived as negative or distressing. The SCS has proven to have excellent psychometric properties (internal consistency and test-retest reliability) and unidimensionality. Representative items include: “I have an important secret that I haven’t shared with anyone”, “There are lots of things about me that I keep to myself”, “Some of my secrets have really tormented me”, “When something bad happens to me, I tend to keep it to myself”, and “My secrets are too embarrassing to share with others”.

In Marginalised Populations

Minority groups employ self-concealment to manage perceived stigma. For example, LGBT people (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans) people, who are stigmatised (see coming out) for the characteristics inherent to their sexual identities or gender identity, employ self-concealment as a result.

Self-concealment is observed in African, Asian and Latin American international college students. For African Americans in particular their self-concealment correlates with the degree of their Afrocentric cultural values. Arab and Middle Eastern people have been documented employing the following identity negotiation strategies:

  • Humorous Accounting: A stigmatised minority will employ humour as a way to establish common ground.
  • Educational Accounting: A stigmatised minority will make an effort to educate the person questioning their stigmatised identity. This method is a common method used by Muslim women who wear hijabs in the study.
  • Defiant Accounting: A stigmatised minority will challenge the person questioning their identity by confronting the right to interrogate a stigmatised identity.
  • Cowering: A stigmatised minority will meet the demands of the person questioning their stigmatised identity due to real, or perceived fears of violence.

Self-concealment strategies can also present in those with sexual paraphilias. Research in the experiences of furries (furry fandom is a subculture interested in the anthropomorphic animal characters), a stigmatised group, found that they are more likely to self disclose if there is little difference in power between the furry and the individual with whom they are disclosing their identity to.

This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-concealment >; 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.

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