Uncertainty Reduction as a Communication Theory…

For this post, I have chosen to explore the concept commonly referred to as the “Uncertainty Reduction Theory”. While there are a great many aspects and permutations of this theory, I believe that it can be effectively boiled down to the words of the text in saying “…when strangers meet, their primary concern is one of uncertainty reduction or increasing predictability about the behavior of both themselves and other in the interaction”.
This suggests that during an initial meeting the psyche of one or both individuals is primarily concerned with reducing the feeling of uncertainty and reaching a stage of predictability that will wrest control of the interaction as close to certainty as possible.
While this theory begs many interesting questions about the psychology of the human condition, it also seems to suggest several declarative factors inherent in all of us. One of these is that for a majority of humans, uncertainty is still a hard-wired problem for us, one that we instinctively seek to reduce whenever or wherever possible.
While I have no empirical evidence for this, other than my own opinion, it could be argued that the human aversion to uncertainty is an evolutionary holdover from our halcyon days as, if not a prey species, at the very least not the top of the local food chain. With natural predators and environmental factors, it can be argued that this led to almost an ingrained risk aversion unless absolutely necessary.
While this theory in its current incarnation is only thirty-eight years old, and however this theory may have begun, it can no longer be denied that it is an active fact and component of the vast majority of interpersonal communications.
Over the course of the nearly forty years since this theory was developed, its applications have multiplied into the realms of relationships as well as that of social media interaction. Its inception was originally an outgrowth of the “post-positivist” tradition, which espoused the belief that when there is a researcher and subject dynamic, one cannot help but influence the other.
Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese originally developed the uncertainty reduction theory, in 1975. It was originally developed as a means of explaining the frequent anxiety experienced by people during an initial encounter or meeting. During the development of this theory, it was divided into two sub sections, which are prediction and explanation.
Prediction describes the ability to forecast or assume the other parties behavioral and communicative choices and act accordingly prior to that choice being made. Explanation involves the ability to understand the message being shared and the motivations behind sharing it in an immediate manner.
Additionally our drive to use this theory, as it is stated, is created by one of three factors. First, anticipation of future interaction, which means that we know we will encounter the person again, therefore we deem it best to become familiar in order to avoid the discomfort of the initial meeting. Additionally, there is incentive value, no small thing among humans, which means that the other party has something that we want and therefore creating familiarity by reducing uncertainty will further that goal. Finally, there is the problem of deviance. This occurs when the subject acts in an off putting or different way than we have come to expect, either in dictation, or in overall message being delivered.
Berger also proposed a series of “axioms” tying uncertainty to the concept of relationship development. Primary among these is verbal communication. This is a fairly straightforward concept. Basically this states that during an initial interaction, the more you communicate with the other party verbally the more information is shared and therefore the amount of uncertainty goes down. Due to this as the uncertainty decreases the level of verbal communication will continue to increase.
Next comes the concept of nonverbal warmth. This is perhaps one of the most effective means of reducing uncertainty. Utilizing this “affiliate expressiveness,” allows one to convey a sense of comfort as well as sympathy which should in turn inspire a reciprocal action the other person involved, even extending to the idea of a group presentation.
Next comes the concept of information seeking. This is due in large part to the feeling of uncertainty stemming from the lack of actionable information. This leads to an increase in information seeking. When we begin to feel comfortable, we reach a stage where the search begins to decrease until it reaches a sustainable level for the relationship.
In addition to this is the concept of self-disclosure. This originates from the concept that high uncertainty makes people hesitant to disclose personal facts about themselves. But ones this disclosure has been made the uncertainty level drops significantly. Often times in situations where we are meeting someone new, we feel compelled to share facts about ourselves.
Another axiom is reciprocity. This more so than most is an integral part of uncertainty reduction. During initial encounters we often measure our self-disclosure, nonverbal warmth, and verbal communication in order to balance it to the amount being shared by the other party, hence a reciprocal cycle is created. We are often careful not to “over share” or “under share” with another person so that we can feel as if we have a balanced relationship.
In addition to reciprocity, the concept of similarity is also a key driving force in communications and the reduction of uncertainty. We instinctively seek out those who exhibit similar traits to us. We may frame this by many factors not limited to gender, race, economic status, or athletic allegiance. This is done to ensure that there is a base starting point for the interaction therefore facilitating its speedy development.
In direct opposition to the old adage “familiarity breeds contempt”, the axiom of liking is another in this string that reduces the uncertainty of interactions. This concept is fairly straight forwards in the sense that you will be less uncertain and enjoy more a conversation or communication with someone that you like.
Finally, the concept of shared networks closely mirrors and evinces the concept of similarity. This once again shows that when the two parties have common ground the uncertainty is therefore reduced
During the study of human communication, one cannot help but apply this principal in many ways. Whether it stems from the philosophical bend of postempiricism which gave rise to it, or the application of its effects upon social media based communication, one doesn’t need to look to hard to see uncertainty reduction in action.
From an academic perspective, this is usually alleviated through the use of “ice-breaking” exercises, which shatters the uncertainty through forced acclimation. This is also seen in other realms as well. During military training, total strangers are often observed to building bonds and eliminate uncertainty in as little as an hour through forced verbal communication, shared networks, as well as the reciprocity built into training.
In another example of how this theory is applied, however intentionally or unintentionally, during a study it was shown that a marked percentage of arrested persons waived their Miranda rights, specifically the right to remain silent, in order to appear innocent and “make the officer like them”.
This is a startling application of this theory in action. The study goes on to show that in addition to waiving rights, there are also marked percentage increases of false confessions made by detained individuals when this theory is applied through the Reid interrogation method. This method seeks to exploit the feeling of uncertainty to influence the individual to seek comfort by appeasing the law enforcement officer by confessing.
Another example is the work done by Marjolin Antheunis on the application of uncertainty in a social media environment where nonverbal cues are absent.
During this study, subjects were evaluated while using computer mediated communication methods. In various stages, they used text only, visual communication though a web cam, and face-to-face communication to evaluate the differences.
This study indicated that the act of using axioms common to the uncertainty reduction principal, specifically question asking and self disclosure, were more frequently used during digital communication than they were during face to face encounters.
It is my belief that the usefulness of this theory is incontrovertible. Not simply from a communications viewpoint, but an evolutionary one. This speaks to how we as a species face the new and the uncertain. Additionally form a philosophical lens it at least beings to address why we would want to in the first place.
In order to proliferate our species we are required to reproduce. Statistically speaking the vast majority of that is going to occur with persons outside of our social group at one point or another. This demands that we equip ourselves with the skills to address this interaction. It is a biological imperative that we branch out, and grow beyond our current situation. And those among us who best evince this characteristic will in short order propel themselves to success over those who do not.
While holding no empirical evidence of this, I submit that what separated the early Neanderthal from Homo erectus may well have been the ability to socially interact for the betterment of the species. Fit is my belief that any species that cannot overcome the simple yet sometimes overwhelming hurdle of social interaction required for the building of pair bonds and eventually offspring, is not long for the world we find ourselves in.

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