The uncertainty reduction theory explores the initial interaction between people that occurs before the actual communication process and is hence also known as initial interaction theory.
It was developed by Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese in 1975. They wanted to explain how interpersonal communication is used to reduce uncertainty between strangers during initial interaction. Berger says, “As the ability of persons to predict which alternative or alternatives are likely to occur next decreases, uncertainty increases.”
Assumptions of Uncertainty Reduction Theory
Uncertainty reduction theory is based on the central assumption that the primary concern of strangers upon initial interaction is to reduce uncertainty and increase predictability. Other assumptions related to this theory are:
- People feel uncertain in initial interpersonal communication.
- Uncertainty can make people avoid a situation or behavior (aversive state) and cause cognitive stress.
- Strangers want to reduce uncertainty/increase predictability in initial interaction.
- Interpersonal communication can be broken down into stages.
- Interpersonal communication leads to uncertainty reduction.
- People change the quantity and nature of information they share over time.
- It is possible to predict people’s behavior.
Core concepts of Uncertainty Reduction Theory
The theory says that people need prior information about others to reduce their uncertainty. People feel unpleasant when they are uncertain about the other person’s behavior or actions, so they try to reduce uncertainty through interpersonal communication.
Berger proposed seven axioms (self-evident truths) regarding this initial uncertainty.
The level of initial uncertainty for each individual decreases with the onset of verbal communication. Also, the communication increases as uncertainty decreases.
As nonverbal affiliative expressiveness such as eye contact, head nods, smiles increase, uncertainty decreases.
The need of information seeking decreases as uncertainty about the other person decreases.
Individuals disclose intimate information as they feel the level of uncertainty decreasing.
Uncertainty is directly proportional to reciprocity. In initial interaction, individuals tend to reciprocate personal details to match the other person. As uncertainty is reduced, they don’t feel the need to exchange details at a rapid rate.
When individuals realize that they share the same interests as the other person, the uncertainty decreases.
Uncertainty reduces as the feelings of approval between individual increase.
Motivation to reduce uncertainty
Individuals feel the need to reduce uncertainty only under certain circumstances. Berger has identified three conditions that drives our need to reduce uncertainty.
Anticipation of future interaction
We want to reduce uncertainty when we know we will see the other person again.
We desire information from people who have or control something we want.
The behavior of people deviate from accepted norms.
Types of Uncertainty
According to Berger there are two kinds of uncertainty that strangers face as they set out for their first meeting. They are:
Cognitive uncertainty means uncertainty related to beliefs and attitudes of people. Strangers are not aware of each other’s beliefs and attitudes on initial interaction, so uncertainty is high at this point.
Behavioral uncertainty occurs when people try to predict the action of others in a given situation. Uncertainty is high when people ignore societal norms (how one is expected to act) in initial interactions. This reduces the likelihood of future conversations.
Stages of Initial Interaction
Berger and Calabrese broke down the process of relational development into three stages, where each stage includes behaviors that indicate like or dislike.
The entry stage
Individuals begin communication under the guidance of behavioral norms, such as greeting and exchange of demographic information (age, occupation, hometown).
The personal stage
They share more personal information as communication furthurs and one will seek indications of values, attitudes, and morals from the other.
The exit stage
They will choose whether to continue the relationship based on the satisfaction level of the interpersonal communication.
Criticisms of Uncertainty Reduction Theory
Despite its widespread influence, the uncertainty reduction theory is not without criticism. Some of them are:
- Some researchers argue that uncertainty reduction is not always the motivating factor for communication. There is often a genuine desire to get to know the other person.
- Berger and Calabrese only included middle class white people in their sample size.
- The theory may be easily disproved because of the large scope of its axioms.
- Planalp and Honeycutt suggest that uncertainty will continue to increase after initial interaction because of lack of understanding and impulsive behavior.
- Michael Sunnafrank argued that positive relational experience is the actual motivation of interaction.