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Uncertainty Reduction Theory And Its Importance

Communication is an important part of our daily life. It includes giving and receiving information. The concept of communication has a lot of theories. Uncertainty reduction theory is one of them.

What is Uncertainty Reduction Theory?

The uncertainty reduction theory was developed by Charles Beger and Richard Calabrese in 1975. The basic tenet of the theory is that before forming a relationship, people want to know information about the other person.

This information helps to reduce uncertainty and gives them some data to predict the other person’s behaviour. This theory is also known as initial interaction theory. It is one of the first communication theories that focuses on initial interactions between people before real communication takes place.

Types Of Uncertainty

1. Partner Uncertainty:

This uncertainty refers to being unable to predict the behaviour, thoughts and feelings of another person.

For example, Sammy’s friend enters the room and does not greet Sammy. He is now feeling uncertain and confused as to why his friend is behaving in such a manner.

2. Self-Uncertainty:

This uncertainty refers to an individual’s insecurity and inability to predict their own thoughts, behaviours and feelings. They are unable to describe or explain their own thoughts or feelings. This uncertainty can occur due to lack of self-awareness or in unfamiliar situations.

For example, entering a college for the first time can cause this feeling as one does not know how to behave, what to expect from new people, etc.

3. Relational Uncertainty:

This uncertainty refers to feeling under-confident in the relationship and being unable to predict or describe what’s happening in the relationship.

For example, Daniel just got into a new relationship. His girlfriend hasn’t replied to his text for 2 hours. He is feeling uncertain about this relationship and her behaviour as it is new.

Additionally, a research by Knobloch and Solomon in 1999 indicates that uncertainties related to the self and the partner need to be dealt with before addressing relational uncertainty.

4. Cognitive Uncertainty:

This uncertainty refers to being unable to predict another person’s thoughts or own thoughts.

For example, the English teacher gave a task of writing an essay for an exam to her students. She did not give any other information (topic, number of words) which caused uncertainty among the students.

5. Behavioral Uncertainty:

This uncertainty refers to being unable to predict or describe another person’s behaviour. It also includes not knowing how to behave in a situation or being unable to predict our own actions.

For example, John just joined a new class. He entered the class and found that the teacher had not come yet. There were some other children in class but they were busy doing their own things. In this situation, he did not know where to sit, who to talk to and how to go about it.

Variables of Uncertainty Reduction

Berger and Calabrese (1975) identified 7 variables related to uncertainty in a new bond.

  1. Verbal communication: The number of words exchanged between people during an initial interaction.
  2. Non-verbal communication: This refers to a specific type of non-verbal communication wherein people express positive feelings towards another person through their facial expressions or body language (smiles, nodding, arm gestures).
  3. Information-seeking: This refers to the number of questions asked in an initial interaction.
  4. Intimacy level in interactions: This refers to the degree to which information is low risk (name, age) or high risk (political beliefs, opinions on pregnancy).
  5. Reciprocity: This refers to an equal amount of information sharing between two people.
  6. Similarity: This refers to the degree to which people have similarities in attitudes and agreeableness between them.
  7. Liking: This refers to a positive feeling or thought about the other person.

These variables form the basis for the theory and are used to develop axioms.


Axioms refer to statements or proposed associations between relationships that are assumed to be true. For example, if A=B and B=C, then A=C. Berger and Calabrese used the seven variables of uncertainty reduction to create the following axioms.

  1. As the amount of verbal communication increases, the feelings of uncertainty will decrease. As uncertainty decreases, verbal communication will increase.
  2. As positive non-verbal communication increases, feelings of uncertainty will decrease. As uncertainty decreases, the amount of non-verbal affiliation will increase.
  3. Uncertainty can cause increases in information seeking acts. As uncertainty decreases, information seeking also decreases.
  4. High levels of uncertainty in the interaction can lead to low levels of intimacy in communication. Low levels of uncertainty in the interaction can lead to high levels of intimacy in communication.
  5. High levels of uncertainty can lead to high levels of reciprocity. Low levels of uncertainty lead to low levels of reciprocity.
  6. Uncertainty is increased by dissimilarities and decreased by similarities.
  7. When uncertainty levels increase, it can lead to reduced liking. When uncertainty levels are decreased, it can lead to increased liking.

Stages Of Communication

Berger and Calabrese gave three stages to describe how uncertainty reduction takes place.

uncertainty reduction theory

Applications Of Uncertainty Reduction Theory

  1. Uncertainty reduction theory has been used to study intercultural relations, co-worker relationships and social media interactions.
  2. Uncertainty reduction theory can be used in computer mediated communication. Research indicated that computer mediated communication leads to similar or higher levels of interpersonal interaction than face-to-face communication. In computer mediation communications, people have to use uncertainty reduction techniques to interact with each other.
  3. Uncertainty reduction theory can also be studied in the context of workplaces, specifically, job transfers. The theory can help in understanding how individuals explore new positions in the same company and interact with their co-workers. Individuals joining new workplaces can also be studied. The theory can be used to ease communication in unfamiliar places.
  4. The theory can also be used to study classroom behaviour and some techniques from the theory can be used to form rapport between student-teacher and student-student.

Research Evidence

Study 1

By: Palmieri and colleagues

Aim: To investigate the effects of self-disclosure on Facebook on perceived uncertainty reduction.


  • 151 undergraduates participated in this study. The participation was voluntary and anonymous.
  • The participants were asked to get their laptop to class on a particular day and were asked to log onto their Facebook accounts.
  • Then, they were randomly assigned to view one of the three Facebook pages: low, moderate, or high self-disclosure.
  • These Facebook pages were already made by the instructors. The Facebook page featured a 21-year-old undergraduate female named Katie Smith.
  • The low self-disclosure page displayed only one profile picture and information was limited to only demographic details (name, sex, email).
  • The moderate self-disclosure had more personal information such as her interests and hobbies, a viewable list of friends, and several photos.
  • The high self-disclosure page included many pictures of multiple social situations. There were tagged photos, a photo album and 3 profile pictures.
  • After this activity, they were asked to mention which page they watched (A, B, or C) and fill a questionnaire measuring their perceived uncertainty reduction.


  • It was found that the levels of self-disclosure on the person’s Facebook page affected perceived uncertainty about that person.
  • Low self-disclosure led to low perceived uncertainty reduction, moderate self-disclosure led to moderate perceived uncertainty reduction and high self-disclosure led to high perceived uncertainty reduction.

Study 2:

By: Jeffrey S. Lewis

Aim: To conduct an exploratory study to analyse initial communication between virtual teams.


  • The sample consisted of 4 teams, who were MBA students enrolled in a distance education program. The team members had not seen each otheror heard each other’s voices.
  • All the team members were asked to write a biographical message about themselves and post it in a ‘Bio folder’ on the course website.
  • The biographical entries were evaluated to find the amount and type of information that is shared by the team members (Hobbies, education, etc).
  • The information received by this specific evaluation is related to the Uncertainty Reduction theory variables of disclosure and intimacy.
  • Additionally, a history function was also assessed. The history functions was used to find out who opened the message. The information received by this specific analysis is related to the Uncertainty Reduction theory variables of information seeking behavior and reciprocity.


  • It was indicated that the primary information-seeking behavior displayed by team members is the reading of other team members biographical entries.
  • The team members can also ask questions to other team members during chat sessions but this happened infrequently during the initial interactions.
  • The initial interactions within virtual teams is not easily explained using uncertainty reduction theory as most of the theory is related to non-verbal communication.

Criticisms Of Uncertainty Reduction Theory

1. The complexity of the theory can cause some confusion when one tries to apply it to a practical situation. The axioms can be difficult to prove.

For example, Kellermann et. al, studied the validity of Uncertainty Reduction Theory with their primary focus on axiom 3, which related high uncertainty to high information seeking.

Results indicated that a want for knowledge was a greater indicator than a lack of knowledge for a need of information-seeking (Kellermann & amp; Reynolds 1990). It was found that high levels of uncertainty does not create enough motivation to result in information-seeking; a want for information is necessary.

2. Some researchers have admitted that uncertainty reduction may not be the only reason for initial interactions. Sometimes, there could be a natural, genuine desire to get to know the other person.

3. The theory was developed by 2 white males from the United States and it was primarily made for white people living in western societies. This factor could reduce the validity of the theory by focusing only on one specific race and devaluing other cultures.

4. The theory was also originally made to fit face-to-face initial interactions. Hence, other modes of interactions (computer-mediated) cannot be generalized through this theory.

5. The theory addresses how people think and behave about uncertainties but it does not address how people feel about uncertainties. Emotions such as fear and anxiety are likely to affect the validity of uncertainty axioms and theory.

6. The theory proposes that people initiate communication to reduce uncertainty. But, Predicted Outcome Value theory states that people interact with others in the hope of gaining rewards. They interact and reduce uncertainty to know whether the other person can be beneficial to them in some way.

Why Is It Important To Reduce The Uncertainty?

People will be likely to interact to reduce uncertainty if the following reasons are present.

  • Anticipation of future interaction: If the individual is going to meet the other person in the future, he or she is more likely to communicate and seek information.
  • Incentive Value: An individual is more likely to want to reduce uncertainty if the other person has or is in control of something that the individual wants.
  • Deviance: An individual is more likely to want to reduce uncertainty if the other person acts in an unfamiliar manner.
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