Uncertainty Reduction Theory

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Uncertainty reduction theory – Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese

This theory explains how communication is used to reduce the uncertainty among people when they meet each other for the first time. It is assumed that when strangers meet, their primary objective is to reduce uncertainty about the other person involved in the interaction. We always want to reduce the uncertainties about our surroundings and the people in it since being uncertain about anything is not a pleasant feeling to have.
Berger proposed that there are 3 factors that influence whether people will want to work towards reducing uncertainties about a certain situation.
1. Anticipation of future interaction – You will try to reduce uncertainties if you know there is a possibility of meeting this person again. Therefore, you are more likely to use uncertainty reduction behaviour when you meet someone at a party that you might be interested in.
2. Incentive value – If this person is capable to doing something for you or against you even, then there are higher chances of you trying to reduce uncertainties.
3. Deviance – If the person behaves oddly and shows some bizarre characteristics, you are likely to use uncertainty reduction. For example if you meet a new prospective client whom you have to meet in the future and could give your company a new project and has a strange fascination for the colour purple, you would be interested in communicating more to fit the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together to get to know who she really is. There are 3 ways to seek information from the other person-
1. Passive Strategy – Observing someone without being observed
2. Active Strategy – Asking a third party for more information
3.Interactive Strategy – Obtaining information directly by asking questions and offering personal information about yourself
A demonstration of this can be seen in this scene from a very famous Hollywood movie ‘Hitch’ where Will Smith’s character tries to seek more information about Sara Melas at a bar where in he uses all the strategies mentioned above for interaction. Berger proposes a series of 8 axioms to explain the connection between uncertainty and eight key variables of relationship development which are

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Verbal communication -As the amount of verbal communication increases, the level of uncertainty decreases. As uncertainty decreases, the amount of verbal communication increases.
Non verbal warmth – As nonverbal warmth increases, uncertainty levels decreases in a situation. In turn a decrease in uncertainty level will cause an increase in nonverbal warmth.
Information seeking –When uncertainty is more, the tendency to seek information increases. As uncertainty decreases, information seeking behaviour decreases.
Self disclosure – When uncertainty levels are high, the levels of intimacy in communication is less. As uncertainty reduces the level of intimacy increases.
Reciprocity – Higher the uncertainty, higher the reciprocity. Lower the uncertainty, lower the reciprocity.
Similarity – Similarities between people decreases uncertainty, while dissimilarities increases uncertainty.
Liking – Increase in uncertainty decreases liking and decrease in uncertainty increases liking.
Shared networks – If there are shared networks among the two people like common friends then uncertainty is less and vice versa.

Uncertainty reduction theory in movies – Meet the parents
Meeting someone for the first time can be a nerve racking experience for many. In this movie Greg is meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. Jack, Pam’s father is overly protective of his daughter. He constantly mocks Greg’s choice of occupation as a nurse and makes him uncomfortable in a lot of situations with an intention to keep him away from his daughter. Greg tries to impress Jack from time to time but nothing seems to work in his favour because Jack does not show any liking towards him. Jack’s verbal output, nonverbal cues and constant information seeking causes Greg to fear him.
Consequently, there is never a stable interaction between Jack and Greg as there is a lot of uncertainty between them. Applications of Uncertainty Reduction theory In an article titled ‘Interactive Uncertainty Reduction Strategies and Verbal Affection in Computer-Mediated Communication’ published by Marjolijn L. Antheunis, Alexander P. Schouten, Patti M. Valkenburg and Jochen Peter, they investigated the language-based strategies that computer-mediated communication (CMC) users employ to reduce uncertainty in the absence of nonverbal cues.
CMC condition had i. Higher levels of intimacy than face to face condition ii. More affection statements than face to face condition iii. There was no observed differences between text-only CMC and visual CMC condition In another article titled ‘The Acquaintanceship Process: An Examination of Uncertainty, Information Seeking, and Social Attraction during Initial Conversation’ published by William Douglas, the relationship between uncertainty reduction, information seeking, and liking during unstructured initial interaction was studied.
Analyses showed that Significant linear and quadratic trends in the uncertainty scores. Global uncertainty-related to uncertainty about the specific person after interaction and the amount of uncertainty reduction that they achieved. Uncertainty and liking were inversely correlated both before and after interaction. Global uncertainty -predictive of amount of information seeking Specific uncertainty -unrelated to the frequency of both asking questions and disclosing. Critique point of view
It can be argued that reducing uncertainty about the self and another in an initial encounter might not be an individual’s primary concern. A more primary goal would be to maximize relational outcomes. It is not always necessary to reduce uncertainties for obtaining your incentive from the other person. Also a want for information rather than lack of information is what promotes information-seeking in initial encounters with other people. Also one of the axioms states that as the level of uncertainty reduces, liking increases.
This may not be necessarily true since there can be a situation where in after communicating you come to realise that the other person possesses qualities that you are not fond of or comfortable about. In this case, there will not be an increase in liking rather there is a possibility of the opposite, i. e. a decrease in liking.
Scholarly article sources:

http://crx. sagepub. com/content/21/2/154. abstract
http://crx. sagepub. com/content/early/2011/06/01/0093650211410420. abstract

Other sources:

http://www. wikipedia. org/
http://wikis. lib. ncsu. edu/index. php/Uncertainty_Reduction_Theory
http://www. youtube. com/

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