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Uncertainty Reduction Theory

reduction uncertainty in behavior

History and Orientation

Uncertainty reduction theory (URT) was initially presented as a series of axioms (universal truths which do not require proof and theorems (propositions assumed to be true) which describe the relationships between uncertainty and several communication factors. URT was developed to describe the interrelationships between seven important factors in any dyadic exchange: verbal communication, nonverbal expressiveness, information-seeking behavior, intimacy, reciprocity, similarity, and liking. This theoretical perspective was originated by C.R. Berger and Calabrese in 1975; they drew on the work of Heider (1952).

Core Assumptions and Statements

Core: Uncertainty is unpleasant and therefore motivational; people communicate to reduce it. Uncertainty reduction follows a pattern of developmental stages (entry, personal, exit). During the entry stage information about another’s sex, age, economic or social status, and other demographic information is obtained. Much of the interaction in this entry phase is controlled by communication rules and norms. When communicators begin to share attitudes, beliefs, values, and more personal data, the personal stage begins. During this phase, the communicators feel less constrained by rules and norms and tend to communicate more freely with each other. The third stage is the exit phase. During this phase, the communicators decide on future interaction plans. They may discuss or negotiate ways to allow the relationship to grow and continue. However, any particular conversation may be terminated and the end of the entry phase. This pattern is especially likely to occur during initial interaction, when people first meet or when new topics are introduced later in a relationship.

Besides the stages in uncertainty reduction patterns makes Berger a distinction between three basic ways people seek information about another person: (1) Passive strategies - a person is being observed, either in situations where the other person is likely to be self-monitoring* as in a classroom, or where the other person is likely to act more naturally as in the stands at a football game. (2) Active strategies - we ask others about the person we're interested in or try to set up a situation where we can observe that person (e.g., taking the same class, sitting a table away at dinner). Once the situation is set up we sometime observe (a passive strategy) or talk with the person (an interactive strategy). (3) Interactive strategies - we communicate directly with the person.

People seek to increase their ability to predict their partner’s and their own behavior in situations. One other factor which reduces uncertainty between communicators is the degree of similarity individuals perceive in each other (in background, attitudes and appearance).

Statements: the axioms in URT follow the “If… then…” statements typical of the law-governed approach. For example: “If uncertainty levels are high, the amount of verbal communication between strangers will decrease.”

*Self-monitoring is a behavior where we watch and strategically manipulate how we present ourselves to others.

Conceptual Model


Uncertainty Reduction Model
Source: Heath & Bryant (1999)

Favorite Methods


Scope and Application

Organizational communication, society. Uncertainty reduction theory also applies at the organizational and societal levels (risk society).


To be added.


Key publications

  • Berger, C.R., & Bradac, J.J. (1982). Language and social knowledge: Uncertainty in interpersonal relations. London: Arnold.
  • Berger, C. R., & Calabrese, R. J. (1975). Some explorations in initial interaction and beyond: Toward a developmental theory of interpersonal communication. Human Communication Theory, 1, 99-112
  • Heath, R.L. & Bryant, J. (2000). Human Communication Theory and Research. Concept, Context and Challenges. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Berger, C. R., & Gudykunst, W. B. (1991). Uncertainty and communication. In B. Dervin & M. Voight (Eds.), Progress in communication sciences. Norwood, NJ: Ablex
  • Emmers, T.M. & Canary, D. (1996 Spring). “The Effect of Uncertainty Reducing Strategies on Young Couples’ Relational Repair and Intimacy,” Communication Quarterly 44: 166-82.
  • Berger, C.R. & Kellerman, N. “Acquiring Social Information,” in John Daly and John Wiemann, Strategic Interpersonal Communication, 1-31.
  • Walid, A. & Lee, J.W. “Balancing Instrumental and Identity Goals in Relationships: The Role of Request Directness and Request Persistence in the Selection of Sexual Resistance Strategies,” Communication Monographs 67 (September 2000): 284-305.
  • Brashers, D.E. (2000 March). “Communication in the Management of Uncertainty: The Case of Persons Living with HIV or AIDS,” Communication Monographs 67 (March 2000): 63-84.

See also Interpersonal Communication and Relations, Organizational Communication, Public Relations, Advertising, Marketing and Consumer Behavior