Uncertainty reduction theory was first proposed in 1975 by American communication theorists Charles R. Berger and Richard J. Calabrese. Uncertainty reduction theory suggests people are uncomfortable with uncertainty and seek ways of predicting the trajectory of social interactions.
|Theory Overview||– Uncertainty Reduction Theory is a social psychological theory developed by Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese in 1975. This theory focuses on how people communicate to reduce uncertainty when they meet for the first time. It suggests that when individuals encounter someone new, they experience uncertainty about the other person’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. To manage this uncertainty, they engage in communication strategies to gather information and reduce uncertainty. The theory is particularly relevant in the context of initial interactions, such as first dates, job interviews, or new social acquaintances.|
|Key Concepts||– Uncertainty Reduction Theory is based on several key concepts: 1. Uncertainty: The lack of knowledge about the other person’s characteristics or behavior. 2. Initial Interaction: The theory applies to initial encounters where individuals have limited prior knowledge of each other. 3. Axioms: The theory includes three axioms that describe how people respond to uncertainty, including the Axiom of Verbal Communication, Axiom of Nonverbal Warmth, and Axiom of Information Seeking. 4. Strategies: People use communication strategies, such as asking questions, disclosing information, and interpreting nonverbal cues, to reduce uncertainty. 5. Reduction Goals: The ultimate goal of these strategies is to reduce uncertainty and increase predictability in the interaction.|
|Axioms||– The three axioms of Uncertainty Reduction Theory are: 1. Axiom of Verbal Communication: When uncertainty is high, people tend to engage in more verbal communication, including asking questions and seeking information. 2. Axiom of Nonverbal Warmth: When uncertainty is reduced, individuals tend to display warmer nonverbal behaviors, such as smiling or maintaining eye contact. 3. Axiom of Information Seeking: When uncertainty is high, people are more likely to seek information actively about the other person, often through indirect means.|
|Strategies||– Individuals employ various strategies to reduce uncertainty during initial interactions: 1. Questioning: Asking questions to gather information about the other person’s background, interests, and preferences. 2. Self-Disclosure: Sharing personal information to reciprocate and encourage the other person to do the same. 3. Relational Questions: Inquiring about the other person’s relationship status or intentions. 4. Third Parties: Gathering information from mutual acquaintances or friends. 5. Direct Observation: Observing the other person’s behavior and reactions. 6. Online Research: Using online platforms and social media to learn more about the individual.|
|Applications||– Uncertainty Reduction Theory is applied in various fields, including interpersonal communication, psychology, and healthcare. It is particularly relevant in understanding how healthcare providers and patients communicate during initial medical consultations, where reducing uncertainty about diagnoses and treatment options is crucial for building trust and rapport.|
|Critiques and Developments||– The theory has faced critiques related to its applicability in diverse cultural contexts and the assumption that reducing uncertainty always leads to positive outcomes. Researchers have also extended the theory to explore issues of privacy, deception, and digital communication in the modern age.|
Understanding the uncertainty reduction theory
In their research paper entitled Some Exploration in Initial Interaction and Beyond: Toward a Developmental Theory of Interpersonal Communication, Berger and Calabrese were able to predict and explain the degree of relational development between strangers.
To that end, the uncertainty reduction theory is based on a simple premise.
When two strangers meet, they each go through certain steps and checkpoints designed to reduce uncertainty about the other person.
The degree of uncertainty then determines whether one individual likes or dislikes the other, and vice versa.
Using the theory, individuals collect information about themselves, their relationships, and other people to reduce uncertainty or increase predictability.
As Berger more eloquently stated,
“The acquisition, processing, retention, and retrieval of information is vital to the growth, maintenance, and decline of personal and social relationships. Relationships can be viewed as systems of information exchange that must reduce uncertainty in order to survive.”
Today, uncertainty reduction theory remains a well-regarded tool to explain initial interaction events. In addition to new relationship formation, the theory has also found use in organizational socialization, intercultural interaction, and as a function of the media.
The three types of uncertainty
Uncertainty can be categorized in a few different ways:
Which is typically related to the beliefs and attitudes of other people. Uncertainty results as the individual attempts to determine what the other is thinking.
Alternatively, they may be uncertain about their own thoughts.
Or the behavior or actions of others in a particular situation.
Uncertainty is especially high when people ignore societal or cultural norms, which describe how one is expected to act in a social situation.
High behavioral uncertainty reduces the likelihood of future interactions.
Which describes a lack of confidence an individual feels in predicting or explaining issues surrounding a particular relationship.
In essence, uncertainty is felt about the current or future status of the relationship – which may be platonic or romantic.
The three stages of uncertainty reduction theory
Berger and Calabrese defined the initial interaction of strangers into three stages:
The first stage is characterized by the use of behavioral norms, which some may describe as small talk.
These norms include a pleasant greeting or laughter in response to a joke.
Information is then exchanged regarding age, social status, economic status, or other demographical factors mainly influenced by culture.
The second stage describes individuals who exchange information about attitudes and beliefs, but it may take several entry stage interactions before this occurs.
As one individual probes the other about their values and morals, the increased disclosure of information leads to increased emotional investment.
The exit stage
In the last stage, both individuals decide whether they want to develop the relationship further.
If there is mutual acceptance, plans can be made to meet up in the future.
The seven axioms of uncertainty reduction theory
Berger also proposed seven axioms, or self-evident truths, which the individual uses during communication to reduce uncertainty about the other person’s behavior or actions:
- Verbal communication – uncertainty is high initially, but decreases once verbal communication commences. Communication is inversely proportional to uncertainty.
- Nonverbal warmth – nonverbal forms of communication such as eye contact, smiling, and positive body language also decrease uncertainty.
- Information seeking – an individual’s need to seek information about the other person decreases as uncertainty decreases.
- Self-disclosure – as the level of uncertainty decreases, the individual feels more comfortable disclosing progressively more intimate information.
- Reciprocity – where similar information is reciprocated between the two strangers. In other words, an individual who asks for age and occupation information is more likely to offer their age and occupation in return. However, as uncertainty decreases, the need to share information in this way decreases.
- Similarity – uncertainty decreases when both individuals realize they share mutual interests.
- Liking – related to similarity, mutual interests cause feelings of approval to develop. This, as you may guess, reduces uncertainty.
Uncertainty Reduction Theory vs. Social Penetration Theory
Whereas the Uncertainty Reduction Theory is a framework to reduce uncertainty in communication by leveraging seven axioms.
Examples And Case Studies
Examples of Uncertainty Reduction in Social Interactions:
- Cognitive Uncertainty: During a job interview, a candidate wonders what the interviewer thinks about their qualifications and suitability for the role.
- Behavioral Uncertainty: When attending a formal dinner, someone may be unsure how to act and follow proper dining etiquette.
- Relational Uncertainty: In a new romantic relationship, one partner may feel uncertain about the future status of the relationship and where it’s heading.
Examples of Entry-Stage in Uncertainty Reduction:
- At a networking event, two strangers engage in small talk, exchanging information about their professions and hobbies.
- During the first day of a college orientation program, students introduce themselves and share basic details like their names and majors.
Examples of Personal Stage in Uncertainty Reduction:
- After a few friendly conversations, two colleagues at work start discussing their values and beliefs on certain social issues.
- In a new friendship, individuals gradually share more personal experiences, leading to increased emotional closeness.
Examples of Exit Stage in Uncertainty Reduction:
- After a series of successful dates, a couple decides to make plans for a weekend getaway together.
- Two professionals who have collaborated well on a project decide to work on another project together in the future.
Examples of Axioms in Uncertainty Reduction Theory:
- Verbal Communication: In a job interview, as the conversation progresses, the candidate feels more comfortable and speaks more openly about their skills and experiences.
- Nonverbal Warmth: During a business meeting, a warm handshake and friendly smile from a potential client put the presenter at ease and reduce uncertainty.
- Information Seeking: A new neighbor asks others in the neighborhood about local schools, safety, and nearby amenities to reduce uncertainty about their new environment.
- Self-disclosure: As two friends spend more time together and build trust, they begin to share personal struggles and experiences with each other.
- Reciprocity: When discussing their favorite movies, one person shares their preferences, and the other reciprocates by sharing their favorite films as well.
- Similarity: Two colleagues realize they have similar hobbies and interests outside of work, leading to a stronger bond and reduced uncertainty.
- Liking: As two individuals discover shared values and interests, they feel a growing sense of liking and connection with each other, reducing uncertainty in their relationship.
- Uncertainty reduction theory suggests people are uncomfortable with uncertainty and seek ways of predicting the trajectory of social interactions. The theory was first proposed in 1975 by Charles R. Berger and Richard J. Calabrese.
- Uncertainty reduction theory suggests uncertainty may stem from a lack of clarity around certain behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, or relationships.
- Uncertainty reduction theory is defined by seven self-evident truths that describe the various ways individuals try to reduce uncertainty. These include verbal communication, nonverbal warmth, information seeking, self-disclosure, reciprocity, similarity, and liking.
Connected Thinking Frameworks