What Is The Uncertainty Reduction Theory? Uncertainty Reduction Theory In A Nutshell

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.

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:

  1. Cognitive uncertainty – 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.
  2. Behavioral uncertainty – 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.
  3. Relational uncertainty – 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:

  1. Entry stage – 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.
  2. Personal stage – 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.
  3. 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:

  1. Verbal communication – uncertainty is high initially, but decreases once verbal communication commences. Communication is inversely proportional to uncertainty. 
  2. Nonverbal warmth – nonverbal forms of communication such as eye contact, smiling, and positive body language also decrease uncertainty.
  3. Information seeking – an individual’s need to seek information about the other person decreases as uncertainty decreases.
  4. Self-disclosure – as the level of uncertainty decreases, the individual feels more comfortable disclosing progressively more intimate information.
  5. 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.
  6. Similarity – uncertainty decreases when both individuals realize they share mutual interests.
  7. 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

Social penetration theory was developed by fellow psychologists Dalmas Taylor and Irwin Altman in their 1973 article Social Penetration: The Development of Interpersonal Relationships. Social penetration theory (SPT) posits that as a relationship develops, shallow and non-intimate communication evolves and becomes deeper and more intimate.

The Social Penetration Theory is a model which believes that relationships develop from shallow to deeper through four stages: orientation, exploratory affective, affective, and stable exchange.

Whereas the Uncertainty Reduction Theory is a framework to reduce uncertainty in communication by leveraging seven axioms.

Key takeaways:

  • 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 Business Concepts


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Moonshot Thinking

Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What is marketing can be associated with social proof.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger

Read Next: Bounded RationalityHeuristicsBiases.

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