Uncertainty Reduction Theory

Illustration of uncertainty reduction theory article. Two people look at each other with interest.

Uncertainty Reduction Theory: why people engage in conversation

    The uncertainty reduction theory (URT), also known as initial interaction theory, was developed in 1975 by Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese. They created the uncertainty reduction theory "to explain how communication is used to reduce uncertainties between strangers engaging in their first conversation together".

    It is one of the few communication theories that specifically looks into the initial interaction between people prior to the actual communication process.

    According to the theory, people find uncertainty in interpersonal relationships unpleasant and are motivated to reduce it through interpersonal communication.

    Key assumptions and variables

    Berger (2011, p. 215) comments on uncertainty reduction theory, saying:
    "The main supposition underlying the theory is that when strangers meet, they are faced with myriad uncertainties about each other’s attitudes, beliefs, values and potential actions. In the service of predicting and, in some cases explaining, each other’s beliefs and actions so that communicative choices can be made, individuals seek to reduce their uncertainties by acquiring information about each other."

    There are seven assumptions associated with the uncertainty reduction theory.

    • People experience uncertainty in interpersonal settings.
    • Uncertainty is an aversive state, generating cognitive stress.
    • When strangers meet, their primary concern is to reduce their uncertainty or to increase predictability.
    • Interpersonal communication is the primary means of uncertainty reduction.
    • Interpersonal communication is a developmental process that occurs through stages.
    • The quantity and nature of information that people share can change through time.
    • It is possible to predict people's behavior in a lawlike fashion.

    Berger and Calabrese propose a series of axioms [1] drawn from previous research and common sense to explain the connection between their central concept of uncertainty and seven key variables of relationship development. These variables are: verbal communication, nonverbal communication, information seeking, intimacy level, reciprocity, similarity, and liking.

    Stages of interpersonal communication

    The fourth assumption of URT states that interpersonal communication is a process involving developmental stages.

    According to Berger and Calabrese (1975), generally speaking, most people begin interaction in an entry phase, defined as the beginning stage of a communication encounter between strangers. The entry phase is guided by implicit and explicit rules and social norms, such as responding kindly to “Hi! How are you?” (e.g., “Fine, and you?”).

    People then enter the second stage, called the personal phase. At that stage, the interactants start to communicate more spontaneously and to disclose more individual information. The personal phase can occur during an initial encounter, but it is more likely to begin after repeated interactions.

    The third stage, the exit phase, refers to the stage during which individuals make decisions about whether they wish to continue interacting with this partner in the future.

    Although people do not enter phases in the same manner or stay in a phase for a similar amount of time, Berger and Calabrese believe that this framework explains how interpersonal communication is used to reduce uncertainties and describes the development of interpersonal relationships.

    Uncertainty types

    According to the theory, people can have cognitive and behavioral uncertainty. Both of these might occur when two people meet for the first time.

    Cognitive uncertainty is uncertainty about other people’s beliefs and thoughts. It accounts for the different contexts and perceptions of the environment by different individuals. An example of this could be the situation when two people attribute different importance levels to some issue.

    Behavioural uncertainty is uncertainty about other people’s actions. It pertains to "the extent to which behavior is predictable in a given situation".

    For instance, two strangers meet. They don’t know neither what another person believes (cognitive uncertainty) nor how he would behave (behavioural uncertainty). This creates anxiety and alternatives for further actions. To narrow it down, one has to get more information.

    Technically, cognitive and behavioural uncertainties are intertwined as much as a person’s beliefs and thoughts correspond to his actions. But it can still be useful to distinguish them in situations where subconscious or spontaneous reactions of an individual happen.

    Two processes of uncertainty reduction

    The theory explains that we all accomplish uncertainty reduction by activating two primary processes, called proactive and retroactive processes.

    Using proactive processes, a person attempts to anticipate the most likely actions another might take out of many alternatives and adjust their own actions accordingly.

    Retroactive processes help a person explain others' behavior after they perform some actions.

    Sometimes proactive processes are called prediction, and retroactive processes are called explanation.

    Strategies of uncertainty reduction

    There are three strategies a person can utilize to obtain information about another:

    • • Passive strategy
      Observing the behaviour of other without being noticed. For example, the person visiting a conference decides not to speak to anyone but to hang out around and listen to people first.
    • Active strategy
      An active strategist would actually perform particular actions to obtain information without direct contact. In the example with the event, one can go to the host and ask: “Hello, could you kindly tell me about the guests?” instead of directly speaking to them.

    • Interactive strategy
      This is a direct personal interaction with the person we would like to reduce uncertainty about. Let’s say, you have heard enough about event attendees and decide to speak to someone you haven't seen before. You approach them, ask questions, and disclose some information about yourself.

    These strategies are something to keep in mind when you would like to make a new connection or thinking about reaching out to an old friend. There are things we don't know about another person. But regularly applying three strategies, we can keep uncertainty low enough to build the beneficial relationship we want.

    Limitations and critique

    At the end of this article, we have to mention a few aspects that have been left outside the scope. In particular, these are matters of motivation: why and when do people tend to reduce uncertainty? Berger and Calabrese, in their original study (1975), introduced axioms and theorems that assert dependencies between interpersonal relationship factors mentioned above (liking, reciprocity, information-seeking, etc.), and uncertainty level.

    Some assertions from that set of axioms and theorems later have been demonstrated in subsequent studies by other researchers to be not so universally applicable [3]. That’s why it is better to pick a particular statement from the original set proposed by the authors and develop a methodology and experiment to test its plausibility. We would be glad to review them later through the prism of particular studies.


    [1] 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(2), 99-112

    [2] West, Richard L; Turner, Lynn H (2010). Introducing communication theory: analysis and application. McGraw-Hill. pp. 147–165. ISBN978-1-283-38719-4. OCLC911062433

    [3] Kellermann, Kathy & Reynolds, Rodney. (1990). When Ignorance Is Bliss The Role of Motivation to Reduce Uncertainty in Uncertainty Reduction Theory. Human Communication Research - HUM COMMUN RES. 17. 5-75. 10.1111/j.1468-2958.1990.tb00226.x.

    Prepared by the team of Knei, personal connections tool

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