Motivating-Uncertainty Effect

We're more motivated to reach a goal with an uncertain reward

New research has found that uncertainty is more powerful than certainty in boosting motivation towards a goal, making us work harder, spend more and enjoy more in the process.

Fisbach A, Hsee C. “The Motivating-Uncertainty Effect: Uncertainty Increases Resource Investment in the Process of Reward Pursuit.” Journal of Consumer Research, 2015.

In brief

  1. Existing research suggests we prefer certainty over uncertainty when deciding whether to opt for a goal
  2. But new research has found that uncertainty is more powerful in boosting motivation en route to a goal
  3. Uncertainty creates more positive, exciting experiences. We get excited by the unknown.
  4. It increases one’s investment of effort, time, and money in pursuing rewards.
  5. Uncertainty can foster greater use of loyalty programmes, healthcare schemes or compliance with workplace procedures.

A quick note

I’m going to share something with you as we get started. I want you to know that after reading this latest braingem, you’ve an equal chance of coming away either with:

  • a) A decent feeling of goodness; or, if you’re lucky
  • b) An immense feeling of life-changing elation!

But whatever you come away with, what’s clear is that this uncertainty of not knowing what reward you’ll get is now proven to compel you to reach the goal, according to some fascinating new research.

Certainty and Uncertainty

But before I explain why, I’d like you to know that in motivational science, the concept of Uncertainty has had something of a harsh time over the years. It’s been bullied by its bigger, more established and confident brother, Certainty.

And looking at the historical evidence, it’s pretty robust and universal. Research shows that when assessing the reward path to take, we’re risk averse, preferring a reward that’s certain over one that’s uncertain (Bernoulli 1738; von Neumann and Morgenstern 1944, Kahneman and Tversky 1979).

But despite all this focus on our craving for certainty, newer studies shows that uncertainty has untold power when motivating people. Uncertainty about positive outcomes gives us feelings of excitement and enjoyment (Moon and Nelson 2014). These feelings increase motivation (Klein and Fishbach 2014).

And great research just released simply builds on this, showing that we’re more motivated to reach goals when the reward is uncertain than when it’s certain. It’s even the case if the uncertain reward is worse than the certain one!

Let’s look at a few studies to explain this using examples. By the end, you’ll understand how you can use uncertainty to motivate people to reach any manner of product or personal goals.

Water drinking

Uncertainty boosts motivation

One of the studies asked wilful participants to drink a large amount of water within two minutes. Some people were told they’d receive two dollars, guaranteed, if they completed the challenge. Others were told they’d receive either one or two dollars, with outcome dictated by a coin toss. At best, the same as the certain group, but potentially a clearly inferior reward!

And the results were staggering - those in the latter group where the reward was uncertain completed the task 70% of the time. Those with the certain reward only completed the task 43% of the time. Remember that this is despite the fact that the uncertain reward is potentially lower! It’s clear from this study that uncertainty increases motivation.

Just by adding an element of uncertainty into the reward system, an additional 27% of people were motivated to complete a task.

The Truffle Test

Uncertainty increases motivation en route to a goal

In another study, researchers asked 138 students to bid on a bag of delicious Godiva chocolate truffles. Yum. Half were shown a bag containing 4 choccies. The other half weren’t shown the contents, and were told that there was an equal chance of the bag containing either 2 or 4 truffles.

Before bidding started, half of both groups were also asked an extra question up front: “What’s the highest you’d bid for the chocolates?” This was done to compare how keen both groups would be to pay for certainty or uncertainty before starting, in relation to during the enjoyable auction bit.

Both groups were then asked to go through an eight round bidding process, with the winner in each submitting the highest bid in the final round.

The results were very interesting.

Those who were asked up front how much they’d be happy to pay were likely to spend more for the certain 4 choc bag than the uncertain bag, wishing to spend $2.40 and $1.40 respectively. Clearly we prefer certainty when asked up front.

But for those going through only the actual bidding process, those uncertain of whether they’d get the 2 or 4 choc bag ended up bidding 125% more than those who were certain they’d get the 4 choc bag. Crazy hey?

So why did people want to pay more for certainty when asked up front about the outcome? Well, we’re inherently risk-averse (Gneezy et al, 2006; Kahneman and Tversky 1979), but only when our focus is on the outcome! This is crucial to understand.

And why did they bid more for uncertainty when put through an auction process?

Well, this next study will show exactly why…

Waiting with eBayted breath…

Uncertainty creates positive experience

Two groups were asked to bid on opaque cups of chocolate coins. The cups contained either a certain amount of 5 tasty coins, or an uncertain amount of 3 or 5. Half from each group were asked to focus on the actual bidding process, whereas the other half was just asked up front how much they’d be willing to bid for the coin cups.

The findings showed that those who were made to focus on the process tended to risk more money for uncertain rewards. They were found to risk around $1.50 for the 3-5 uncertain coin cup, as opposed to only $0.80 for the certain 5 coin cup. Madness!

What’s also interesting is that they enjoyed the whole experience more and felt more excitement than those bidding on certain outcomes. People were also found to be more willing to continue when chasing an uncertain reward.

So why does uncertainty motivate us when we’re drawn to the process rather than the reward? Simply put, uncertainty makes the process required to get the reward feel more exciting, and we care about the process more as a result. We then invest more into uncertain rewards along the way.

Drawing attention to the process (vs. the outcome) of reward pursuits makes us evaluate this experience more positively. It also makes us care more about this experience.

As a result, we invest more effort, time, and money in pursuing uncertain rewards than certain rewards of a higher expected value.

Key takeaways for Decision-Makers

  • Uncertain rewards can increase investment We’re more likely to invest more effort, time, and money in pursuing rewards of an uncertain nature.
  • Uncertain rewards are less expensive to put in place We’re more motivated to get an uncertain reward that has a lower potential value, as backward as that seems.
  • Uncertainty can increase enjoyment It can be used to create a more fun and exciting process en route to a given goal. It’s useful for fostering motivation in workplace systems that are compulsory. Or, it could be used for tasks that are a little boring, in need of some uncertainty-generated excitement.
  • Motivate towards better personal health goals As we showed in the water-drinking example, we’re more motivated to achieve goals when the reward is uncertain. This principle could be used to encourage a countless improvements in personal health. Keeping to a calorie goal for a given period within a health-tracking app, for example.
  • As reward gets bigger, Motivating-Uncertainty Effect will lessen As the size of reward gets bigger, the effect will most likely lessen, as we shift greater attention to the outcome than the process of attaining it.
  • Boost existing Loyalty programmes Consider adding in an uncertain reward to existing Loyalty programmesAttract people initially with a certain reward. This is in line with research that says that we prefer certain rewards when evaluating outcomes (Kahneman and Tversky 1979). Then, foster ongoing motivation and higher return rates with use of uncertain rewards and emphasis on the process.
  • Opportunity for new business models There is clear potential for new types of auction systems that focus more on the exciting process of bidding over an uncertain reward.
  • May have a stronger effect on certain personality types The effect might work best with ‘sensation-seekers’: those who have a craving for and desire to seek out positive experiences (Zuckerman 2007).
  • Provides a more sustainable way to be healthy Focusing on the journey rather than the destination seems to be a better way of staying on track and motivated: The feeling is the goal.

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  • Aspirational membership schemes and belonging The category size bias provides a credible explanation for why we human beings tend to associate with large groups that are viewed favourably by society. Being part of a large and “desirable” social group can make others believe that we also possess the many qualities of its members. For small businesses, it suggests that forming or being a part of a consortium or large and high quality networking group can dramatically elevate your brand image.
  • Communicating category sizes to nudge effectively Highlighting the differences between the large and small categories is highly likely to enhance the effect of the Category Size Bias. For instance, for software companies, stating that there are 10 features in the premium version versus 4 in the free version will help nudge a decision towards the premium version

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  1. The findings from this braingem can nudge better healthcare choices, encourage consumption of a given product, and lead to more confident consumer decisions.
  2. We mistakenly believe that items in larger categories have a higher probability of being picked than ones in smaller categories, despite all items having an equal chance of being picked.
  3. We’ll spend or gamble more money on items put in larger categories.
  4. We’re more likely to take action from tasks when they’re in a bigger list, over a smaller list.
  5. We once we put something into a group, we perceive it to adopt all the characteristics of that group. This suggests that small companies should foster alliances with similarly-principled, more established companies.
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