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Subjective uncertainty reduction theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Subjective uncertainty reduction theory proposes that many common activities, such as joining a team or group-as well as many psychological inclinations-ultimately arise from the need to curb subjective uncertainty. For example, according to Hogg and Abrams (1993& Hogg, 2000, 2004, 2005), the team or group affords members with some clarity about how to behave and think. That is, individuals gradually learn the norms and beliefs that characterize this group. When they feel connected to this group, they adopt these norms or beliefs, imparting a sense of certainty.

Consistent with this premise, when subjective certainty is somehow augmented, individuals are more inclined to feel connected to their team or group. In addition, their prejudices against other teams or groups also diminish (Grieve & Hogg, 1999).

Evolution of the theory

Although some minor surprises can be satisfying and pleasurable, scholars have long recognized that uncertainty about key facets of our life is aversive (e.g., Festinger, 1954), partly because such a state undermines our capacity to predict the future and act appropriately as a means to fulfill desired outcomes. As a consequence, individuals engage in a variety of activities or enact many processes to stem this uncertainty, such as social comparison and affiliation (Festinger, 1954& Schachter, 1959).

Early studies also showed how such uncertainty translates into conformity and connection to groups (e.g., Sherif, 1936& Sherif & Harvey, 1952). In particular, when individuals felt uncertain about some task, they became increasingly likely to comply with the norms and behaviors of the group, presumably as a means to diminish this uncertainty.

The mechanism by which groups can reduce uncertainty was, arguably, first promulgated by Deutsch and Gerard (1955). These authors delineated the concept of informational influence, in which individuals accept and internalize the norms and beliefs of their group to reduce uncertainty and behave appropriately.

Subjective uncertainty reduction theory, however, recognizes a broader range of sources that provoke uncertainty. Such states, for example, could derive from decline in the economy, insecurity in relationships, limited clarity about the self, uncertainty about social interactions, and so forth (see Smith, Hogg, & Martin, & Terry, 2007). To override these feelings of uncertainty, individuals can conform to the norms of their group. Such conformity and identity with a group not only clarifies which behaviors or beliefs to embrace but also delineates a definition of self in relation to the social collective.


Manipulations of subjective uncertainty

Many protocols have been developed to manipulate subjective uncertainty (e.g., & Sorrentino 2001, Mullin & Hogg 1998). First, some studies have varied the extent to which participants are granted opportunities to practice a task. Grieve and Hogg (1999), for example, granted some, but not all, participants extensive opportunity to practice some task. Subsequently, participants who were granted this opportunity demonstrated less bias against a rival group.

Second, some studies contrive situations in which individuals, although similar to participants, express divergent attitudes or answers. In a series of studies conducted by Abrams, Wetherell, Cochrane, Hogg, and Turner (1990), for example, participants were exposed to opinions that diverged from their own-expressed either by individuals purportedly in their group or by individuals in another group. Participants exposed to divergent opinions from individuals in their own group subsequently showed more conformity. Presumably, this experience provoked subjective uncertainty, and such uncertainty amplified the need to connect to a group.

Third, to manipulate personal uncertainty in particular, individuals are instructed to reflect upon an unresolved personal dilemma-in which they have not decided how to proceed (see McGregor, Zanna, Holmes, & Spencer, 2001). Next they transcribe this dilemma as well as the principal personal value associated with this issue. Then, participants answer a series of questions, intended to prompt deliberation about the benefits and drawbacks of each alternative response to this dilemma. These questions highlight inconsistencies among the goals, values, and behaviors of individuals.

In the control condition, participants instead write about the dilemma that a friend is experiencing. McGregor (2003) reviewed the evidence, showing that such personal uncertainty promotes bias against other groups and conviction of opinions (see also Smith, Hogg, Martin, & Terry, 2007).

Fourth, in some studies, to amplify uncertainty, participants are instructed to focus on the emotions and physical sensations that coincide with a state of uncertainty (van den Bos, 2001& van den Bos, Poortvliet, Maas, Miedema, & van den Ham, 2005). These manipulations have been shown to amplify sensitivity to injustice and defense of worldviews-similar to the experience of conviction that other research has demonstrated. This manipulation is similar to the procedure applied by Hogg, Sherman, Dierselhuis, Maitner, and Moffitt (2007), who instructed participants to identify three facets about their life or future that provokes uncertainty or certainty.

Characteristics of individuals that affect subjective uncertainty

Hogg and Mullin (1999) argued that subjective uncertainty is primarily a function of the context, not the individual. Nevertheless, some researchers argue that traits can affect the experience or implications of uncertainty.

For example, rather than manipulate subjective uncertainty, some studies have measured individual characteristics that are likely to impinge on the magnitude or effect of this uncertainty. Several authors, for example, assume that need for closure-the inclination to reach decisions rapidly and follow routines rather than engage in activities in which the outcome is unpredictable-manifests an intense motivation to curb subjective uncertainty. Consistent with subjective uncertainty reduction theory, individuals who report need for closure are more likely to show biases against other groups (e.g., Kruglanski, Pierro, Mannetti, & De Grada, 2006& Shah, Kruglanski, & Thompson, 1998& Webster, Kruglanski, & Pattison, 1997).

In addition, need for structure might also amplify the motivation to reduce subjective uncertainty. To illustrate, as shown by Dimmock and Grove (2006), individuals who report a need for structure-which represents a preference for clear and certain situations-were more likely to identify with the sporting team that is favored by their family or friends.

Furthermore, Hodson, and Sorrentino (2001) developed a procedure that assesses whether or not individuals are orientated towards reducing certainty. The procedure includes a projective test, which infers the need to approach or resolve uncertainty. Participants receive sentence prompts and are instructed to construct four stories in response to these words. In addition, the procedure entails a test of authoritarianism-given that such an orientation corresponds to a drive to maintain certainty (see Sorrentino, Roney, and Hanna (1992). These two facets are not correlated highly. Orientation to certainty did amplify biases against other groups, especially under conditions of high uncertainty.

Characteristics of social networks that affect subjective uncertainty

In teams, workgroups, and other social networks, people often exchange resources with one another, like information, goods, and support (see social exchange theory). Various characteristics of these networks affect levels of uncertainty.

To illustrate, in some networks, as Schaefer (2009) emphasizes, a particular form of imbalance in power, called exclusion, is prevalent. In some instances, for example, one person can derive a particular resource from two other individuals. This person, therefore, will tend to exchange resources with one individual and exclude the other people. Jane, for example, can purchase the same coffee, at the same price, from both Jack and Fred. When Jane purchases coffee from Jack, she excludes Fred. The excluded person tends to offer greater concessions to redress this imbalance in power.

Exclusion can promote uncertainty. First, because of these discrepancies in power, the powerful party might not always act fairly. That is, the powerful party might exploit the other party. Exchanges, therefore, are not always successful, trust does not evolve, and uncertainty is experienced. Second, exclusion reduces the frequency of interactions between each pair of individuals.

The frequency of exchanges can then affect uncertainty. If individuals frequently exchange resources, such as support, advice, information, goods, or money, they become more familiar with each other. The behavior of each person is predictable. Uncertainty declines.

Schaefer (2009) undertook a study to investigate these possibilities as well as several other hypotheses. In this study, teams of five participants completed a task in which they communicated over computer. Each participant was designated a letter to obscure their name. The participants each began with a particular token, representing a resource, like goods or information. They were permitted to exchange the token with only a subset of these five participants. Some participants could exchange resources with only two other participants& some participants could exchange resources with three other participants.

In some teams, if participants received a token from one person, they could not then distribute that resource to anyone else. In other teams, this constraint was relaxed. Furthermore, in some teams, once participants sent the resource to someone else, they had to relinquish this token. In other conditions, they could retain the tokens they exchanged. These conditions ensured the level of exclusion varied.

In addition, to assess uncertainty, participants were asked to specify the extent to which they felt their interactions were uncertain, unpredictable, or stable. To gauge exclusion, a formula was utilized. This formula represented the proportion of times two participants could have, but did not, exchange tokens because one of these individuals exchanged tokens with someone else.

As predicted, exclusion was positively associated with uncertainty. This relationship was mediated by the frequency of interactions in which an individual participated. Thus, in short, if people offer redundant resources, they are often excluded from interactions. Accordingly, they are not as familiar with other individuals, increasing their sense of uncertainty.

Threats to prime motives

As Nash, McGregor, and Prentice (2011) showed, threats to primed motives, but not other motives, tends to evoke anxiety uncertainty. First, either achievement or relationship motives were primed. That is, participants completed the sentence unscrambling task, in which they needed to rearrange words to construct sentences. Some of the participants were exposed to synonyms of achievement. Other participants were exposed to synonyms of relationships.

Next, participants were exposed to one of two threats. Some participants read an incomprehensible statistics passage, threatening their achievement motives. Other participants recalled a conflict with a close person, threatening their relationship motives.

Finally, after a 10 minute delay, participants rated their emotions. Participants reported elevated levels of uncertainty, anxiety, and frustration--emotions that are related to activation of the behavioral inhibition system (see reinforcement sensitivity theory)--but only if the threats corresponded to the motives that were activated. That is, threats to achievement provoked these emotions only if achievement motives had been primed. Threats to relationships provoked these emotions only if relationship motives had been primed.

Consequences of subjective uncertainty

Subjective uncertainty is associated with several manifestations of identifying with a group. Many studies have shown that subjective uncertainty associated with biases against other groups (Grieve & Hogg, 1999). Nevertheless, some more subtle manifestations have been uncovered.

A sense of personal uncertainty, for example, coincides with greater convictions about worldviews and personal opinions or attitudes (McGregor, Zanna, Holmes, & Spencer, 2001). Presumably, the uncertainty fosters acceptance of group norms and beliefs-and thus resistance to information that contradicts these opinions or attitudes. Alternatively, this conviction might represent a means to diminish subjective uncertainty (McGregor & Marigold, 2003).


A sense of personal uncertainty also increases conformity. That is, when individuals feel uncertain, personal attitudes that diverge from the norms of their group are less likely to guide their subsequent behaviors (Smith, Hogg, Martin, & Terry, 2007).

Some forms of threat and uncertainty are more likely to foster conformity than are other forms of threat and uncertainty. To illustrate, relative to other threats, infectious disease is especially likely to provoke conformity. That is, diseases are not visible& therefore, throughout evolution, people needed to depend on social norms rather than independent thought to combat this threat.

Murray and Schaller (2012) undertook a study that confirms this effect of infectious disease on conformity. In this study, some participants were instructed to discuss a time in which they feel vulnerable to disease. Other participants were instructed to discuss a time in which they felt physically unsafe. Finally, some participants discussed the activities they undertook yesterday. All of these individuals then reflected upon the feelings and sensations these memories evoked.

Next, participants completed a variety of tasks, all designed to assess conformity. For example, they were asked whether they agree or disagree with some university policy but were granted some clues as to what the majority of other students preferred. Second, they received descriptions of nine people, only some of whom were traditional rather than rebellious, and were asked to indicate which individuals they preferred. Furthermore, they were asked to indicate the degree to which they would like their children to be obedient rather than other traits. Finally, they expressed their attitudes to behaviors that contradict norms. Overall, relative to the other conditions, memories of vulnerability to disease tended to enhance the various measures of conformity. Therefore, to reduce conformity, disease prevention is especially important. To illustrate a practical implication, during summer, people may not feel as inclined to conform and, therefore, may be more creative.

Objectification of people

In many settings, individuals sometimes objectify other people. Men, for example, sometimes conceptualize some women as sexual objects, useful for their own purposes, rather than as sentient beings. Managers sometimes conceptualize their employees as tools to reach their goals not as people with their own passions, skills, and needs.

Many theories have been proposed to explain the prevalence of objectification. According to some scholars, in many cultures, men are encouraged to conceptualize women as objects that fulfill their own needs, such as status or sexual pleasure (Bartky, 1990). According to other scholars, if people feel threatened by a group, such as another race or gender, they like to underestimate the feelings and subjectivity of this group. This defensive response enables them to derogate, or even harm, members of this group (e.g., Leyens et al., 2000).

Landau, Sullivan, Keefer, Rothschild, and Osman (2012) showed that subjective uncertainty reduction theory could also explain some instances of objectification. According to this theory, people often like to interact with other individuals effectively. Yet, sometimes they are uncertain of the feelings and preferences of these individuals. They cannot observe these subjective experiences directly. This conflict between striving to interact effectively, but uncertainty around these subjective experiences, is aversive. To override this uncertainty, people may attempt to reduce the complexity of these subjective experiences, conceptualizing the other individuals as predictable beings rather than complex, sentient humans.

Landau, Sullivan, Keefer, Rothschild, and Osman (2012) conducted a series of studies that validate this supposition. In one study, to evoke a sense of uncertainty about women, some male participants wrote about a time in which they felt attracted to a woman but were unsure of how to approach her. To evoke a sense of certainty about women, other male participants wrote about a time in which they felt attracted to a woman and felt sure of how to approach her. Finally, to evoke a sense of uncertainty about men, some participants wrote about a time in which they felt another man seemed friendly but was unsure how to approach him.

Next, all these male participants completed a measure that gauges the degree to which they objectify women. They were asked to rank the relative importance of qualities in women, such as sexual appeal. If uncertainty about women had been provoked, men were more likely to feel that sexual attraction is the most important quality of women.

Assimilation to primes

When individuals feel uncertain about themselves, they are more likely to contemplate their characteristics and qualities. Because of this orientation to themselves, they often interpret events or objects in the environment as relevant to themselves. If they are exposed to the word grey or wrinkles, they may project these words onto their perception of themselves. Consequently, they may perceive themselves as older, a tendency called assimilation.

If individuals define themselves by the groups to which they belong--sometimes called a collective self construal (see self-construal theory)--they may be more likely to demonstrate this assimilation when they feel uncertain about their group. In contrast, if individuals perceive themselves as more independent, they may be more likely to demonstrate this assimilation when uncertain about themselves.

Morrison, Johnson, and Wheeler (2012) conducted a series of studies that substantiates these arguments. First, in a pilot study, participants were asked to write an essay on three characteristics or events that increase the likelihood they feel either certain or uncertain about their group or themselves. To illustrate, if instructed to write about characteristics or events that increase the likelihood they feel certain about their group, they might focus on some times in which they felt connected or similar to other members of their club. Next, they rated their emotions, such as the degree to which they feel bothered or uneasy now. Asian Americans, who often define themselves by the groups to which they belong, were more likely to feel bothered or uneasy after writing an essay that provokes uncertainty about their group. European Americans, in contrast, were more likely to feel bothered or uneasy after writing an essay that provokes uncertainty about themselves, such as a time they failed a task in which they expected to succeed.

The next study was similar, except participants also completed the sentence unscrambling task, in which they needed to rearranged words to form sentences. Some but not all of the participants were exposed to words that relate to the elderly, such as wrinkles. Finally, participants expressed their political attitudes. If Asian Americans experienced group uncertainty--or if European Americans experienced individual uncertainty--they were more likely to express conservative attitudes, similar to many older people, but only if exposed to words that relate to the elderly. That is, these participants exhibited assimilation. Subsequent studies uncovered similar findings, except self-construal was measured rather than inferred from the race of participants.

Religious beliefs

Hogg, Adelman, and Blagg (2010) highlighted why religious affiliations, and even fundamentalism, might represent an effective means to curb feelings of uncertainty. Specifically, according to subjective-uncertainty reduction theory, individuals sometimes identify themselves with a social collective. That is, they assume the beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors of this group, curbing uncertainty over who they are and how they should act.

Nevertheless, religious organizations--and fundamentalist collectives in particular--provide some key advantages over many other social collectives. First, according to Hogg, Adelman, and Blagg (2010), religious organizations exhibit a property called entitativity. That is, they represent a distinct entity. Specifically, religious organizations are clearly differentiated from other social categories. Members embrace similar beliefs, attitudes, and values as well as enact homogenous behaviors. These organizations pursue shared goals. Finally, the structure of these organizations is often defined clearly. Accordingly, these organizations seem immutable. Individuals are especially likely to experience a sense of clarity and certainty when they identify with these collectives.

Indeed, if individuals experience pronounced uncertainty, they might seek religious organizations that are especially zealous. These organizations tend to reject most features of mainstream culture. Because members can reject mainstream standards, their sense of certainty increases.

Second, individuals often experience uncertainty over questions of existence and morality. They are not certain about their purpose in life and their obligations to humanity. They are not sure which behaviors are appropriate. These questions are, arguably, insoluble and thus amplify uncertainty. Unlike many other collectives, religious dogma entails ideologies that resolve some of these questions. This dogma entails some information about existence--about how the world operates and which behaviors are suitable (Hogg, Adelman, & Blagg, 2010). Indeed, these religions embrace principles that instill certainty, such as the assumption that society is just, epitomized by the concept that only sinners are punished.

Consistent with this argument, Hogg, Adelman, and Blagg (2010) cite many studies that attest to the effect of uncertainty on the receptivity to religion. For example, as Laurin, Kay, and Moscovitch (2008) showed, when individuals receive information that implies that events might be random rather than structured, they become more inclined to believe the world is controlled by a God.

Wichman (2010) conducted a pilot study and additional research to assess a similar proposition. To elicit uncertainty, some participants were instructed to reflect upon a time in which they did not understand why some event unfolded, deliberating over the thoughts and feelings they experienced. In the control condition, they wrote about their experience of watching TV. Next, all participants completed the Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire, with items like "I consider myself active in my faith or church". Compared to the other participants, individuals who deliberated over a time in which they felt uncertain were more likely to adopt religious beliefs.

Furthermore, other studies show that religion may also curb uncertainty. As Inzlicht, McGregor, Hirsh, and Nash (2009) demonstrated, if individuals believe strongly in a God or exhibit religious zeal, reactivity of the anterior cingulate cortex diminishes. Reduced reactivity of this region tends to imply that individuals are less sensitive to conflicts, diminishing uncertainty.

Many other authors offer similar accounts. Herriot (2007), for example, maintained that fundamentalism represents an attempt to curb the uncertainty that emanates from modernity--from the flux and instability of modern times. Similarly, Dunn (1998) argues that rigid ideologies offer a sense of clarity in postmodern times, epitomized by unlimited choice and moral relativity.


As Gal and Rucker (2010) maintained, individuals sometimes advocate an ideology partly to reinforce uncertain beliefs. That is, individuals might be exposed to information that challenges or contradicts some of their cherished beliefs. These beliefs, however, are often crucial to the self concept of individuals. Hence, to bolster their self concept, individuals will attempt to reinforce or validate these beliefs. Advocating these beliefs, or proselytizing, might fulfill this objective.

Gal and Rucker (2010) conducted a series of studies that verify these arguments. In one study, participants were asked to express their attitudes towards testing animals to improve the safety of products. They were then asked to transcribe this attitude with either their preferred hand or non-preferred hand. When individuals write with their non-preferred hand, they become more likely to doubt their assumptions (see self validation theory). Finally, they were asked to write a message that was designed to persuade someone else to adopt their attitudes.

If participants wrote their attitude with their non-preferred hand, and thus doubted their beliefs, they devoted more effort to their attempts to persuade someone else. In particular, they wrote more words to convince this person. Interestingly, however, if these participants had previously been granted an opportunity to consider their favorite food, book, city, movie, song, or hobby--a form of self affirmation--this effect diminished. Accordingly, if their perception of themselves had been bolstered, they did not feel they need to reinforce their challenged beliefs.

The second study was similar, except a different procedure was utilized to manipulate uncertainty. Specifically, participants described two situations in which they felt uncertain or two situations in which they felt certain. In addition, the extent to which the belief was regarded as important was measured. Finally, the time they devoted to write a persuasive message was also assessed.

Again, after individuals experienced a sense of uncertainty, they were more likely to write a longer persuasive message to reinforce their beliefs. Furthermore, they dedicated more time to this persuasive message. However, if they did not perceive the beliefs as especially important, this effect of uncertainty on proselytizing diminished (Gal & Rucker, 2010).

The final study was also similar, except participants were granted the opportunity to express their message to people who are likely to either vindicate or reject their position. In particular, they first were asked to outline their beliefs about whether PCs are better than Macs. After reflecting upon times that provoked either certainty or uncertainty, they were asked whether or not they would attempt to convince someone who was either rigid or open in their beliefs. After uncertainty was invoked, individuals were more inclined to convince someone else, but only if this person was depicted as open. Presumably, only someone who could be supportive is likely to reinforce and validate their beliefs (Gal & Rucker, 2010).

Ideological conviction

A blend of uncertainty and anxiety tends to provoke ideological conviction. Specifically, after threats to their relationships, people claim their opinions on issues, such as capital punishment, are firmer. These firm opinions represent an attempt to defend themselves against threats. However, if participants ascribed these feelings to another source--that is, if they read that uneasy feelings are common in these settings--uncertainty and anxiety did not provoke ideological conviction (Nash, McGregor, & Prentice, 2011).

This finding is consistent with the concept of reactive approach motivation. In particular, according to this concept, when people feel threatened, they attempt to adopt abstract goals and pursue ideas, such as ideological positions. These abstract goals and ideals evoke an approach motivation as well as an abstract construal, distracting attention from anxious feelings and concrete details.

Uncommon opinions

When individuals experience a sense of uncertainty, they feel that problems may unfold, culminating in a sense of threat or anxiety. To override these feelings, individuals attempt to shift their attention to matters in which they feel more certain. That is, they attempt to reinforce their sense of certainty about other matters, especially if they are susceptible to feelings of threat and anxiety.

To reinforce this sense of certainty, some people attempt to demonstration conviction in their beliefs, often by speaking louder (Gal & Rucker, 2010). However, as Rios, Wheeler, and Miller (2012) showed, some individuals may demonstrate another tendency to override feelings of uncertainty: They may express opinions that diverge from the prevailing attitudes of their society. That is, people tend to define themselves by tendencies that are uncommon. They may, for example, define themselves by their gender when surrounded by people of another sex, for example. Consequently, after they express opinions that diverge from the prevailing attitudes of their society, they become more attuned to their distinct qualities. Their identity seems more certain. Feelings of uncertainty dissipate.

Rios, Wheeler, and Miller (2012) reported a series of studies that validate this premise. In one study, some participants were asked to consider three features of themselves that provoke uncertainty, called self-uncertainty. In the control condition, participants were asked to consider three events in the world that provoke uncertainty, called general uncertainty, a feeling that is not as threatening. Next, they completed a tedious language task: They needed to complete word fragments, such as -IC-. They were told that other people tend to enjoy this task. Finally, they were asked to rate the degree to which they enjoyed this task.

If self-uncertainty, rather than general-uncertainty, had been evoked, participants were not as likely to admit they enjoy this task. That is, they expressed opinions that diverge from other people. This tendency was observed, however, only in people who demonstrated a low implicit self-esteem, as gauged by whether or not they like their name (see the name liking measure). Presumably, when implicit self-esteem is low, people are particularly sensitive to threats and more inclined to reinforce their certainty in response to feelings of uncertainty.

In the second study, participants wrote about three facets of themselves that evoke feelings of uncertainty or certainty--to evoke a sense of self-uncertainty or self-certainty respectively. Next, they were instructed to rate modern paintings. Near each painting were, ostensibly, the ratings of other people. If self-uncertainty had been evoked, the ratings of participants were more likely to diverge from the ratings of other people. Again, this pattern of findings was observed only in people who showed a low implicit self-esteem. A later study demonstrated that participants who reported high explicit self-esteem and low implicit self-esteem--a tendency that tends to correspond to defensive behavior--were especially like to exhibit this tendency to diverge from other people in response to self-uncertainty.

Preference towards stage theories

Some theories or scientific models--such as Erikson's eight stages of identity development and Kohlberg's (1958) theory of moral development--comprise a sequence of stages. That is, these models assume that people gradually progress from one stage to another stage in a fixed order. Other theories or models do not assume that individuals progress from stage to another stage in a fixed order& people can either progress in different orders or they may develop along a continuum. As Rutjens, van Harreveld, van der Pligt, Kreemers, and Noordewier (2013) showed, when people experience a sense of disorder, randomness, or uncertainty, they become more inclined to prefer stage theories. These stage theories instill a sense of order and predictability.

In one study, participants were exposed to a stage theory or a similar theory that did not assume that individuals progress through each stage in the same order. Stage theories were rated as more orderly and predictable, but not as credible, as other theories. This belief that stage theories are not credible diminished after people remember a time in which they needed to relinquish control--or are exposed to synonyms of randomness. Therefore, primes that provoke uncertainty or disorder, and thus evoke the need to seek order, bias attitudes towards stage theories.

Materialism and self expression

When individuals experience a sense of self uncertainty, they may be more likely to purchase products that can reinforce or express their identity rather than goods that offer some tangible purpose. Specifically, individuals sometimes experience a sense of uncertainty about their identity: They are not sure of their interests, skills, personality, or ideologies, for example. To overcome this uncertainty, they might attempt to purchase goods that reinforce some facets of their identity to override these conflicts or ambiguities. They could, perhaps, purchase some torn jeans to show they are carefree.

Morrison and Johnson (2011) conducted a series of studies that verify this possibility. In some of these studies, participants first completed an instrument that, purportedly, gauges their personality. To evoke uncertainty, some participants were informed their responses conflicted with one another and their personality could not be ascertained. To curb uncertainty, other participants were informed their responses were compatible with one another.

Next, participants were asked whether some of their significant possessions, such as their favorite jeans, either express their personality or were purchased because of their utility and convenience. Self expression was represented by questions such as "My jeans reflect the kind of person I see myself to be". Utility was represented by questions such as "My jeans make it easier for me to structure and organize my daily life".

If participants experienced uncertainty, they were more likely to perceive their possessions as an expression of their personality instead of a useful product. This effect of uncertainty was pronounced in European American or individualist, but not Asian American or collectivist, participants.

In another study, participants were granted an opportunity to write about a personal possession that either expressed their identity or was useful. Next, they completed a measure of self certainty: the self concept clarity scale. After writing about a possession that expressed their identity, participants were more likely to feel a sense of certainty. Again, only people with an individualistic perspective demonstrated this effect of self expressive possessions. Accordingly, individualistic individuals may be especially uneasy with uncertainty about themselves& these individuals like to perceive themselves as consistent over time with unambiguous traits (Morrison & Johnson, 2011).

Factors that affect the impact of subjective uncertainty

Self affirmation

Self affirmation has been shown to curb the effect of uncertainty (Wichman, 2010). That is, when individuals experience a sense of uncertainty, they feel their identity or status might be threatened. That is, they do not feel they can control their surroundings sufficiently. Any event or experience that could protect their identity should thus curb the effect of uncertainty. Self affirmation is often assumed to protect the self and, thus, should fulfill this function (McGregor, Zanna, Holmes, & Spencer, 2001& for conflicting findings, see Hogg & Svensson, cited in Hogg, 2007).

Wichman (2010), indeed, confirmed that self affirmation can diminish the effect of uncertainty on beliefs or behavior. Specifically, in one study, to elicit uncertainty, nursing students described a time in which they were not certain how they should treat a patient. In the control condition, nursing students merely described their subjects. Next, all participants described either one of their achievements or one of their failures. Finally, their religious beliefs were assessed.

If participants described a failure, uncertainty reinforced religious beliefs& these beliefs, presumably, are adopted to curb uncertainty. If participants described an achievement, uncertainty did not foster these religious beliefs. These reflections, perhaps, reinforced the identity of individuals& uncertainty, thus, was not perceived as threatening.

The second study was similar, except a traditional self affirmation protocol, rather than merely a reflection on past achievements, was followed. If participants wrote about their most important value, uncertainty was less likely to invoke religious beliefs (Wichman, 2010).

Implications of subjective uncertainty reduction theory

This compliance with norms in response to uncertainty can, potentially, explain some key patterns of observations in organizations. Cannella Jr., Park, and Lee (2008) showed that uncertainty in the environment can amplify the benefits of diversity in senior management teams. This study explored whether diversity in the roles and expertise of the senior managers affects financial performance, as defined by return on assets divided by assets. Interestingly, diversity was positively related to firm performance, but only if the managers were located in the same building and uncertainty pervaded the environment, as represented by variability in sales across consecutive years.

Conceivably, environmental uncertainty might augment compliance to norms and thus reduce creativity and innovation. This decline in creativity and innovation could impair the capacity of organizations to respond to changes in the environment. Diversity in the team might overcome this problem, because the norms are not as rigid and defined.

Alternatives to subjective uncertainty theory

Some authors argue that manipulations of subjective uncertainty could also affect other states (e.g., Hewstone, Rubin, & Willis, 2002). As a consequence, the effects of these manipulations could, potentially, be ascribed to other either similar or dissimilar mechanisms.

Need for control

According to several authors, the need to reduce subjective uncertainty might both reflect and promote the motivation to maintain a sense of control (e.g., Baker & Stephenson, 2000& Fritsche, Jonas, & Fankhanel, 2008& Weary & Edwards, 1996). That is, the need to maintain a sense of control is regarded as a core human motive (Deci & Ryan, 1987& Langer, 1975), enabling individuals to predict the effects of some behavior and to fulfill their desired outcomes (Pittman, 1998). When individuals experience a sense of control or autonomy, wellbeing and affective states improve (e.g., Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978& Stotland & Blumenthal, 1964& Thompson, Sobolew-Shubin, Galbraith, Schwankovsky, & Cruzen, 1993) as does performance (Glass & Singer, 1972).

Subjective uncertainty, thus, might reduce the capacity to maintain control, which in turn could foster the inclination to identify with groups or teams. In particular, according to Fritsche, Jonas, and Fankhanel (2008), group membership can impart a sense of vicarious control. That is, individuals can identify themselves with an influential group or person. From the perspective of self categorization theory, as proposed by Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, and Wetherell (1987), individuals who identify with these collective assume the attributes and characteristics of this group-in this instance, a sense of control and influence.

However, feelings of uncertainty evoke responses that clarify identity rather than instill a sense of control. In contrast, a limited sense of control evokes responses that instill a sense of order and predictability rather than clarify identity. That is, distinct mechanisms overcome different threats

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Shepherd, Kay, Landau, and Keefer (2011), some participants were asked to reflect upon a time in which some events that unfolded were beyond their control, to highlight limited control. Other participants were asked to reflect upon how their life has changed markedly since they were young to evoke a sense of uncertainty. Next, participants answered questions that assess the extent to which they identify with their nation, Canada. Some of the questions concerned the extent to which the participants identify with the norms and standards--facets of the nation that instill a sense of order and thus control. Other questions concerned the degree to which the participants value their heritage and thus afford a sense of continuity. If limited control was elicited, participants greatly valued the norms and standards of their nation, presumably to instill a sense of order. If uncertainty was elicited, participants greatly valued the heritage of their nation.

The second study was similar. In particular, this study showed that limited control increased the likelihood that people would value a Smartphone that, supposedly, confers a sense of order by enabling them to direct their own life. In contrast, a sense of uncertainty increased the likelihood that people would value a Smartphone that instilled a sense of uniqueness.

Causal uncertainty

As Berger and Calabrese (1975) emphasized, during conversations, individuals attempt to reduce or overcome feelings of uncertainty. Two variants of uncertainty may be experienced: uncertainty about how the other person will react and uncertainty about why the person reacted a specific way. Both variants of uncertainty are aversive.

Some people feel especially unable to understand specific reactions and behaviors of other individuals, called causal uncertainty (Weary & Edwards, 1994, 1996& Weary & Jacobson, 1997& Weary, Vaughn, Steward, & Edwards, 2006). They feel uneasy in novel and unpredictable social settings, diminishing their tolerance to ambiguity (Weary & Edwards, 1996).

To override these feelings of uncertainty, they may devote more effort to processing social events. They do not, for example, utilize only heuristics or stereotypes to reach social judgments but process this information extensively (Weary, Jacobson, Edwards, & Tobin, 2001). Yet, because of their chronic feelings of uncertainty, these attempts to understand social events may be limited. This state of uncertainty may not diminish and may distract attention from conversations, compromising their social interactions. Therefore, to prevent this uncertainty, they may withdraw from social contexts altogether.

Consistent with these possibilities, Boucher and Jacobson (2012) showed that causal uncertainty is associated with aversive experiences during conversations. In a set of three studies, participants engaged in conversations with other people with whom they were unfamiliar. Their causal uncertainty was gauged using the causal uncertainty scale, developed by Weary and Edwards (1994). A typical item is "When I see something good happen to others, I often do not know why it happened". In general, if causal uncertainty was elevated, participants were not as likely to evaluate the conversations favorably. They also reported more uncertainty about their partner as well as the attitudes of this partner towards them. These findings could not be ascribed to global uncertainty or social anxiety.

Social competence

Causal uncertainty may align to social competence. Social competence, as defined by Robinson, Fetterman, Hopkins, and Krishnakumar (2014), refers to the capacity to know which behaviors are suitable and which behaviors are unsuitable in social contexts. This perspective equates social competence to knowledge rather than behavior.

To assess social competence, Robinson, Fetterman, Hopkins, and Krishnakumar (2014) developed a specific procedure. In essence, participants read about 10 social scenarios, such as a situation in which two people who plan to launch a business together. Next, they receive a series of options on how the protagonists should respond in these circumstances, such as discuss mutual values. Participants choose which of these alternatives they believe is most suitable. They receive a higher score if they chose the options that other individuals tend to select. Accordingly, social competence is operationalized as consensus with the broader population in social settings.

Interestingly, Robinson, Fetterman, Hopkins, and Krishnakumar (2014) showed that social competence curbs aggression in response to provocation. That is, individuals who scored higher on social competence reported a tendency to abstain from acts of aggression even when provoked.

Arguably, when people have acquired extensive knowledge about how to behave in social settings, they are motivated to apply this knowledge and thus consider their responses carefully. This careful response may curb impulsive responses. In contrast, when people have not acquired extensive knowledge about how to behave in socials settings, they are not as motivated to contemplate this knowledge. They may, therefore, act more impulsively and ultimately more aggressively.


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