Although it appears counterintuitive, new research finds that people will often put in more effort to obtain uncertain rewards.
Investigators Luxi Shen, Ph.D., of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Drs. Ayelet Fishbach and Christopher K. Hsee of the University of Chicago, found that an uncertain reward is more motivating than a certain reward when comparing a person’s investment of time, money, and effort.
The researchers called this the “motivating-uncertainty effect” and discuss the implications in the Journal of Consumer Research.
In one study, consumers were asked to drink a large amount of water within two minutes. Some were told they would receive a guaranteed reward of two dollars, while others were told they would receive either one or two dollars (decided by a coin toss).
Even though the reward was potentially lower, more consumers completed the task when the reward was uncertain.
In another study, consumers were asked to bid against each other for a bag of Godiva chocolates. Some were told there were four chocolates in the box, while others were told there were either two or four. Consumers bid higher when they didn’t know how many chocolates were in the bag.
These findings can help companies and public policy makers when designing incentive systems. Introducing a bit of uncertainty can help to motivate people and make the effort required to achieve a reward seem more like a game and less like work.
Researchers agree that although the idea that uncertainty can increase motivation appears contradictory, its underlying mechanism is not.
“Consider the experience of slowly unwrapping a gift. Getting closer to finding out what is in the box is exciting and this excitement motivates action. Stated formally, the motivating-uncertainty effect is based on the positive experience that revealing the unknown induces,” the authors conclude.