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Uncertainty Drives People to Work Harder

Uncertainty Drives People to Work Harder

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.

‚ÄúConsider 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.

Source: University of Chicago Press Journals/EurekAlert

Uncertainty Drives People to Work Harder

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Uncertainty Drives People to Work Harder. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 5 Mar 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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