Uncertainty Management Essay

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Uncertainty reflects a perceived inability to predict or explain a person, interaction outcome, or issue with confidence. The theoretical debates about uncertainty have revolved around why and how people experience and manage uncertainty.

The predominant position is that individuals have an innate motivation to predict and explain lived experience, making uncertainty inherently distressing. Some, however, have argued that people’s experience of uncertainty differs according to context and culture, with evidence that uncertainty is sometimes the preferred state. For example, studies have shown that people diagnosed with chronic illness view uncertainty as hope (Brashers 2001). Still, most experiences of uncertainty involve some potential threat that encourages uncertainty management. So, how is that done? Scholars initially proposed that individuals manage uncertainty by seeking information through observation, third parties, or direct communication with the target (Berger & Kellermann 1994). However, more recent scholarship recognizes that individuals might respond to their uncertainty experiences by avoiding information altogether, cognitively re-assessing the state of uncertainty, or even basking in its presence.

Afifi and Weiner (2004) advanced the Theory of Motivated Information Management (TMIM) as a way to address some of the inconsistencies in the literature and more fully capture the complexity of uncertainty management decisions within interpersonal encounters. The theory proposes that process starts with awareness of a discrepancy between the amount of uncertainty one has and the amount one wants about an important issue. That discrepancy is then appraised and experienced emotionally in some manner (most commonly, as anxiety). In response, people consider two general questions: “What are the costs and benefits of information seeking?” (labeled ‘outcome expectancy’), and “Am I able to seek and cope with the information received?” (labeled ‘efficacy’).

The theory predicts that individuals are increasingly likely to seek information directly to the extent that outcome expectancies are positive and the efficacy assessments are high. Afifi and Weiner (2004) argue that information providers go through similar assessments in determining what information to give and how to do it. The end result of this process depends on the seeker’s strategy and the provider’s response. Most recently, scholars have turned their attention to the neurological and physiological implications of uncertainty management, with considerable promise for linking uncertainty and its management to well-being.


  1. Afifi, W. A. & Weiner, J. L. (2004). Toward a theory of motivated information management. Communication Theory, 14(2), 167–190.
  2. Berger, C. R. & Kellermann, K. (1994). Acquiring social information. In J. A. Daly & J. M. Wiemann (eds.), Strategic interpersonal communication. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 1–30.
  3. Brashers, D. E. (2001). Communication and uncertainty management. Journal of Communication, 51(3), 477–497.

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