Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT)

In 1975 communications researchers Charles Berger and Richard Calebrese developed the uncertainty reduction theory (URT). Their objective was to understand how two individuals communicate with each other during an initial encounter. They believed that when two strangers meet for the first time, the situation is fraught with uncertainty and vagueness. Hence, each individual attempts to lessen the ambiguity about the other person and their interpersonal relationship. Berger and Calebrese characterized two types of uncertainty that individuals encounter during an initial meeting: cognitive and behavioral. Cognitive uncertainty relates the observer's impression of the other person. Behavioral uncertainty relates to the actions a person will take. The researchers believed that the two types of uncertainties can be reduced with self-disclosure, especially as more frequent interactions occur between the individuals.

Mirroring, as shown in the openhanded gestures here, is the subconscious imitation of another. It can reduce uncertainty and produce a greater sense of engagement and belonging.

Mirroring, as shown in the openhanded gestures here, is the subconscious imitation of another. It can reduce uncertainty and produce a greater sense of engagement and belonging.

The uncertainty reduction theory consists of nine main axioms, as outlined in L. H. Turner and R. West's Introducing Communication Theory:

  1. People experience uncertainty in initial interpersonal settings, which can be lessened as verbal communication increases.
  2. Uncertainty is inversely correlated to nonverbal affiliative expressiveness.
  3. Uncertainty is positively correlated with information-seeking strategies.
  4. Intimacy and uncertainty are inversely correlated.
  5. Reciprocity is positively correlated with uncertainty.
  6. Similarities between individuals will reduce uncertainty.
  7. Increased uncertainty results in decreased levels of liking.
  8. Shared social networks reduce uncertainty and vice versa.
  9. Uncertainty is inversely correlated to communication satisfaction.

URT provides strong predictions in many situations for determining whether strangers will become friends or not.

Berger and Calebrese noted that when individuals first meet someone, they have three antecedents that help them reduce uncertainty. These antecedents are whether or not the other person has the potential to reward or punish, whether or not the other person behaves contrary to normal expectations, and whether or not the person expects further encounters with the other person. Individuals will use three strategies in order to defeat their uncertainty. These include passive strategies (unobtrusive observation), active strategies (means other than by direct contact), and interactive strategies (engaging in conversation). Berger later found that in conversation, individuals tend not only to seek information from a new acquaintance but also to formulate a plan for navigating the situation and to “hedge,” or couch their messages in humor, ambiguity, disclaiming, or discounting.

URT consists of seven basic assumptions. These assumptions are based on the idea that communication is the most important element of human behavior. The assumptions are that individuals feel uncertainty in interpersonal settings; uncertainty is an aversive state that produces cognitive stress; when individuals first meet their main concern is to reduce uncertainty or to increase predictability; interpersonal communication is a developmental process that happens in stages; interpersonal communication is the main process of uncertainty reduction; the quantity of data that individuals share changes through time; and that it is possible to predict individual's behavior. These assumptions provide an explanation for what people experience when they first meet with someone new and how those feelings will change as additional interactions occur in the future. URT can also be applied to shifting conditions in an established relationship as the individuals seek to understand how the other might behave in new situations.

Social scientists have examined URT in new relationships in such varied contexts as schools and businesses, romantic partnerships, and technology-mediated interactions including watching television or using a computer for communication. Some theorists maintain that uncertainty can be either positive or negative for the participants in an interaction or a relationship, particularly if reducing that uncertainty might harm one or the other individual.

—Narissra Maria Punyanunt-Carter, MA, PhD

Antheunis, Marjolijn L., Alexander P. Schouten, Patti M. Valkenburg, and Jochen Peter. “Interactive Uncertainty Reduction Strategies and Verbal Affection in Computer-Mediated Communication.” Communication Research 39.6 (2012): 757–80. Print.

Berger, Charles R., and Michael Burgoon. Communication and Social Influence Processes. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1998. Print.

Berger, Charles R., and Richard J. Calabrese. “Some Explorations in Initial Interaction and Beyond: Toward a Developmental Theory of Interpersonal Communication.” Human Communication Research 1.2 (1975): 99–112. Print.

Booth-Butterfield, Melanie, Steven Booth-Butter-field, and Jolene Koester. “The Function of Uncertainty Reduction in Alleviating Primary Tension in Small Groups.” Communication Research Reports 5.2 (1998): 146–53. Print.

Knobloch, Leanne K., and Laura E. Miller. “Uncertainty and Relationship Initiation.” Handbook of Relationship Initiation. Ed. Susan Sprecher, Amy Wenzel, and John Harvey. New York: Psychology P, 2008. 121–34. Print.

Levine, Timothy R., Kim Sang-Yeon, and Merissa Ferrara. “Social Exchange, Uncertainty, and Communication Content as Factors Impacting the Relational Outcomes of Betrayals.” Human Communication 13.4 (2010): 303–18. Print.

May, Amy, and Kelly E. Tenzek. “Seeking Mrs. Right: Uncertainty Reduction in Online Surrogacy Ads.” Qualitative Research Reports in Communication 12.1 (2011): 27–33. Print.

Ramirez, Artemio. “The Effect of Interactivity on Initial Interactions: The Influence of Information Seeking Role on Computer-Mediated Interaction.” Western Journal of Communication 73.3 (2009): 300–25. Print.

Turner, L. H., and R. West. Introducing Communication Theory. 4th ed. New York: McGraw, 2010. 147–65. Print.