Academic journal article Communication Studies

Measuring the Sources and Content of Relational Uncertainty

Academic journal article Communication Studies

Measuring the Sources and Content of Relational Uncertainty

Article excerpt

Uncertainty reduction theory (URT; Berger & Bradac, 1982; Berger & Calabrese, 1975) clearly established uncertainty as a phenomenon relevant to interpersonal communication. URT is a hypo-deductive causal theory that explains communicative behavior within interpersonal episodes in terms of an individual's inability to understand both their own and their partner's attitudes, feelings, and behavior. Uncertainty also influences several important aspects of relationship development, including the experience of conflict (Siegert & Stamp, 1994), the negotiation of jealousy (Afifi & Reichert, 1996; Guerrero & Andersen, 1998), and the use of information-seeking behavior (Afifi & Burgoon, 1998; Baxter & Wilmot, 1984, 1985). Consequently, uncertainty is important to understand within the context of close relationships (see Afifi & Burgoon, 1998; Afifi & Reichert, 1996; Parks & Adelman, 1983; Planalp & Honeycutt, 1985; Planalp, Rutherford, & Honeycutt, 1988).

Although URT advances a nuanced conceptualization of uncertainty, current operationalizations fail to capture the breadth of this construct. Moreover, uncertainty within ongoing associations is likely to emerge from a wider variety of sources than existing self-report instruments are designed to measure (see Afifi & Reichert, 1996; Baxter & Montgomery, 1996; Prisbell & Andersen, 1980). Consequently, our goal is to develop a measure of uncertainty in close relationships that attends to both the conceptualization offered by URT and the content issues relevant to intimate associations. To that end, we first identify three sources of uncertainty that are evident in the seminal writings on URT. Then, we review existing operationalizations of uncertainty to evaluate how well they capture the conceptualization of uncertainty advanced by URT. Next, we examine previous research to identify the potential content of uncertainty in close relationships. Finally, we report an empirical study that examines both the sources and the content of uncertainty in romantic relationships.


URT argues that people's fundamental goal within interaction is to attain interpersonal understanding (Berger & Bradac, 1982; Berger & Calabrese, 1975). Uncertainty constitutes a lack of confidence about how an interpersonal encounter will proceed; it involves the inability to describe, explain, and predict behavior within interaction (Berger & Bradac, 1982; Berger & Calabrese, 1975; Berger & Gudykunst, 1991). Uncertainty exists as a function of both the quantity of alternatives for behavior and their likelihood of occurrence within a given situation (Berger & Gudykunst, 1991). According to URT, uncertainty may be focused on three different sources within interpersonal relationships: the self, the partner, and the relationship.

Self uncertainty occurs when people are not able to describe, predict, or explain their own attitudes or behavior (Berger & Bradac, 1982; Berger & Calabrese, 1975). In these situations, "we might ask the question `Why did I do that?' or `Why did I say that?'" (Berger & Bradac, 1982, p. 9). Because people are able to think and behave in a number of different ways within a given interaction, they may experience uncertainty in adopting attitudes and/or selecting behaviors that are appropriate for accomplishing their own goals (Berger, 1975; Berger & Bradac, 1982). This focus of uncertainty, then, reflects a lack of knowledge about the self (Berger & Bradac, 1982).

Uncertainty may also be focused on the partner within interactions. According to URT, partner uncertainty emerges from an inability to predict the other person's attitudes and behaviors within interaction (Berger & Bradac, 1982; Berger & Calabrese, 1975). More specifically, partner uncertainty involves a lack of knowledge about the partner as an individual (Berger, 1979; see also Berger & Calabrese, 1975). …

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