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Chapter 9—Uncertainty Reduction Theory
- Charles Berger notes that the beginnings of personal relationships are fraught with uncertainties.
- Uncertainty reduction theory focuses on how human communication is used to gain knowledge and create understanding.
- Any of three prior conditions—anticipation of future interaction, incentive value, or deviance—can boost our drive to reduce uncertainty.
- Uncertainty reduction: To predict and explain.
- Berger’s emphasis on explanation (our inferences about why people do what they do) comes from the attribution theory of Fritz Heider.
- There are at least two types of uncertainty.
- Behavioral questions, which are often reduced by following accepted procedural protocols.
- Cognitive questions, which are reduced by acquiring information. Cognitive uncertainty is what Berger is addressing.
- An axiomatic theory: Certainty about uncertainty.
- Berger proposes a series of axioms to explain the connection between uncertainty and eight key variables.
- Axioms are traditionally regarded as self-evident truths that require no additional proof.
- Axiom 1, verbal communication: As the amount of verbal communication between strangers increases, the level of uncertainty decreases, and as a result, verbal communication increases.
- Axiom 2, nonverbal warmth: As nonverbal affiliative expressiveness increases, uncertainty levels will decrease. Decreases in uncertainty level will cause increases in nonverbal warmth.
- Axiom 3, information seeking: High levels of uncertainty cause increases in information-seeking behavior. As uncertainty levels decline, information-seeking behavior decreases.
- Axiom 4, self-disclosure: High levels of uncertainty in a relationship cause decreases in the intimacy level of communication content. Low levels of uncertainty produce high levels of intimacy.
- Axiom 5, reciprocity: High levels of uncertainty produce high rates of reciprocity. Low levels of uncertainty produce low levels of reciprocity.
- Axiom 6, similarity: Similarities between persons reduce uncertainty, while dissimilarities produce increases in uncertainty.
- Axiom 7, liking: Increases in uncertainty level produce decreases in liking; decreases in uncertainty produce increases in liking.
- Axiom 8, shared networks: Shared communication networks reduce uncertainty, while a lack of shared networks increases uncertainty.
- Theorems: The logical force of uncertainty axioms.
- Through pairing axioms, Berger creates 28 theorems.
- These 28 theorems suggest a comprehensive theory of interpersonal development based on the importance of reducing uncertainty in human interaction.
- Message plans to cope with uncertain responses.
- Berger concluded that most social interaction is goal-driven: we have reasons for saying what we say.
- Berger claims plans are hierarchically organized with abstract representations at the top of the hierarchy and progressively more concrete representation toward the bottom.
- Switching strategies at the top of the hierarchy causes changes down the hierarchy, altering behavior.
- Uncertainty is central to all social interaction.
- There is an interaction between uncertainty reduction theory and plan-based message production that suggests various strategies individuals use to cope with uncertainty and hedge against risk when deploying messages.
- Uncertainty reduction theorists have outlined four approaches we can use to reduce uncertainty.
- Using a passive strategy, we unobtrusively observe others from a distance.
- In an active strategy, we ask a third party for information.
- With an interactive strategy, we talk face-to-face with the other person and ask specific questions.
- The extractive strategy involves searching for information online.
- The complexity of a message plan is measured in two ways—the level of detail the plan includes and the number of contingency plans prepared in case the original one doesn’t work.
- Berger catalogs a series of planned hedges that allow a somewhat gracious retreat to “save face” when at least one of them miscalculated.
- The hierarchy hypothesis: When individuals are thwarted in their attempts to achieve goals, their first tendency is to alter lower-level elements of their message.
- Reducing uncertainty in ongoing relationships: Relational turbulence theory
- Can uncertainty also wreak havoc in ongoing relationships?
- Leanne Knobloch suggests that uncertainty in close relationships arises from whether we’re sure about our own thoughts, those of the other person, and the future of the relationship.
- Some life circumstances tend to generate relational uncertainty though it can occur at any point.
- Couples also experience partner interference as they learn to coordinate their individual goals, plans, and activities in ways that don’t annoy each other.
- In times of relational turbulence, we’re likely to feel unsettling emotions like anger, sadness, and fear.
- Over time, turbulence leads to even more uncertainty and interference, which then creates more turbulence—a vicious cycle that could threaten the health of the relationship.
- Knobloch’s research supports the relational turbulence theory across many types of romantic relationships, ranging from couples facing clinical depression to military spouses returning from deployment.
- Critique: Nagging doubts about uncertainty.
- Berger’s uncertainty reduction theory was an early prototype of what an objective theory should be and it continues to inspire a new generation of scholars today.
- As Berger himself admits, his original statement contained some propositions of dubious validity.
- Critics such as Kathy Kellermann consider theorem 17 particularly flawed.
- The tight logical structure of the theory doesn't allow us to reject one theorem without questioning the axioms behind it.
- In the case of theorem 17, axioms 3 and 7 must also be suspect.
- Kellermann and Rodney Reynolds challenge the motivational assumption of axiom 3.
- They also have undermined the claim that motivation to search for information is increased by anticipation of future interaction, incentive value, and deviance.
- Michael Sunnafrank challenges Berger’s claim that uncertainty reduction is the key to understanding early encounters.
- He believes that predicted outcome value more accurately explains communication in early encounters.
- Berger insists that you can't predict outcome values until you reduce uncertainty.
- Walid Afifi thinks both theories are too narrow. In his theory of motivated information management, he suggests we’re most motivated to reduce anxiety rather than uncertainty.
- Despite these problems, Berger's theory has stimulated considerable discussion within the discipline.
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