Uncertainty Reduction Theory in Interpersonal Communication

Uncertainty Reduction Theory

Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT), developed by social psychologists Charles R. Berger and Richard J. Calabrese in 1975, is a pivotal communication theory focused on how human beings understand and reduce uncertainty during initial interactions. This theory posits that when people meet for the first time, they face a high level of uncertainty, and their primary goal is to decrease this uncertainty by gaining more information about each other.

According to uncertainty reduction theory, everyone engages in two procedures to minimize uncertainty. The first is a proactive approach that anticipates what someone might do. The second is a retroactive procedure that examines how people interpret what others do or say.

URT is segmented into two types of uncertainty:

  • Cognitive Uncertainty: Pertains to the beliefs and attitudes of the person.
  • Behavioral Uncertainty: Relates to the predictability of the person’s behavior.

In the quest to reduce these uncertainties, individuals engage in various strategies of information collection. Berger and Calabrese lay out a framework suggesting that as interaction progresses, the levels of uncertainty decrease, conversely increasing predictability and relational development.

Principal Axioms of Uncertainty Reduction Theory

A set of axioms derived from prior research and common sense is put forth by Berger and Calabrese to explain the relationship between their central concept of uncertainty and the following seven important relationship development variables: verbal and nonverbal communication, information seeking, intimacy level, reciprocity, likeability, and similarity.

Axiom 1: Verbal Communication

Given the high level of uncertainty at the start of the entry phase, as strangers engage in more verbal conversation, the level of uncertainty for each interactant in the connection decreases.

As uncertainty decreases, verbal communication will grow. With the ambiguity reduced, communication between the two people will not only grow, but also become much more engaging as the individuals get to know each other better. Berger’s more recent work emphasizes the need of proper amounts of verbal communication, stating that excessive verbal communication may lead to the other person seeking information.

While verbal communication has a negative relationship with reciprocity and information seeking, it has a positive relationship with nonverbal affiliative expressiveness, intimacy level, likeability, and similarity.

Axiom 2: Nonverbal Warmth

Nonverbal affiliative expressiveness includes eye contact, head nods, arm motions, and physical distance between interactants (closeness). As nonverbal affiliate expressiveness increases, uncertainty levels in an initial interaction setting drop. Furthermore, decreases in uncertainty lead to increases in nonverbal affiliative expressiveness.

In contrast to its negative correlation with reciprocity and information seeking, nonverbal affiliative expressiveness has a positive correlation with verbal communication, intimacy level, likeability, and similarity.

Axiom 3: Information Seeking

Interactants are expected to ask questions during initial contacts, and the queries may merely require brief responses, such as requesting information about one’s occupation, hometown, previous residences, and so on. If one of the interactants remains doubtful, the other interactants are more likely to give relatively little sensitive or personal information.

High degrees of uncertainty lead to an increase in information seeking activity. As uncertainty levels diminish, information-seeking behavior decreases.

Axiom 4: Intimacy Level

High degrees of uncertainty in a relationship reduce the closeness level of communication content. Low degrees of uncertainty result in a high degree of intimacy. For example, during the initial engagement, communication content with a low intimacy level, such as demographic information, is expected rather than high intimacy level content, such as attitudes and opinions.

Similarity, liking, nonverbal affiliative expressiveness, and verbal communication are all positively correlated with intimacy level; conversely, reciprocity and information seeking are negatively correlated with intimacy level.

Axiom 5: Reciprocity

Reciprocity refers to the degree to which interactants expect another person to give similar knowledge after one has shared something. High degrees of uncertainty lead to high rates of reciprocity. Low levels of uncertainty lead to low rates of reciprocity.

Berger and Calabrese think that the simplest method to reduce mutual uncertainty is to request and provide the same types of information at the same rate of exchange, and that as uncertainty decreases, there is less need for symmetric exchanges of information at a quick rate.

Axiom 6: Similarity

Uncertainty reduction is facilitated by similarity. When individuals find shared attributes or attitudes, it acts as a confirmation of predictability, which, in turn, lessens uncertainty.

Similarity is inversely correlated with reciprocity and information seeking, but positively correlated with verbal communication, nonverbal affiliative expressiveness, intimacy level, and approval.

Axiom 7: Liking

Increased uncertainty leads to decreased liking, while less uncertainty leads to increased liking. A number of thinkers have offered evidence that suggests a positive association between similarity and like.

It is considered that if conversation participants have pleasant feelings for each other, the total level of uncertainty will be much reduced, and the frequency of conversations between persons will increase dramatically. According to Axiom 6, people’s desire to seek out similar persons in order to lessen uncertainty should lead to liking.

Axiom 8: Shared Networks

Uncertainty is decreased by shared communication networks and increased by their absence. This axiom is based on additional study on relationships beyond the entry stage conducted by Berger and William B. Gudykunst in 1991.

Axiom 9: Communication Satisfaction

Uncertainty and communication satisfaction have an adverse relationship. “An affective response to the accomplishment of communication goals and expectations” is the definition of communication satisfaction. This additional axiom was proposed by James Neuliep and Erica Grohskopf in 2000, and links uncertainty to a particular communication outcome characteristic.

Strategies and Information-Seeking Behavior

To lessen uncertainty with others, people use interactive, passive, or active methods. According to the general principle of uncertainty reduction, in order to lessen their degree of ambiguity regarding other people’s conduct, people should obtain broad demographic data about them.

A passive strategy involves observing others in social contexts without directly interacting with them. Individuals may learn about others’ behaviors and preferences, allowing them to anticipate future interactions and reduce uncertainty. For example, scrutinizing someone’s social media activity falls under this unobtrusive form of information collection.

In contrast, an active strategy encompasses efforts to gather information about others indirectly. Individuals using this method might ask third parties about the person of interest or manipulate social situations to elicit information. Research indicates that active strategies can successfully reduce uncertainty, especially during the initial stages of relationship development.

Finally, the interactive strategy involves direct communication with the other party to alleviate uncertainty. This approach can include asking questions, self-disclosure, and shared activities. It provides the most immediate and accurate form of information-seeking behavior, fostering connectedness and predictability in the relationship.

In 2002, Ramirez, Walther, Burgoon, and Sunnafrank proposed a novel approach to reduce uncertainty that goes along with the advances in technology and computer-mediated communication. The fourth uncertainty reduction method, known as extractive information seeking, refers to using online resources to collect knowledge about an individual given the abundance of information available about them. For instance, using a social media site like Facebook or Instagram as a tool to look for personal details about that individual.

Stages of Uncertainty Reduction

The theory outlines three definitive stages: the entry stage, the personal stage, and the exit stage. Each of these stages represents a distinct phase in the process of individuals increasing familiarity and reducing uncertainty about each other.

The Entry Stage is marked by rule-guided interaction. It is the initial phase where individuals adhere to social norms and scripts to make a good first impression and to avoid faux pas.

In this stage, information exchange is superficial and typically revolves around general topics that are not controversial or deeply personal. The focus is on nonverbal cues and behaviors rather than intimate disclosure.

As individuals progress to the Personal Stage, interaction becomes more relaxed and communication shifts to a more personal level. Individuals begin to share attitudes, beliefs, and values, discovering commonalities and differences. This stage fosters a deeper sense of connection as self-disclosure increases and both parties begin to dismantle their facades, revealing their true selves.

The Exit Stage is approached when one or both individuals decide whether to continue deepening the relationship or to part ways. It is a conclusive phase where the future of the interactions is considered based on the information gathered in the previous stages.

Decisions made in the exit stage are influenced by the perceived rewards or drawbacks experienced during the relational development and the degree to which original uncertainties have been resolved.

Extensions and Applications

In intercultural communication, URT informs the strategies individuals use to reduce uncertainty when interacting with those from different cultural backgrounds. For example, in initial intercultural interactions, individuals may apply uncertainty reducing strategies to enhance understanding and minimize potential misunderstandings that can arise from cultural differences.

Research has been done to find out how different ethnic groups apply tactics for reducing uncertainty differently. According to a study done in the US by Judith Sanders and Richard Wiseman, there are clear and noticeable variances. On attributional confidence, self-disclosure had a cross-cultural impact, while other approaches to reducing uncertainty seemed to be more culturally unique.

According to a study on intercultural communication between Americans and Korean-Americans, verbal communication between the two groups did not reduce the degree of uncertainty that the Korean-Americans had about the Americans. Nonetheless, Korean-Americans’ degree of uncertainty about Americans declined as their closeness level of communication content rose. However, this articulation of these two proven axioms is only partially helpful in understanding such cross-cultural communication.

Organizational Socialization

Within organizational socialization, URT has been used to understand how new employees adapt to their workplace. It helps clarify the processes through which new members seek information to reduce uncertainty about their roles and organizational norms. Effective reduction of uncertainty during organizational socialization can lead to better adjustment and job satisfaction.

Group identification, such as nationality, religion, gender, ethnicity, and many more related groupings, influences how an individual categorizes themselves. People therefore keep trying to fit in with even more specialized groups in an effort to lessen the uncertainty they have about who they are. Additionally, research shows that individuals with high levels of self-doubt are more prone to identify with more homogeneous groups in an effort to settle their doubts and come to a more settled condition.

Organizations can harness URT to enhance dyadic communication. For instance, understanding individual differences in uncertainty can help tailor communication behaviors to improve collaboration and productivity. Training programs focused on URT can equip employees with active and interactive strategies for information-gathering, ensuring efficient communication.

Long-distance Relationships

For a variety of reasons, long-distance love relationships can be difficult for both parties. It makes sense that in long-distance relationships, doubts could arise when there is a lack of regular in-person interactions. Certainty can also be troublesome in long-distance romantic relationships if it is certain that a circumstance will result in an unsatisfactory outcome.

Uncertainty can lead to bad relational results. Katherine C. Maguire states that a relationship will terminate if reducing ambiguity results in an anticipated negative consequence. Research indicates that using techniques to reduce ambiguity in long-distance romantic relationships is good for the relationship overall, even while it is true that certainty may result in an unfavorable relational outcome.


Critics claim that minimizing uncertainty is not the motivating motivation behind interaction. According to Michael Sunnafrank’s predicted value theory (1986), the underlying motive for interaction is a desire for positive relational experiences.

In other words, those engaging in first contacts are motivated by incentives rather than eliminating uncertainty. According to Sunnafrank, when we communicate, we are aiming to forecast specific outcomes in order to maximize relational results.

Furthermore, the subjectivity of people’s self-assessment makes the assumption of uncertainty reduction difficult. Uncertainty is caused by people’s lack of knowledge about themselves, information, and the environment.

However, doubt is mostly caused by people’s perceptions of their own cognitions and abilities, which are difficult to measure. In Brashers’ study on the application of uncertainty management to health communication, he describes the uncertainty of self-perception, which states that people’s feelings of uncertainty do not always correlate to their own assessments of available knowledge.

Other critics have questioned the theory’s narrowed focus on initial interactions, potentially oversimplifying lengthy or more intimate associations where different rules and behaviors emerge.

Sally Planalp and James Honeycutt argue that people’s potential changes, lack of understanding, or impetuous behavior will increase uncertainty in communication beyond the initial interaction. Their research calls into question the assumption that increased knowledge of other people and relationships will help social actors function more effectively in the social world.

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