Getting Closer: The Art of Self-Disclosure

Turning an acquaintance into a good friend can be hard. Whether it’s romantic or platonic, there are endless reasons why people fail to connect and maintain their relationships with each other. This disconnect isn’t always a result of some huge mistake by one person or the other, more often it’s just that people drift apart. Social bonds can be hard to maintain, especially when they aren’t based on firm routine footings like work, marriage or other institutions.

In explaining how people form strong relationships, psychologists – along with other social scientists – have long been interested in what personal information people reveal to each other. This research has culminated in recent studies of how internet daters reveal (or fail to reveal) information about themselves.

Not just deep and meaningful
Research on self-disclosure is enormous, addressing issues such as when people choose to self-disclose, for what reasons and whether it is effective. Within this research though, Greene, Derlega and Mathews (2006) point out some highlights.

Self-disclosure brings to mind earnest conversations about our deepest hopes and fears. But self-disclosure is also about simply sharing our preferences for music, food or books. These can play an equally important role in forming relationships as those deep and meaningful conversations.

“When someone you’ve just met starts pouring out their heart, it can make you want to run away.”

Changing circumstances reveal different patterns of self-disclosure. Romantic partners often go through an initial stage of frantic self-disclosure. In contrast, long-term partners may reduce their self-disclosure alarmingly as the relationship lengthens. But not all disclosure is good disclosure. Early studies on self-disclosure confirm that too much self-disclosure too soon can be off-putting. When someone you’ve just met starts pouring out their heart, it can make you want to run away.

Effectiveness
One of the main reasons we engage in self-disclosure is because of how it affects other people’s perceptions of us, and indeed, our perceptions of other people. We want others to like us so we tell them our secrets. Does this really work or is it just a fantasy peddled by movie and TV script-writers?

Reviewing a range of studies, Collins and Miller (1994) found there are three main effects of self-disclosure on liking:

  • Those who disclose intimate secrets tend to be more liked than those who don’t.
  • People disclose more to those they like (relatively obvious).
  • People prefer those to whom they have made personal disclosures (not so obvious).

Being responsive
While increasing intimacy between people through self-disclosure is often seen as ‘a good thing’, there are many ways it can go wrong.

“People want to be ‘understood’ not just ‘heard’.”

Again, you can disclose too much too soon. More importantly, self-disclosure is not just about blurting out your darkest secret, it’s about negotiating a complex relationship.

Process models of self-disclosure have looked at how disclosures are dynamically dealt with in relationships. The way in which you react to the self-disclosure of others is of vital importance. People want to be ‘understood’ not just ‘heard’. This is demonstrated through behaviours like responsiveness, attentiveness and timing. The way in which listening occurs has a huge impact on whether intimate information grows and blooms or falls on fallow ground.

Self-disclosure online
More recent research has focussed on the ways in which self-disclosure occurs in online relationships. Two aspects of internet dating make it particularly interesting to study in relation to self-disclosure:

  • Those communicating online have more control over the way they present themselves. When speaking face-to-face, a huge amount of information is transmitted through nonverbal communication. Much of this is involuntary, but this becomes largely irrelevant online.
  • It easier to construct an identity online. Emails can be crafted and photographs retouched.
“…the best strategy is the polar opposite of many people’s actual practice in online dating.”

As a result of both of these, it is easier to carry out ‘impression management‘ (lying). These points are made in a study by Gibbs, Ellison and Heino (2006) in which the perceived success of members of an internet dating service was related to self-disclosure.

The study came to some rather complex conclusions but one clear finding emerged. Those successful at online dating tended to use large amounts of positive self-disclosure, along with an openness about their intent. So, generally it is better to be open about yourself and honest and clear about your intentions. In other words, the best strategy is the polar opposite of many people’s actual practice in online dating.

The art of self-disclosure
The idea that self-disclosure is important in relationships is no big surprise. But while it may be easy to understand in principle, the complexity of the process means it’s much harder to do in practice. The art of self-disclosing, then, is giving information to others in the right way and at the right time. Receiving intimate information is no less of a skill, involving the verbal and nonverbal communication of understanding. Online dating offers the huge temptation to cheat at self-disclosure, but, to be successful, the art of self-disclosure is much the same in the online world as the offline.

Note
Hopefully this brief survey of some issues from the self-disclosure research has been useful. Please don’t hesitate to comment, especially if you know of other good resources or articles on this subject.

References

Collins, N., & Miller, L. (1994). Self-disclosure and liking: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 116(3), 457-75.

Gibbs, J., Ellison, N., & Heino, R. (2006). Self-Presentation in Online Personals: The Role of Anticipated Future Interaction, Self-Disclosure, and Perceived Success in Internet Dating. Communication Research, 33(2), 152.

Greene, K., Derlega, V., & Mathews, A. (2006). Self-disclosure in personal relationships. In: A. L. Vangelisti, D. Perlman (Eds.). Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 8 February 2007

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