Uncertainty reduction theory explains both how interpersonal communication is affected by a lack of knowledge and how people use communication to gather information. This theory was founded on the observation that initial interactions between strangers routinely involve an exchange of demographic and public information, and these interactions change in predictable ways as they progress (Berger 1997a). Rather than simply label these patterns as normative, the theory elaborates on the mechanisms that drive interpersonal communication behaviors. Interpersonal communication plays two roles within uncertainty reduction theory:
(1) communication is among the behaviors that people seek to predict or explain, and (2) communication is a tool people use to gather information or form predictions and explanations. Over the 30 years since its inception, uncertainty reduction theory has been applied to numerous communication contexts, and it has given rise to several alternative perspectives on uncertainty and communication. Thus, uncertainty reduction theory has had a major impact on the communication discipline.
A core assumption of uncertainty reduction theory is that people are driven to increase the predictability of their own and their communication partner’s behavior. Uncertainty reduction can be proactive, focused on predicting future behaviors, or retroactive, focused on explaining past experiences. The theory also distinguishes between behavioral uncertainty, which is a lack of knowledge about the behaviors that are appropriate or expected, and cognitive uncertainty, which involves questions about a communication partner’s personal qualities.
Berger and Calabrese (1975) advanced uncertainty reduction theory as a set of axioms concerning the association between uncertainty and facets of interpersonal communication within initial interaction between strangers. The axioms specified in that initial formulation were as follows: (1) As the amount of verbal communication between strangers increases, uncertainty decreases; as uncertainty is reduced, verbal communication increases; (2) As the amount of nonverbal warmth expressed between strangers increases, uncertainty decreases; as uncertainty is reduced, nonverbal expressions of warmth increase; (3) When uncertainty is high, information-seeking behavior is frequent; as uncertainty decreases, information-seeking behavior decreases; (4) When uncertainty is high, the intimacy level of communication content is low; as uncertainty decreases, the intimacy level of communication content increases; (5) When uncertainty is high, partners are more likely to reciprocate each other’s communication behaviors; as uncertainty decreases, the rate of reciprocity decreases; (6) Similarities between communication partners decrease uncertainty; dissimilarities between communication partners increase uncertainty; and (7) When uncertainty is high, liking for a communication partner is low; as uncertainty decreases, liking increases.
By considering all possible pairwise combinations of these 7 axioms, Berger and Calabrese also offered 21 specific theorems linking uncertainty to interpersonal communication variables and outcomes. For example, considering the first two axioms in tandem generates the prediction that amount of verbal communication and expressions of nonverbal warmth are positively correlated.
Although uncertainty reduction is taken as a necessary priority because it enables communication, Berger (1979) identified three conditions likely to increase a person’s desire to reduce uncertainty. When future interaction with a communication partner is likely or expected, people should be especially motivated to gather information about that partner. In addition, the drive to reduce uncertainty should be increased if a communication partner has the ability to control the experience of rewards or costs. A communication partner who behaves in an unusual or deviant manner may also motivate uncertainty reduction, especially if that unpredictable partner cannot be avoided.
Berger and Bradac (1982) elaborated on the methods people use to gather information about a target person. Passive strategies involve observing a person, preferably within situations where that person must be active or respond to the environment. Active strategies involve altering the physical or social context and observing a person’s responses to that environment; this category also includes asking third parties for information about a target person. Interactive strategies involve gathering information by communicating directly with the target person.
Tests of uncertainty reduction theory have addressed three general issues. One line of inquiry is focused on uncertainty reduction over the course of developing relationships. In general, people’s confidence in their ability to predict a communication partner’s attitudes and behaviors is positively correlated with various measures of attraction (Berger 1987). Research summarized by Berger (1988) also indicates that the nature of uncertainty and uncertainty reduction changes as interactions and relationships progress. Within initial interactions, partners exchange demographic information that allows them to locate each other within social and cultural realms. Whereas the questions strangers ask each other focus on acquiring demographic background details, friends ask questions that elicit more evaluative and attitudinal information. Within romantic relationships, people might employ secret tests or covert activities that are designed to acquire information about the state of the relationship. In these ways, uncertainty is reduced about different issues as relationships develop.
Another line of inquiry has focused on the factors that prompt uncertainty reduction. A summary of this work highlights conflicting patterns of results (Berger 1997a). In studies that focused on behaviors after an initial real or hypothetical interaction, people did not increase their information-seeking efforts when they anticipated future interaction, had outcomes dependent on a partner, or the partner behaved in an unusual way. Other studies have shown that people communicating with a stranger engaged in more information seeking during the interaction when they expected future contact with that partner.
A third program of research has focused more closely on the communication behaviors that people use to gather information during face-to-face interactions. As summarized in Berger and Kellermann (1994), the first few moments of initial interactions are dominated by questions, the majority of which solicit information about the communication partner. Another common information-gathering strategy is disclosing information to prompt a partner to make reciprocal disclosures. A third option involves putting the partner at ease to encourage him or her to share personal information. These information-seeking behaviors represent a tradeoff between the efficiency and appropriateness of uncertainty reduction efforts. At one extreme, interrogation offers an intrusive but efficient method of soliciting information from a target person. Self-disclosure is less efficient than question asking, because communication partners have to infer that reciprocal disclosures are desirable; however, the freedom afforded to the communication target makes this strategy more socially appropriate. Finally, relaxing a conversational partner involves highly appropriate behaviors, but it is an inefficient method of gathering specific information.
Since its debut, uncertainty reduction theory has been the subject of considerable scholarly debate. One critical question focuses on uncertainty reduction as a motivating force in interpersonal interactions. For example, Sunnafrank (1986) argued that communication in initial interactions is motivated by a desire to predict the potential rewards and costs of continued interaction, rather than a desire to reduce uncertainty. Brashers (2001) argued that people may prefer to maintain uncertainty if the information they might gain is threatening. Similarly, Baxter and Montgomery (1996) suggested that uncertainty is both desirable and undesirable in the context of ongoing personal relationships.
The central role of uncertainty in interpersonal interactions was elaborated by locating uncertainty within a plan-based model of strategic communication.
In particular, Berger (1997a, b) suggested that communication unfolds as people enact plans, which are mental representations of the steps required to achieve a goal. Plans are hierarchically organized, such that an overall strategy is broken into more specific steps that, in turn, identify specific actions.
Berger (1997a) highlighted how making sense of a communication partner’s behavior requires inferences about that person’s beliefs, affective states, goals, and plans. Every interaction involves incomplete knowledge about a partner’s state of mind; therefore, uncertainty is always relevant to interpersonal communication. Accordingly, people cope with uncertainty by seeking to reduce it and by creating communication plans that accommodate these unknowns. As noted by Berger (1997b), uncertainty complicates planning because people lack necessary information about the context for interaction, their partner’s behavior, and their own actions. By this logic, uncertainty reduction is a necessary part of forming and executing communication plans.
Applications And Extensions
Although uncertainty reduction theory was initially formulated and tested within the context of initial interactions between strangers, it has been widely applied to various communication situations. For example, uncertainty reduction theory has been used to illuminate the experiences of new employees, doctors and patients, students in a classroom setting, television viewers, computer-mediated communication partners, and members of newly formed stepfamilies. The theory has also contributed to alternative perspectives on uncertainty and communication, such as predicted outcome value theory (Sunnafrank 1986) and uncertainty management theory (Brashers 2001).
One extension of uncertainty reduction is focused on explaining intercultural communication experiences. According to Gudykunst (2005), people have a maximum and a minimum threshold for uncertainty and anxiety during interpersonal exchanges. When uncertainty is between the two thresholds, people feel comfortable because they have confidence in their predictions about the other person’s attitudes and beliefs, but they are not overconfident. Similarly, a moderate level of anxiety keeps people engaged in an interaction, but not overwhelmed by fear.
Another extension of the theory has focused on the doubts and questions people experience within romantic relationships. The relational turbulence model specifies that changes in intimacy within romantic relationships spark relational uncertainty, defined as questions or doubts about the nature of involvement in a relationship (Solomon & Knobloch 2004). Although relational uncertainty polarizes emotional, cognitive, and communicative reactions to relationship events, reducing uncertainty and managing those events promote intimacy between relationship partners.
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