Uncertainty Reduction Theory Berger and Calabrese (1975) developed…

Uncertainty Reduction Theory Berger and Calabrese (1975) developed…

Uncertainty Reduction Theory Berger and Calabrese (1975) developed…

Uncertainty Reduction Theory

Berger and Calabrese (1975) developed a theory which attempts to explain how uncertainty in initial encounters between strangers is reduced through communication. They further wanted to be able to predict what behaviors people will use to reduce their uncertainty in these initial encounters.

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Isn’t it nice to have a communication theory that addresses our worries and concerns about interacting with people for the first time?! Are you aware of the “work” that you do to address the anxieties you might have about a given communication situation? We tend to have two kinds of concerns:

1) Cognitive Uncertainty – the degree of uncertainty associated with the beliefs and attitudes we hold (e.g., What should I think about this other person? Do I like him or her? What does this other person think about me? Does he/she like me?).

2) Behavioral uncertainty – “the extent to which behavior is predictable in a given situation,” and whether we know what the right behaviors are in a given situation (i.e., Am I doing and saying what is expected of me in this situation? Is this person doing or saying what I expect from him/her in this situation).

Here’s a personal example will help explain the two kinds of uncertainty: One of the “joys” of academia is attending professional conferences. Some conferences have a stated purpose and allow like-minded people to meet, work together, and achieve goals. Other conferences are more “diffuse” in their purpose, so that the general goal is for people to jockey for social position and to ally themselves with influential people. I feel quite cognitively uncertain about how to interpret accurately what people are doing, and I wonder if such interpretations will be valid or useful to me. I’m not sure what behaviors I can use to avoid being seen as competitive for status as other people. On the other hand, I want to behave so that people see me as smart and competent. Generally, such meetings are an anxious trial for me.

Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT) has been well-studied and well-embraced by communication researchers. It is based upon several assumptions, as described in our lecture. One assumption is that people’s behaviors can be predicted in a “law-like” fashion. These predictions are not infallible rules but are considered highly probable behaviors; therefore, the rules are called “axioms.”

Unlike the other theories in this course, URT is based upon these axioms that are used as “building blocks” for the rest of the theory. The first seven axioms are given in lecture and in our readings. In lecture, I explain how those axioms can generate 21 theorems about the relationship between two concepts. If you have a mathematical or logical bent to your thinking, you will find URT fascinating. At about this point, however, other people begin to feel quite lost. Do not feel you have to understand all the various theorems and axioms for this class. What you should take away from this theory is the notion of a “law-like” theory and its many strengths, particularly to generate useful findings and to generate new research avenues. This ability to suggest new and useful avenues of research is called “heurism.”

Your Task

Please take a quick look at a student video which applies the principles of URT to the movie “Hitch”.


Now using what you learned from this clip and your assigned lecture and readings, see if you can identify and explain Uncertainty Reduction in this scene from the television show “The Big Bang Theory”



Social Penetration Theory (SPT) came out of a cultural time period when “opening up and talking candidly was highly valued as an important relational strategy”. In the early 1970s people, parents, and couples were all trying to communicate more effectively. Being open and honest was a part of those communication strategies.

Two big ideas from those days were (1) learning to use “I” statements when you are talking with someone about your feelings; (2) restating (or paraphrasing) what the other person has said to show that you understand him or her. Learning to communicate well and authentically was linked to a general idea that people could make the world a better place. It’s probably hard for most of you to remember a time when people did not expose their problems and feelings in an open way to anyone other than their closest of friends. Nowadays, people chat on and on about themselves in public through TV reality and talk shows, twitter, texting, Facebook, blogs, and so on. Even in the late 1960s and early 1970s, people rarely mentioned the word “cancer” when talking about a person’s illness! We have certainly moved far beyond the social restraints for conversation at the time this theory was developed.

Although we can see SPT was a reaction to a time when social conventions played a stronger role in what people talked about, the question remains painfully clear: How do we get close to people?

Activity #1

1. What do you think about the assumption of SPT: “Self-disclosure is at the core of relationship development”? Do you agree with that assumption? What other ways can people get emotionally closer to each other, if not through self-disclosure?

2. Are texting and FaceBook and other social media good substitutes for the traditional ways of getting to know people? Explain why or why not.

3. Here’s a fun example from Friends about how men and women differ in bonding over talking about a KISS:

How men and women describe a KISS – https://www.youtube.com/watch?


Do men share the same strategies for getting to know other men as friends in the same way women make friends with other women? Why or why not? When does a man know that he has a true friend with another man?


















Social Exchange Theory (SET) attempts to explain how people evaluate their relationships, and how this evaluation leads them to stay in, or leave, any given relationship. In a nutshell, Social Exchange theorists believe that people think about their relationships in economic terms. They evaluate the rewards (anything viewed positively by a person in a relationship—example, companionship) and costs (anything viewed negatively by a person in a relationship—example, I don’t spend as much time with my friends anymore) associated with the relationship in order to determine the relationship’s worth. Social Exchange Theory further argues that people calculate the overall worth of a particular relationship by subtracting the relationship’s costs from the relationship’s rewards. In other words… overall worth = rewards – costs

In general, humans seek to maximize rewards and minimize costs. This is achieved through analyzing the outcome of social interactions. Positive relationships are those whose worth is a positive number (i.e., rewards are greater than the costs). Negative relationships exist when the overall worth is a negative number (i.e., costs exceed the rewards). SET predicts that the worth of a relationship influences one’s satisfaction with the relationship, and theoutcome of the relationship.

To determine satisfaction, a person compares their current relationship with their Comparison Level (CL) for relationships in general. This is a personal standard for acceptable rewards and costs and is usually determined by experience in previous relationships. If the current relationship does not meet this acceptable standard, SET predicts that the person will be dissatisfied. If the current relationship meets this acceptable standard, then the person will besatisfied regardless of the relationship’s net worth. So, people in negative relationships can be satisfied if they have no expectation of anything better!

In general, positive relationships are expected to endure, whereas negative relationships are expected to terminate as long as one has a high Comparison Level for Alternatives (i.e., the person compares the current relationship to acceptable alternatives to the current relationship). If the dissatisfied person has a lot of alternatives (i.e., a high Comparison Level for Alternatives), then SET predicts that he or she will leave a dissatisfying relationship. If, however, the person perceives little, to no, alternatives to the current relationship (i.e., has a low Comparison Level for Alternatives), then the theory predicts that a person will stayin a dissatisfying relationship.

When Social Exchange Theory was first published, it was a novel theory because it could explain why people in dissatisfying relationships stayed. The theory is not without its critics, however. Some people take issue with the rational nature of the theory. They feel that it excludes the emotional aspects of relationships and that people consider more than just rewards vs. costs when determining whether to stay in, or leave, a dissatisfying relationship.

Your Task

Please review this talk where Leslie Morgan Steiner talks about why victims of domestic violence stay in abusive relationships.

After listening to her talk, please answer the following questions:

1. How did Ms. Steiner evaluate the costs versus the rewards of her relationship?

2. Using concepts from Social Exchange Theory, why do you think she stayed in that relationship for so long?

3. Do you think Social Exchange Theory adequately addresses why people stay in dissatisfying or abusive relationships? Why or why not?

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Relational Dialectics Theory

Note: Please listen to your lecture on Relational Dialectics Theory and read your assigned readings before participating in this discussion.

One of the key assumptions of Relational Dialectics Theory is that relational life is characterized by ongoing tensions between contradictory impulses (i.e., relational dialectics).

Some of the key concepts from the theory include:





Please review these concepts and how Baxter and Montgomery define them. Then, review the three basic, and two additional, relational dialectics discussed in lecture and in your readings.

Make sure you understand how a person could want BOTH aspects of these dialectics:






Activity #1

Once you have a firm grasp of the theory, look at this scene from an episode of Friends:


1. What are the dialectical struggles you see going on for Ross in this scene? In other words, the “humor” is based on dialectical tension. Use the above terms from the theory to explain what is going on in the couple’s relationship.

2. Use the ideas from Social Exchange or Social Penetration Theory to explain why the dialectic of “getting closer/maintaining autonomy” didn’t “work” for Ross.

3. Compare the “heuristic” qualities of Relational Dialectics with those of Social Exchange Theory. Do you think both theories have equal explanatory and predictive strengths?

4. Give an example from your own life where you feel or felt a dialectic pull between two opposites. For example, you might appreciate your spouse for his or her careful use of money, but also want him or her occasionally to join you in a “splurge” on an exciting trip.

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