Uncertainty has been an important concept in communication theory for many decades. Understanding how people respond to uncertainty in developing relationships and in intercultural encounters has been the foundation of a large body of interpersonal communication research. This work has demonstrated complex relationships between communication, information seeking, and the management of uncertainty.
Recent theory building and testing have extended the concept into the social influence and behavioral change domain, primarily through health communication research. Babrow et al. (1998) noted that uncertainty is a central feature of health and illness experiences, but that it had been conceptualized differently across various strands of research. These researchers integrated those definitions and explained that “uncertainty exists when details of situations are ambiguous, complex, unpredictable, or probabilistic; when information is unavailable or inconsistent; and when people feel insecure in their own state of knowledge or the state of knowledge in general” (Brashers 2001, 478). Babrow et al. argued that this more complete description forms the basis for further theory building and practical applications in health-care and promotion.
Theories of communication and uncertainty management (Brashers 2001), motivated information management (Afifi & Weiner 2004), problematic integration (Babrow et al. 1998), and the risk perception attitude (Turner et al. 2006) are recent theoretical directions that recognize the complexity of uncertainty and information management in the health domain. For example, Brashers (2001) noted that people may want to reduce, increase, or maintain their uncertainty depending on how they appraise it (e.g., maintaining uncertainty about an illness can lead to hope or optimism), and that obtaining information does not necessarily lead to reducing uncertainty (e.g., information can lead to more uncertainty when it is inconsistent across sources or when it contradicts a person’s current beliefs).
Social influence researchers have used theories of information processing and uncertainty management in recent research on health behavior change. For example, Rimal (2001) used Witte’s theory of fear appeals to predict information-seeking behavior in response to health messages about cardiovascular disease. In a follow-up study, Turner et al. (2006) found that “avoidant” participants in their research (i.e., those with perceptions of high risk for a disease, but low self-efficacy to avoid it) were likely to seek information, but unlikely to retain it, perhaps suggesting that anxiety causes selective retention or other psychological mechanisms to facilitate maintaining uncertainty. Other related areas of research have included tests of messages promoting HIV testing (using functional theory; see Hullett 2006) and organ donation (using the theory of motivated information management; see Afifi et al. 2006).
One complexity that has received attention is the collaborative nature of uncertainty management. Afifi & Weiner (2004) argued that researchers need to account for the motivations, outcome assessments, and efficacy beliefs of both information seekers and information providers. For example, Dillard & Carson (2005) described how health-care providers and family members deal with uncertainty when a newborn has a positive screening test for cystic fibrosis. They found uncertainty management for the family was negotiated between providers and family members, which included family members seeking information about the illness to reduce uncertainty, heath-care providers providing and highlighting information to help family members reduce uncertainty, a midwife recommending that family members avoid information to maintain their uncertainty and avoid anxiety about prognosis until diagnosis was confirmed, and medical technicians checking to see how much information family members wanted. Brashers et al. (2004) noted that supportive others can assist with uncertainty management by helping achieve information goals, but also by means such as facilitating skill development, providing acceptance or validation, or encouraging reappraisal or perspective shifts. They also noted that support attempts can be problematic, in that they sometimes included a lack of coordination of goals between the support provider and support recipient, the addition of relational uncertainty to illness uncertainty, and the need for managing the uncertainty of both parties.
Future research in this area should focus on developing our understanding of what makes uncertainty management processes more or less effective. Goldsmith (2001) suggested that this involves asking research questions about the meaning and function of behaviors, with a focus on determining (1) what challenges there are in a particular social context for achieving a communicative goal, (2) what discursive resources are available for addressing those challenges, and (3) how efforts for achieving the goal will be evaluated as effective and appropriate.
- Afifi, W. A., & Weiner, J. L. (2004). Toward a theory of motivated information management. Communication Theory, 14, 167–190.
- Afifi, W. A., Morgan, S. E., Stephenson, M. T., Morse, C., Harrison, T., Reichert, T., & Long, S. D. (2006). Examining the decision to talk with family about organ donation: Applying the theory of motivated information management. Communication Monographs, 73, 188–215.
- Babrow, A. S., Kasch, C. R., & Ford, L. A. (1998). The many meanings of uncertainty in illness: Toward a systematic accounting. Health Communication, 10, 1–23.
- Brashers, D. E. (2001). Communication and uncertainty management. Journal of Communication, 51, 477–497.
- Brashers, D. E., Neidig, J. L., & Goldsmith, D. J. (2004). Social support and the management of uncertainty for people living with HIV or AIDS. Health Communication, 16, 305–331.
- Dillard, J. P., & Carson, C. L. (2005). Uncertainty management following a positive newborn screening for cystic fibrosis. Journal of Health Communication, 10, 57–76.
- Goldsmith, D. J. (2001). A normative approach to the study of uncertainty and communication. Journal of Communication, 51, 514–533.
- Hullett, C. R. (2006). Using functional theory to promote HIV testing: The impact of valueexpressive messages, uncertainty, and fear. Health Communication, 20, 57–67.
- Rimal, R. N. (2001). Perceived risk and self-efficacy as motivators: Understanding individuals’ longterm use of health information. Journal of Communication, 51, 633–654.
- Turner, M. M., Rimal, R. N., Morrison, D., & Kim, H. (2006). The role of anxiety in seeking and retaining risk information: Testing the risk perception attitude framework in two studies. Human Communication Research, 32, 130–156.
Back to Communication and Social Change.