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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 guessed, reduces uncertainty.
- 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.
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