Uncertainty Can Motivate People to Work Harder

Uncertainty can be a powerful motivator, according to one group of researchers.

Mystery is exciting and, according to researchers, it's also a great motivator.


The authors of new study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, write:

"When comparing the time, money, and effort people invest in order to qualify for either a certain or an uncertain reward, we find that the uncertain reward is more motivating than the certain reward, an effect we dubbed the motivating-uncertainty effect."

The researchers tested their idea on two groups of participants. One group was told if they drank a large amount of water in under two minutes, they would receive two dollars. The other group was given the same directions, but told the amount they would receive would be determined by a coin-toss, where they'd either get one dollar or two dollars.

Even though the potential reward was less (50/50 chance), more participants completed the task when they knew the reward was uncertain

In another experiment, participants were pitted against one another to bid for a bag of chocolates. One group was told there were four pieces in the bag, while another was told there were two or four pieces. Once again, uncertainty won out — the participants who thought they could get two or four chocolates ended up bidding more. The researchers explained their findings in a report for EurekAlert!:

“The idea that uncertainty can increase motivation is counterintuitive, but 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 trick for businesses will be to find an incentive system that works for their employees.

Read more at EurekAlert!.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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