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.

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