An employer tells two unacquainted employees that they will be working together on a big project for the next six months. The startled individuals stare at each other awkwardly for a few seconds. Each one is thinking the same thing: “Does my new working partner have any strange quirks? Will we get along? Will my partner take the project seriously–or get us yelled at by the project committee?”
Finally, the two begin to chat casually. The first employee, Sarah, finds out her new co-worker, Rob, is from the corporate office in New York and has a big incentive to make sure their project succeeds. Rob discovers that Sarah is obsessed with keeping everything in her office in its place, but the aggravation pays off in always knowing where the project files are.
This example illustrates the concepts of Uncertainty Reduction Theory. The theory states that people often feel uncertainty about others they don’t know and are motivated to communicate in order to reduce that uncertainty. Professors Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese invented the theory in 1975 after noting that initial interactions between individuals followed predictable patterns of information-gathering. Uncertainty reduction is particularly important in relationship development, as the information gathered through observation and interaction can be used to predict a person’s behavior.
Core Concepts and Assumptions
Uncertainty Reduction Theory rests on several basic assumptions. The main assumption is that uncertainty creates cognitive discomfort, which people will try to reduce. Uncertainty reduction occurs primarily by questioning new acquaintances in an attempt to gather information about them. This information can then be used to predict people’s behavior, or the outcome of starting a relationship with them. The process of information seeking goes through predictable developmental stages, indicating changes in the quantity and type of information shared between individuals. Berger and Calabrese outlined seven concepts related to these assumptions:
1. Verbal Output — High levels of verbal output correlate positively with a greater reduction in uncertainty, higher levels of communication intimacy, similarity between individuals and liking.
2. Nonverbal Warmth — Refers to positive signs in a person’s gestures and body language that indicate a willingness to communicate or form a relationship.
3. Information Seeking — Occurs when individuals wish to know more about each other. Information can be obtained passively through observation or interactively through conversation.
4. Self-Disclosure — Individuals willingly divulge information about themselves to reduce uncertainty in the other person, thus encouraging them to communicate openly.
5. Reciprocity — Individuals interested in reducing uncertainty or starting a relationship will reciprocate uncertainty-reducing behavior, such as asking questions. The higher the uncertainty between individuals, the more reciprocity a person can expect.
6. Similarity — Individuals who are alike or share interests will feel less uncertain about each other and achieve communication intimacy more quickly. Dissimilar individuals experience higher levels of uncertainty.
7. Liking — Feelings of approval and preference between individuals likewise speed up the uncertainty-reduction process. Feelings of dislike discourage relationship formation.
However, only in certain circumstances do individuals feel the need to reduce uncertainty. After all, people rarely strike up conversations with others while riding an elevator or the subway. Theorists have identified three situations in which people will seek to reduce uncertainty:
1. Anticipation of Future Interaction — People will seek information about others they expect to see again, such as co-workers and neighbors.
2. Incentive Value — People desire information about individuals who have the power to influence their lives either positively or negatively, such as employers, teachers and politicians.
3. Deviance — People want to reduce their uncertainty about odd, eccentric individuals who behave contrary to one’s expectations or social norms.
People use three basic strategies to obtain information about others: passive, active and interactive. With the passive strategy, the individual of interest is observed in various situations, including those in which the person may be presenting himself to others in a strategic way (i.e., self-monitoring), such as in a classroom or at a party. The active strategy involves setting up a situation where the person of interest can be observed or approached for interaction. With the interactive strategy, people simply communicate with the person they wish to reduce uncertainty about.
Stages of Communication
Finally, Berger and Calabrese described three stages of communication through which uncertainty reduction advances:
1. Entry — Individuals exchange demographic information such as their age, gender, occupation and place of origin. Communication generally follows social rules and norms.
2. Personal — Communicators begin to share more personal data, including attitudes, beliefs and values. Communication is less constrained by social norms.
3. Exit — Communicators decide whether they will interact in the future or continue a relationship. In some cases, interaction will end at this point.
Although Uncertainty Reduction Theory has greatly influenced communication studies, it’s not without its critics. Some scholars say that uncertainty reduction is not always the factor motivating communication; some people interact out of a genuine desire to connect positively with others. Others note that Berger and Calabrese’s studies included only one U.S. demographic: middle-class white people. Still others have pointed out that the scope of the theory’s assumptions may be too large and, therefore, easily disproved–which ultimately weakens the theory.
Uncertainty Reduction Theory has been used in recent years to study intercultural interaction, organizational socialization and interactions on social media.