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Why You Might Share More Intimately Online

Research highlights a major shift in how we communicate.


My human sexuality class includes an online discussion feature. Every Friday I post a question to the forum. Students receive participation points if they post answers by Monday. They are encouraged to read and comment on each other’s posts.

Over the past few years I have noticed, anecdotally, that these online discussions held through computer-mediated communication ("CMC" in science jargon) are much better than our in-class discussions conducted face-to-face ("f2f" in tech-speak). Students appear to disclose more in the online forum than they do in class, and their posts appear more candid and intimate than their classroom exchanges. This got me thinking about self-disclosure, intimacy, f2f, and CMC.

Self-disclosure is of course a fundamental feature of social interaction. According to one of the foundational theories in this area—the regrettably named "social penetration theory"—repeated rounds of mutual disclosure are a primary means by which we bond with others. Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor, who originated this formulation in the 1970s, described it as a gradual process—like peeling an onion—whereby we begin with small and shallow disclosures and move gradually toward more depth and breadth, as our partner reciprocates in kind. Disclosure in this narrative is, to paraphrase Freud, the royal road to intimacy.

Research has in general supported this notion. For example, Nancy Collins and Lynn Miller, in a 1994 meta-analysis of self disclosure research since the 1950s, found that: people who engage in intimate disclosures tend to be liked more than people who disclose less; people disclose more to those whom they initially like; and people like others more as a result of having disclosed to them. The work of Arthur Aron in the late 1990s further demonstrated how intimacy can be produced quite predictably in the lab, between strangers, if they are instructed to engage in a session of escalating, mutual self disclosure.

However, human beings being what they are, the path from self-disclosure to interpersonal intimacy is neither safe nor straightforward. Relationships are complex. To paraphrase Pepper Schwartz’s quote about sex, human relations are messy, passionate, tentative, exultative, anxiety-producing, liberating, frightening, embarrassing, consoling, and cerebral—in other words, contradictory, different for different people, different for the same person at different times, and operating at three or four levels at the same time. And that just covers our relations with ourselves. Add another person and it gets really complex.

As Altman and others (such as Leslie Baxter) have observed, interpersonal relationships have a dialectical dimension, which means that they often develop in the lively jostling of opposing motives and desires. Our motivation to self-disclose and increase intimacy, for example, often bucks up against our desire for autonomy and privacy, which may be better served by self-silencing or concealment.

Clearly, an inability to self-disclose is a barrier to the development of intimacy. MJ Voncken and colleagues at Maastricht University in the Netherlands found, for example, that the failure to self-disclose may be why people with social anxiety make poor first, and second, impressions.

However, disclosure too carries inherent risks of being misperceived, misused, or misguided. In particular, too much disclosure too soon will often stifle intimacy. As Altman and Taylor have noted, the journey from disclosure to intimacy often takes time, particularly as we get into the deeper layers of our, and others’, selves.

It’s worthwhile to note that the gradual nature of this self-disclosure-to-intimacy process is quite at odds with our cultural penchant for speed and immediacy. By and large, we like fast products. Fast and "instant" foods are popular. Fast cars are valued. Fast Internet connection is desirable.

Intimacy, though, is different.

Thought experiment: Someone attractive is standing next to you at the bar. You say, “What’s up?” They answer, “I want to have sex with you; I also hate my mother, and I have painful hemorrhoids.” What would your reaction be? Chances are you will recoil rather than rejoice at this display of openness, even if your companion is being completely honest; even if you would actually have wanted to know—and accepted—all these things about them sometime later on in the relationship.

Unlike other realms of life, where we want a fast product regardless of process, the product of intimacy is valued only if constructed slowly over time, as a consequence of the process of gradual and mutual self-disclosure.

While it plays a crucial role in shaping intimacy, self-disclosure itself is shaped by multiple forces. First and foremost, whether and what you disclose will depend on whom you’re interacting with. But other variables are also in play. For example, research has shown that positive mood increases disclosure tendencies. Gender is also a factor. Women on the whole disclose more than men, and also receive more disclosures from others (a woman-woman pair will win a disclosure contest most every time if matched against a woman-man or man-man pair). People of similar age and status also disclose more to each other.

Cultural norms inform patterns of self-disclosure, too: Americans on average engage in more self-disclosure than the Japanese, for example. And environment matters: Vanessa Okken and colleagues at the University of Twente in the Netherlands have recently shown how self-disclosure, particularly of sexual topics, is influenced by architectural space (specifically, room size). People in cramped spaces disclose less.

Given this background, it stands to reason that the medium used for disclosure also has an impact.

Indeed, research has suggested that computer-mediated communication (CMC) may increase self-disclosure and intimacy compared to face-to-face (f2f) communication. This may be partly due to the absence of nonverbal, visual cues in the CMC environment. That absence creates heightened uncertainty, which people seek to reduce by disclosing more. The absence of immediate nonverbal cues also reduces conflicting or distracting information, thus helping to facilitate a sense of interpersonal cohesion.

It is also possible that online disclosures are less threatening than f2f disclosures, in the same way that a solicitation for money received online is less threatening than an encounter with a panhandler on the street. Paradoxically then, the physical distance of CMC may confer a sense of security that makes intimate sharing easier. Over-sharing is less noxious from a person who is not physically leaning into your space.

The tendency to disclose more is one factor that leads to feelings of heightened intimacy in online communications. Another factor may have to do with how online communication is received. Our interpretation of any communication from another depends in part on our attributions. Understanding the meaning of what someone says to you is contingent on your sense of why they are talking to you in the first place. That’s why confessions made at gunpoint, for example, are viewed differently than those freely volunteered.

Thus, self-disclosure, while necessary, is not sufficient for fostering intimacy in interpersonal communication. In fact, if disclosure is interpreted as dispositional (part of the sender’s personality) or situational (attributed to circumstance), intimacy will not increase. For the magic to happen, the receiver must make an interpersonal attribution to the sender’s disclosure—they must see the information disclosed as motivated by the desire to relate to the receiver in particular.

Recent research appears to support the notion that high disclosure in CMC leads to heightened intimacy compared to f2f interactions because CMC receivers are more likely to make interpersonal attributions to disclosure. After all, there are no visual or other cues present to contradict such an assumption or cast doubt on a positive attribution of the motivation for disclosure.

In a recent study by Jiang et al., 79 student participants communicated with a confederate either f2f or through a computer. The confederates produced either high or low self-disclosure during the interactions. Participants then completed questionnaires about their attributions—such as, Why did the other person disclose?—and level of intimacy with the other.

Results revealed that high self-disclosure led to more interpersonal attributions in the online communication only. Moreover, interpersonal attribution accounted for the link between high disclosure and heightened intimacy. Online communication seems indeed to facilitate interpersonal attributions of disclosure, thus leading to greater intimacy.

There’s much more to learn about how self-disclosure relates to intimacy in the CMC universe, and how the CMC and f2f realms interact, both in the classroom and in the interpersonal realm at large. Technology, of course, may not always prove a friend to intimacy, or a safe environment for its inhabitants. Stories of how people can be stalked, bullied, and menaced online, sometimes to tragic effect, have raised alarms. Sherry Turkle and others have written thoughtfully about the potential risks to intimacy posed by our incessant virtual connectivity. Technology has the potential to distract and overwhelm, or isolate us from each other. Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein of the University of Essex in the U.K. recently reported findings that linked the mere presence of a cellphone nearby to lower ratings of closeness and relationship quality in pairs of participants involved in a meaningful face-to-face conversation. The sight, now common, of people in public spaces, heads bowed towards their handheld screens, oblivious to one another, tuned out of their immediate surrounding while absorbed in their private virtual spheres is the stuff of dystopian nightmares—and a source of befuddlement for many people over 40.

At the end of the day, though, there is no denying the fact that we now inhabit a brave new "dual ecology," where, for good and bad, CMC and f2f processes entwine in a dialectical dance all their own, shaping our disclosures and intimacies. Whether technology as a whole will end up helping or hurting our ability to communicate intimately remains to be seen—in all likelihood, on YouTube.