Uncertainty Reduction Theory
We are more comfortable with predictable interactions. People feel a need to reduce their uncertainty about others by learning more about them to predict their behavior more easily.
The Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT) shows how we deal with uncomfortable situations when it comes to meeting strangers, however, most of what we learn in this chapter can also work for those who are already in established relationships. Being in a relationship does not mean you automatically know everything about the person. Just like having awkward moments when meeting someone new, relationships go through the same thing.
Berger (1979) points out that there are three antecedent conditions that exist when trying to reduce uncertainty. Initially, these dealt with two strangers, but let's put them into the context of relationships. The first is when the person has the "potential to reward or punish" (West and Turner 157). In dealing with relationships, let's say your boyfriend/girlfriend hates to go to concerts, but you love them. You know that in the past he/she has not gone no matter who the person was, but you decide to give it a shot and buy two tickets. If he/she still says no, that could be looked at as a punishment, but if he/she says yes, then it would be a reward and make you feel special. The second is that the other person "behaves contrary to expectations" (West and Turner 157). If your boyfriend/girlfriend always laughs when you make a bad joke, and then one day they don't, your uncertainty increases. This encourages you to find out that maybe they just had a bad day. The last one is when a "person expects future interactions with another" (West and Turner 157). If you and your boyfriend/girlfriend always go grocery shopping together on Thursday nights because you both have off time, you expect to continue doing that, but you also know that they are taking on a second job, which may interfere with your weekly shopping. This, too, affects your desire for certainty.
All of these examples lead to, what researchers call, relational uncertainty. This is when a person lacks certainty about the future and status of a relationship. This uncertainty can also be experienced when relationships involve partners coming from different cultural backgrounds. These are low-context cultures and high-context cultures. Low-context cultures, the United States, Germany, and Switzerland (Hall 1977) are "those in which meaning is found is found in this explicit code or message" (West and Turner 161). High-context cultures, Japan, Korea, and China, put more importance on the nonverbal messages, and "most of the meaning of a message is internalized by listeners or resides in the context" (West and Turner 161). People who are able to deal with such differences and other uncertainties have a high tolerance for uncertainty, otherwise known as uncertainty avoidance.
There are seven assumptions of URT. These are: "people experience uncertainty in an interpersonal setting; uncertainty is stressful; when strangers meet, their primary goal is to reduce uncertainty/increase predictability; interpersonal communication occurs through stages; interpersonal communication is the primary means of understanding reduction; quantity and nature of info that people share changes through time; and, it is possible to predict behavior in a law-like fashion" (West and Turner 168). The last assumption of the Uncertainty Reduction Theory led to the development of axioms, which led to the development of theorems. It is the most controversial in that it presents a covering law theory, which believes that it can formulate a law that explains all behavior. For example, axiom one claims that if there is lower uncertainty there is more communication. Axiom two claims that if there is lower uncertainty, then there is more nonverbal warmth. A theorem, deriving from the two axioms, would claim that for everyone, more nonverbal warmth corresponds with increased communication.
The uncertainty arises when there are many possible alternatives to explain a given situation or encounter. The ability to narrow down, or predict, where the conversation is headed therefore provides for more ease going forward. There are two kinds of uncertainty, which are behavioral and cognitive. Behavioral uncertainty is the degree of uncertainty to how people will act and cognitive is the degree of uncertainty related to cognitions and understanding that person as an individual. An example of behavioral uncertainty would be not knowing how long to hold the door behind you based on how far away the next person is. An example of cognitive uncertainty would be not knowing how much to disclose about yourself if you are meeting a new person. In these situations, there is a level of uncertainty about the proper way to act that might leave the feeling of uneasiness.
There are four ways to reduce uncertainty and lead to the positive associations demonstrated through axioms and theorems. They are passive, active, interactive, and acceptance strategies. For example, you can use a situation of liking another person. A passive strategy would be to observe their actions and try to get a feeling for what they are like through their observations. An active strategy would be to talk to that person's friends for more information. An interactive strategy involves direct conversation. Acceptance is slightly different in that it is used in previously established relationships. Emmers and Canary state that this would include "simply trusting your partner" (West and Turner 176). Although you may not be entirely certain about what is happening, you have to learn how to trust and accept to deal with the uncertainty, even if it may not relieve it immediately.
Uncertainty Reduction Theory is helpful in that it examines initial interactions, as well as uncertainties that occur within a relationship. Its deductive reasoning used in developing theorems is logically consistent, although the validity of these statements has been debated. If one part of the theory is wrong, then the entire thing would be in question. However, researchers continue to find URT useful and continue to develop it.
West, Richard L., and Lynn H. Turner. Introducing Communication Theory: Analysis and
Application. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2007. Print.
Key Terms and Definitions
- Reciprocity: communication that mirrors the previous communication behavior
- Self-disclosure: personal messages about the self-disclosed to another
- Axioms: truisms drawn from past research and common sense
- Theorems: theoretical statements derived from axioms, positing a relationship between two concepts
- Passive Strategies: reducing uncertainties by unobtrusive observation.
- Active Strategies: reducing uncertainties by means other than direct contact
- Interactive Strategies: reducing uncertainties by engaging in conversation