Motivating Uncertainty Effect

What is the Motivating-Uncertainty Effect?

We often find ourselves to be more motivated by rewards of unknown magnitudes than by known rewards because the uncertainty makes it feel like a game. However, this effect, which is known as the motivating uncertainty effect, only occurs when we focus on the journey towards the reward and not when we focus on actually winning the reward.

Where this bias occurs

Suppose you’re a long-distance runner, registered for two upcoming races. The prize for winning the first race is 50.00$. The prize for winning the second race, however, will not be announced until after the race. All you know is that it’s a money prize. Other than that, there’s not much that sets the races apart: both are 10 kilometers and have a similar number of people registered for them. Despite the fact that the races look basically the same, you find yourself more motivated to win the second one. This is an example of the motivated uncertainty effect. These two races differ only in the fact that the reward for winning one is known, while the other is unknown. The prospect of achieving the unknown reward is more motivating to us than is the prospect of winning the known award. In this case, you may find that you push yourself harder in the second race than you did in the first, and take preparing for it more seriously, by getting a good night’s sleep beforehand, eating a hearty breakfast, and ensuring that you stretch and warm up before running.

Individual effects

We’re willing to invest more resources, be they time, energy, or even money, into achieving uncertain awards than we are into achieving certain awards. This means we would likely be more dedicated to the pursuit of a 50% shot at a 10.00$ reward than we would be to the pursuit of a guaranteed 10.00$ reward, even if the tasks to obtain the reward were equivalent.1 Unfortunately, since the reward is uncertain, we put ourselves at risk of disappointment. Failure to achieve a certain goal is made all the more upsetting when we’ve dedicated significant resources to its pursuit.

Systemic effects

The motivating uncertainty effect could prove to be a useful tool in marketing. For example, many stores advertise promotions such as “50.00$ off when you spend 200.00$ or more!”. According to the motivating uncertainty effect, a more effective means of garnering customer interest would be to hold a promotion such as “win a chance at a free sweater when you spend 200.00$ or more!” The uncertain reward generates more excitement and makes shopping feel like a game. Like in a game, we are motivated to win out over our competitors and hope that luck is on our side in the pursuit of the prize. This may motivate shoppers to buy more than they would have otherwise, so as to reach the 200.00$ threshold.

Why it happens

Uncertainty can make pursuing a reward a more positive experience, thus motivating us to invest more effort, time, and money into it.

The notion that uncertainty leads to excitement seems contradictory when you consider the ambiguity effect, which posits that we tend to avoid options that seem ambiguous or unclear because we dislike uncertainty and are more inclined to select an option for which the probability of obtaining a favorable outcome is known. However, what is important to keep in mind is that the motivating uncertainty effect occurs only when people focus on the process of obtaining the uncertain outcome and not on the outcome itself. When we actually focus on the uncertain outcome, we no longer exhibit elevated levels of motivation, so then the ambiguity effect may occur.

In the case of the motivating uncertainty effect, it is not the reward itself that motivates us. It is the game that surrounds it. Can we win? What will the prize be? These questions make the pursuit of the reward more exciting, thereby bolstering our motivation.

This is a relatively novel area of study. Up until recently, the majority of research on uncertainty focused on its negative effects. That makes its positive impacts an exciting new area of study, but it means that, as of now, our understanding of the subject is still quite limited.

Why it is important

It is important for marketing teams to understand the motivating uncertainty effect so that they can use it to their advantage. Knowing that promotions and rewards programs with uncertain outcomes can encourage greater spending can help stores design their consumer-incentive programs in a way that increases their sales. By making shopping at their store feel like a game, they can boost their sales significantly.

How to avoid it

The motivating uncertainty effect is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, it makes us work harder. Not only that, but the excitement brought about by the prospect of pursuing an uncertain reward makes the experience more enjoyable. However, there are some cases where it might be best for us to avoid this effect. For example, consumer-incentive programs are designed to encourage us to spend more. When offered uncertain rewards, the motivating uncertainty effect may send us on a shopping spree. Those of us attempting to stick to a budget might do best to avoid this.

By focusing on the reward, instead of the process of pursuing it, we can eliminate this effect. When a store is promoting a “Get a chance at winning a free sweater when you spend 200.00$ or more” sale, remind yourself that there is a good chance that you might get the less favorable reward. Ask yourself whether or not it would be worth spending the 200.00$, only to find out that you did not win the sweater.  In some situations, the motivating uncertainty effect may lead people to overspend, which can have serious consequences for them in the long run. While businesses may benefit, gamifying situations can be harmful for consumers.

Furthermore, it can be useful to consider the amount of resources you were willing to invest before you learned of the uncertain reward. If you were only planning on spending 100.00$ on your shopping trip, remind yourself of that before you decide to spend more just to get a discount.

How it all started

Ayelet Fishbach, Christopher Hsee, and Luxi Shen published a paper titled “Uncertainty Increases Motivation” in 2014. In this paper, they provided evidence that we are not always averse to uncertainty; in some cases, it may promote motivation. They conducted four studies to assess the effect of uncertain rewards on resource investment.

Their first study provided empirical evidence for their hypothesis that uncertainty can lead to increased motivation. The second study replicated this effect, in addition to demonstrating that the effect holds over a range of uncertainties, from a 1% chance of obtaining a reward to a 99% chance. In all cases, the uncertain reward was more motivating than the certain reward, even if the latter was of greater monetary value. The key finding of the third study was that the motivating uncertainty effect is only influential when we focus on the pursuit of the reward and not the reward itself. Finally, their fourth study revealed that uncertainty leads to excitement, which in turn bolsters motivation.

Example 1 – Skinner box

An example of the motivating uncertainty effect lies with B.F. Skinner’s famous experiment on learned behavior. In this experiment, rats are placed in a box, dubbed “Skinner’s Box”, where they learn that pressing a lever results in a reward. Some of the rats are on a fixed ratio reinforcement schedule, which means that they receive food after pressing the lever a set number of times. The rest of the rats are on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, which means that they receive food after pressing the lever a random number of times. Variable schedules are more unpredictable, which makes the behavior less prone to extinction. Behavioral extinction is when an organism ceases to engage in a certain learned behavior and it happens less quickly for randomized, rather than fixed schedules. Uncertain rewards motivated the mice to press the lever more than certain rewards, which show the motivating uncertainty effect at work.

Example 2 – Water drinking

A study conducted by Shen et al. in 2015 was designed to test the theory behind the motivating uncertainty effect. The participants were asked to complete a water drinking task and were randomly divided into two reward conditions. Participants in the certain-reward condition were to be given a two-dollar reward, while those in the uncertain-reward condition were to be rewarded with either one or two dollars, depending on a coin toss. All participants were presented with a 3.8 liter pitcher and a straw and were tasked with drinking the water down to a line on the pitcher, which represented 1.4 liters. If they drank the designated amount of water, they would receive their reward. It is important to note that, while it is safe to drink this quantity of water all at once, it is quite challenging. The results were striking: 70% of participants in the uncertain-reward condition successfully drank the water, while only 43% in the certain-reward condition completed the task.


What it is

The motivating uncertainty effect explains why we are often more motivated by unknown rewards than we are by known rewards. This only occurs when we focus on achieving the reward; the effect is attenuated when we focus on the reward itself.

Why it happens

By fostering excitement, uncertainty can make pursuing a reward a more positive experience, thus motivating us to invest more effort, time and money into it.

Example 1 – Skinner box

B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning experiment, the Skinner Box, placed rats in a box with a lever they could press in order to receive food rewards. Rats on a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement, that is, those who received food after pressing the lever a random number of times, were more motivated to press the lever than were rats who received food on a fixed ratio schedule of reinforcement, or received food after pressing the lever a set number of times.

Example 2 – Water drinking

In one study, participants were instructed to drink a large quantity of water in return for a reward. 70% of participants in the uncertain-reward condition successfully completed the task, while only 43% of participants in the certain-reward condition completed it. Uncertainty alone was sufficient to motivate an additional 27% of participants to complete the task, which is important evidence in support of the motivating uncertainty effect.

How to avoid it

We can avoid the motivating uncertainty effect by focusing on the uncertain reward instead of on the journey to achieve that reward. Furthermore, considering the amount of resources we would be willing to invest in the venture before we learned of the reward can help keep ourselves in check.

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