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Uncertainty reduction theory (URT) explains 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 1997). Interpersonal communication plays two roles within URT: (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. U
RT assumes 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 URT as seven axioms concerning the association between uncertainty and facets of interpersonal communication within initial interaction between strangers: (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 seven axioms, Berger and Calabrese (1975) 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. Berger and Bradac (1982) elaborated on the methods people use to gather information about a target person. “Passive strategies” involve observing a person. “Active strategies” involve altering the physical or social context and observing a person’s responses to that environment or asking third parties for information. “Interactive strategies” involve communicating directly with the target person.
Tests of uncertainty reduction theory have addressed three general issues: (1) how uncertainty reduction changes over the course of developing relationships; (2) the factors that prompt uncertainty reduction; and (3) the communication behaviors that people use to gather information during face-to-face interactions.
Uncertainty reduction theory has been applied to various communication situations, such as the experiences of new employees, doctors and patients, students in a classroom setting, television viewers, computer-mediated communication partners, intercultural communication unesco 629 experiences, and romantic relationship transitions.
The theory’s claim that uncertainty reduction is a motivating force in interpersonal interactions is debated. Alternative views suggest that (1) communication in initial interactions is motivated by a desire to predict the rewards and costs of continued interaction; (2) people may prefer to maintain uncertainty if the information they might gain is threatening; and (3) uncertainty is both desirable and undesirable in the context of ongoing personal relationships.
- Berger, C. R. (1987). Communicating under uncertainty. In M. E. Roloff & G. R. Miller (eds.), Interpersonal processes. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 39–62.
- Berger, C. R. (1997). Message production under uncertainty. In G. Philipsen & T. L. Albrecht (eds.), Developing communication theories. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, pp. 29–55.
- Berger, C. R. & Bradac, J. J. (1982). Language and social knowledge: Uncertainty in interpersonal relations. London: Edward Arnold.
- Berger, C. R. & Calabrese, R. J. (1975). Some explorations in initial interaction and beyond: Toward a developmental theory of interpersonal communication. Human Communication Research, 1, 99–112.
- 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. 1–31.