The scope of the theory is narrowed down to rest on the premise that strangers, upon meeting, go through certain steps and checkpoints in order to reduce uncertainty about each other and form an idea of whether one likes or dislikes the other. To study this phenomenon, the interaction is viewed as going through several stages. Berger and Calabrese also introduce axioms and theorems regarding initial interaction behaviors.
Berger and Calabrese separate the initial interaction of strangers into three stages, the entry stage, the personal stage, and the exit stage. Each category includes interactional behaviors which serve as indicators of liking and disliking.
The entry stage of relational development is characterized by the use of behavioral norms. The contents of the exchanges are often demographic and transactional. Common initial questions are: Where are you from? Or, Do you have any pets? The level of involvement will increase as the strangers move into the second stage (Berger & Calabrese, 99-100).
The second stage, or personal phase, is when strangers begin to explore the attitudes and beliefs of the other. Typically, this stage is entered after the strangers have had several entry stage interactions. One will probe the other for indications of their values, morals and personal issues. Emotional involvement tends to increase as disclosures are made (Berger & Calabrese, 100).
The final stage of interactional development is the exit phase. Here, the former strangers decided if they want to continue to develop a relationship. Any plans for the future are made. If there is not mutual liking, either can choose not to pursue a relationship (Berger & Calabrese, 100).
Understanding the cycle of relational development is key to studying how people seek to reduce uncertainty about others.
Berger and Calabrese used several studies as a guide to develop the foundations of Uncertainty Reduction Theory. Research and theory development was steeped in the post-positivist tradition, using scientific methodology and deductive reasoning to reach their conclusions (Miller, 176). The results of the studies form the foundation of the theory, seven axioms and 21 theorems. The following are the axioms set forth by Berger and Calabrese in their paper:
Berger and Calabrese formulated the following theorems deductively from their axioms:
Viewed as a whole, the processes of getting to know someone, as well as if there is liking between the two, can be predicted by examining the interactive phenomena through Uncertainty Reduction Theory’s tenets (Berger & Calabrese, 101-109).
Eleven years after Uncertainty Reduction Theory was introduced, Berger published Uncertain Outcome Values in Predicted Relationships: Uncertainty Reduction Theory Then and Now. His aim was to defend his theory in new contexts and modify it, as necessary. Berger later proposed three types of information seeking behavior, passive (watching the interactant for clues in reactions to stimuli), active (posing questions to other individuals about the interactant), and interactive (posing direct questions to the interactant) (Miller, 178). Later research by Berger and Bradac (1982) indicated that disclosures by interactants may lead them to be judged as more or less attractive. The judgment will determine whether the judge will continue to reduce their uncertainties or end the relationship. Berger also acknowledges the works of Gundykunst, et al (1985) and Parks & Adelman (1983) to extend Uncertainty Reduction Theory to the realm of more established relationships. Planalp & Honeycutt (1985) studies the introduction of new uncertainty to existing relationships. Their findings indicate that uncertainty in long-term relationships usually impacts negatively on the relationship.
Uncertainty reduction theory has sparked much discussion in the discipline of communication. Critics have argued that reducing uncertainty is not the driving force of interaction. Michael Sunnafrank's research (1986) indicated that the actual motivation for interaction is a desire for positive relational experiences. Kellerman and Reynolds (1990)pointed out that sometimes there are high level of uncertainty in interaction which no one wants to reduce (Miller, 180-183). Gudykunst (1985) points out that Uncertainty Reduction Theory was formulated to describe the actions and behaviors of middle-class, white strangers in the United States. This is the demographic in the studies Berger and Calabrese used to develop the theory (Gundykunst, 204). Another issue is the scope of the axioms and theorems. If a particular theorem is disproved, it destroys the axiological base upon which it rests.
Uncertainty Reduction Theory has been applied to new relationships in recent years. Although it continues to be widely respected as a tool to explain and predict initial interaction events, it is now also employed to study intercultural interaction (Gudykunst et al, 1985), organizational socialization (Lester, 1986), and as a function of media (Katz & Blumer, 1974). Gudykunst argues that is important to test theory in new paradigms, thus adding to its fortitude (Gudykunst, 204).