Contributors: Sylvia Buchanan, Andree Dumont, Mubeen Ladhani, Tara Litherland, Sultan Rana

Keywords: uncertainty, information seeking, communication, interaction, relational development

Uncertainty Reduction Theory Pioneer: Charles R. Berger


• B.S. Psychology – Pennsylvania State University

• M.A. and Ph.D. Communication – Michigan State University

•Best known for research on Uncertainty Reduction Theory

•Long term research on the role of cognitive planning and social interaction process and the role that they play in production of messages

•The way that risk influences judgements of vulnerability to threatening phenomena

•Editor – Human Communication Research and Communication Research

•Fellow – International Communication Association and has served as their president

•Teaching – undergraduate and graduate level - communication and cognitive process courses

•Currently Professor and Chair –Department of Communication University of California, Davis

Other Influential Proponents of Uncertainty Reduction Theory:

• Leon Festinger (1919-1989)

• Fritz Heider (1896-1988)

• Claude E. Shannon (1916-2001)

• Warren Weaver (1894-1974)

Current Proponent:

• Richard J. Calabrese

Assumptions of Uncertainty Reduction Theory:

• Uncertainty is uncomfortable
• People communicate to alleviate discomfort

Overview of Uncertainty Reduction Theory

Before uncertainty reduction theory came into use, the primary frameworks for studying interpersonal communication were based on social psychological theories of interpersonal relations, such as self perception and social exchanges, but rarely focused directly on important communication concerns. The theory centered on how communication was used to gain understanding in interpersonal relationships with uncertainty as the central structure.
Proposed as the major explanatory factor in interpersonal communication processes.

About the Theory

Based upon data taken from interactions between previously unacquainted strangers, Berger and Calabrese (1975) devised uncertainty reduction theory to explain recurring interaction patterns observed during initial interactions.
The theory proposed seven axioms from which 21 theorems were derived that specified the inter- relationships among uncertainty, the amount of communication, nonverbal affiliative expressiveness, and information seeking (Berger and Calabrese, 1975)
Verbal and nonverbal communication reciprocally related to uncertainty
Uncertainty = variables such as intimacy of self-disclosure, attraction, and information seeking, the reward value of conversational partners, the degree to which their behavior conformed to normative expectations, and the probability of future interaction
Uncertainty reduction is an ongoing activity even within established relationships
A central part of the theory is the assumption that when strangers meet, their primary concern is one of uncertainty reduction or increasing predictability about the behaviour of both themselves and others in the interaction
Each attempts to predict the most likely alternative actions the other person might take.
May produce both favorable and unfavorable outcomes.
Attractiveness can be a determinate as to whether persons will continue to attempt to reduce their uncertainties about each other.
Individuals who like each other reduce their mutual uncertainties; those who dislike each other avoid interaction and thus fail to reduce their mutual uncertainties.
First dates, marriage proposals, and interactions with foreigners are difficult because those involved are uncertain of what is expected of them and how others will respond to them.
Berger suggested that initial affective responses to such surface attributes as skin color, age, or physical attractiveness may increase or impede further uncertainty-reduction attempts.

Stages of Uncertainty Reduction Theory:

1. Entry Stage

• Communication includes information about:


–socio-economic status


–Random demographic information

  • Controlled by communication rules & norms

2. Personal Stage

• Communication transitions from basic information to the sharing of: –Attitudes



  • Less controlled by communication rules and norms

3. Exit Stage

Communication involves discussion about future plans

• Allows for the relationship to continue

3 Information Gathering Strategies:

1. Passive



•Acting “normally”

2. Active

•Ask third parties about the person of interest

•Active observation (trying to sit near that person)

At this point the communication can remain passive or move to interactive

3. Interactive

Direct communication

Relevance to Education:
-At the beginning of a school year or study period where teachers are confronted with new faces and students are confronted with a new teacher, there is typically an initial period of getting to know one another as a student/teacher and as a person
-Most teachers explore the stages of relational development when meeting their new students:
The Entry Stage of Relational Development- teachers may ask their students to fill out an “about me” form, that shares information about their favourite subjects, least favourite subjects, favorite sport, etc. The teacher may also share some relative information about themselves with the class.
The Personal Stage of Relational Development- teachers may share their personal teaching philosophies with their students or other morals and beliefs with their students, or have their students share such information in class discussion
The Exit Phase of Relational Development- the exit phase does not apply as literally in relation to education because teachers and students do not necessarily have a choice as to whether they will pursue a teacher/student relationship. In some circumstances, students may choose to drop a class if they decide that they do not want to pursue a learning relationship with a particular teacher, or may avoid taking classes by that particular teacher in the future. Students may also decide to take specific courses in pursuit of a learning relationship with a particular teacher. Ultimately, there is not a mutual decision in most circumstances, so this phase does not fit as directly with the uncertainty reduction theory.
A Normative Approach to the Study of Uncertainty & Communication
(Daena J. Goldsmith, 2001, Journal of Communication)
A normative approach framework is a theoretical account that addresses within this particular context the “meanings and evaluations of uncertainty and the communicative responses to uncertainty” (Goldsmith, 2001, p. 514). Goldsmith (2001) contrasts this normative approach framework to the uncertainty reduction theory framework introduced by Berger and Calabrese (1975) by using the following guiding questions:
  • How people should behave if they wish to achieve desired outcomes and why?
  • When people behave in a particular way, how will they be evaluated?
Versus the questions asked by Berger and Calabrese (1975), the Uncertainty Reduction Theory:
  • How people will behave and why?
While evaluating the ethnographic research, two elements became apparent to Goldsmith (2001):
1. Significance of uncertainty varies with the sociocultural context which can be defined by the following two terms:
Speech Community: a community sharing rules for the conduct and interpretation of speech, and rules for the interpretation of at least one linguistic variety (variation of their speech from a different locality) (Goldsmith, 2001, p. 516). Even within a speech community, uncertainty may have different meanings in different types of speech events.
Speech Event: a jointly enacted communication episode characterized by an internal coherence or unity and punctuated by clear beginning and ending boundaries (Goldsmith, 2001, p. 516). For example, uncertainty is likely to have a different significance when it is experienced in an initial interaction with a stranger vs. long-term relational partner (Goldsmith, 2001, p. 516).
2. Substantive meaning of uncertainty: distinctive and variable meanings are related with the experience of uncertainty in a particular sociocultural context (Goldsmith, 2001). So this means that in different speech communities, factors such as beliefs about persons, relationships, and communication may lead to a different understanding of what uncertainty means and what valued purposes it may threaten or serve (Goldsmith, 2001).
Ethnographic Research:
Caucasian, College Educated North Americans:
- A frame of reference, most of the data on which this original theory is based came from this sociocultural context
- Communicative practices are geared towards reducing uncertainty
Puerto Rican Community (Puerto Rico):
- Tolerance for uncertainty is valued and communicative practices are designed to increase, rather than decrease uncertainty
- Convention of Indirectness: words that are used to communicate are immaterial to inferring the individual’s intentions
- Direct and precise use of language is seen as offensive, confrontational, and disrespectful, it would not produce greater liking. The goal of maintaining uncertainty leaves the door open for different interpretations and points of view
Western Apache Community (Cibeque, Arizona):
- Communicative practices are linked to a desire to reduce uncertainty
- Copresent Silence: When meeting a stranger or during courtship, the Western Apache remain silent in one another’s presence for long periods of time until they feel comfortable speaking to one another (a value of privacy and reserve)
- By not using copresent silence, this would show disrespect for the privacy of others and a superficial understanding of friendship
Malagasy Community (Madagascar):
- Engage in patterns of behaviour that reduce uncertainty
- Males: create an atmosphere of uncertainty and ambiguity intentionally. They engage in active information seeking with third party females and then they use this new/novel information to eliminate the uncertainty within the community. By doing this, they achieve status among the community
- Females: participate in information seeking behaviour, unskilled at reducing uncertainty

Critique of Uncertainty Reduction Theory:

1) The issues with the Uncertainty Reduction Theory was in the participants and sampled group the study was done with. The sample used were educated (university enrolled) Caucasian American students, and these behaviours are specific to that sample. Middle Class Americans were integral in this study, and it has implications for the theory to be generalized to a much larger scope. This was pointed out by theorist W. B. Gundykunst (1985).

2) The inundation of axioms and theorems in the theory. When one seemed to be disproved, it breaks the foundation of the others that rest upon it.

3) The theory in itself is both hard to prove (depending on what culture you are analyzing), and subjective in our vast diaspora of a nation. Some actually see the motivation to engage in conversation/ establish a relationship is for the sheer goal of attaining a positive relationship. Though uncertainty may occur, some may see it as a point of excitement or intrigue, as opposed to a force that needs reduction.


Berger, C. R. (2005), Interpersonal Communication: Theoretical Perspectives, Future Prospects. Journal of Communication, 55: 415–447. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2005.tb02680.x

Berger, C. R. (1986), Uncertain Outcome Values in Predicted Relationships Uncertainty Reduction Theory Then and Now. Human Communication Research, 13: 34–38. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.1986.tb00093.x

Berger, C. R. and Calabrese, R. J. (1975), Some Explorations in Initial Interaction and Beyond: Toward a Developmental Theory of Interpersonal Communication. Human Communication Research, 1: 99–112. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.1975.tb00258.x

Goldsmith, D, J. (2001). A Normative Approach to the Study of Uncertainty and Communication. Journal of Communication, 514- 533

Gudykunst,W. B., Hammer. M. R., (1987), The Influence of Ethnicity, Gender, and Dyadic Composition on Uncertainty Reduction in Initial Interactions. J. Black Stud, 18, 2: 191-214, Sage Publications, Inc.

Gudykunst, W. B., Yang, S.-M. and Nishida, T. (1985), A Cross-Cultural Test of Uncertainty Reduction Theory. Human Communication Research, 11: 407–454. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.1985.tb00054.x

Sunnafrank, M. (1986), Predicted Outcome Value During Initial Interactions A Reformulation of Uncertainty Reduction Theory. Human Communication Research, 13: 3–33. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.1986.tb00092.x