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Berger & Calabrese' Uncertainty Reduction Theory

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Berger & Calabrese' Uncertainty Reduction Theory


  • Developed by Charles Berger and his colleagues at Northwestern University (Chicago) and later University of California at Davis
  • Theory about initial interactions
  • Basic thesis:  Strangers’ interactions are governed by the competing goals and dialectical tensions between
  • Their desire to reduce uncertainty about “the other” by acquiring information about the other that will assist in designing and selecting effective dialog
  • Versus
  • Their desire to behave 100% normally to make a good impression and avoid negative evaluation.
  •   This theory describes how people communicate one-on-one in initial interactions to achieve both goals simultaneously.


  • Two types of self-awareness
  • Objective self-awareness – centering on the self versus the other.
  • For example, when you are very nervous while giving a speech to a large audience, because you fear that you will look foolish in front of a large number of people, you become very aware of how your voice sounds, of every gesture you make, etc.
  • Subjective self-awareness – the person centers on the environment, others, and/or the interaction itself.  
  • For example, when talking with your friends, you focus on your friends, asking questions about their lives and listening attentively to what they say.
  • How do these two types of self-awareness work together?
  • Both types of self-awareness are common.
  • Individuals typically have both kinds of self-awareness simultaneously.
  • However, most individual tend to allow one type of self-awareness to become more dominant in their consciousness, and become their habitual “resting place” in their consciousness.
  • The two types of self-awareness can be pictured as occurring along a continuum and an individual’s “resting place” can be pictured as an “X” along that continuum:

Objective self-awareness                                        Subjective self-awareness

(self-consciousness)                                                (focus on the other)

  • That individual “resting place” can become an enduring trait.
  • If the individual resting place leads towards objective self-awareness, he/she may be in an uncomfortable state in all interactions.
  • Such discomfort can be exacerbated by challenging interactions, such as job interviews and initial interactions.

Uncertainty reduction

  • General explanation:  The desire to reduce uncertainty is strong when we meet a stranger because we
  • Want to be able to predict the behavior of the other in response to the self.
  • For example, will this person laugh, if I tell a joke or make a funny comment?
  • Therefore, strangers attempt to gain information that will enable them to predict accurately.
  • For example, I may enjoy cinema and want to talk with a stranger about new movies I have seen recently.  Therefore, I may ask, “Do you enjoy movies?” to see if this is an appropriate discussion to have with this stranger.
  • No matter how much information interactants gain, strangers may seek more information to increase the accuracy of the prediction and know how, specifically, to communicate most effectively with the other.
  • For example, I may enjoy cinema and want to talk with a stranger about new movies I have seen recently.  But which film should I discuss?  Even, if I know the stranger enjoys movies, if I mention the wrong film, he/she may think I have bad taste, or odd taste, or am not very smart, if I like a certain type of film.
  • Therefore, we can conceptualize initial interactions between strangers as a series of information seeking attempts on the part of both parties as they attempt to reduce uncertainty while still projecting a positive image to the other. 

Strategies to Acquire Information

  • Passive strategies
  • Reactivity search – observe the stranger reacting to others and to situations.
  • Then the observer can generalize for how the stranger treats others to how he/she is likely to treat me.
  • For example, if the stranger appears to be enjoying music being played at a social event, then he/she probably likes music and this might be an interesting topic of conversation, perhaps introduced by the simple question:  “They are playing some enjoyable music here, aren’t they?”
  • Disinhibition search – observe another in an informal setting where he/she will be natural and uninhibited.  That is, you believe the stranger will be him/her self.
  • While we do not always have the occasion to make such observations, we benefit from taking such occasions when they arise.
  • For example, I tell my advisees to sit in on classes before taking them to see what the teacher is like.
  • Another example:  If you are thinking about striking up a conversation with a potential romantic partner and you know he/she eats lunch regularly at a certain restaurant, then you might go there and observe how he/she interacts with friends.
  • Active Strategies
  • Asking others about the individual, typically mutual friends.
  • If the acquaintance is willing to talk, you can gather a great deal of information about the target individual.
  • Such information helps you to decide if you want to start a conversation with the person, and also what you might reasonable talk about.
  • Manipulating the environment to increase opportunities for interaction.
  • You may decide to ride the same bus as the target to increase the opportunity to sit next to him/her and strike up a conversation.
  • You may change where you sit in a class to sit near or next to a target.
  • Interactive strategies
  • Questions, usually stated very politely about the other.  Answers can be followed by “follow-up questions” to learn more detailed information about the target.  For example, “What’s your major?”  and “Are you from Miami?”  
  • Self-disclosure, typically providing positive information about the self in the hope that the target will reciprocate.  “I plan to graduate in June.”
  • Interactants often use these strategies in combinations.  For example:  I really like this class.  How about you?  



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