Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose in Goal Pursuit Purpose & Well-Being

Uncertain Rewards Boost Motivation

By Alex Shaw, Haotian Zhou


The path to purpose is paved with novel and exhilarating opportunities such as new jobs, new friends, or just exciting new restaurants. While these opportunities have the potential to enrich our lives, they also carry with them uncertainty, will things work out or go terribly wrong? Uncertainty can often bring with it anxiety that distracts from the sense of purpose we are supposed to derive from these new adventures. However, recent research from NPP members Professor Luxi Shen, Chris Hsee, and Ayelet Fishbach of University of Chicago Booth School of Business suggests that uncertainty need not undermine our goal pursuits. On the contrary, their research suggests that uncertainty can be a positive force that motivates us to pursue our goals.

The researchers investigated the relation between uncertainty and motivation by offering participants a monetary incentive for completing an unpleasant task and manipulated whether the magnitude of this incentive was certain or uncertain. Although previous research has demonstrated that people like to avoid uncertainty, these researchers predicted that people would work harder in pursuit of an incentive with an uncertain magnitude rather than a certain one, even if the reward of the uncertain magnitude would pay much less on average than the certain reward. They theorized that uncertain incentive might motivate people to a larger extent because having suspense about the amount of one’s reward would add an element of excitement to participating in these mundane tasks.

Image ©: TaxRebate.org

In four studies the researchers investigated if uncertain rewards would motivate participants better than certain rewards. For example, in one study participants were asked to drink 1.4 liters of water in two minutes in exchange for a monetary reward and were randomly assigned to one of two conditions, either the Certain or Uncertain Condition.  In the Certain Condition participants would get a certain reward of $2 if they completed the task and in the Uncertain Condition participants would get an uncertain reward of either $1 or $2 if they completed the task. Note that in the Uncertain Condition, the best possible reward is still the same reward as in the certain condition and so if participants were only focused on the incentives (i.e. the expected value) then fewer participants should have completed the task in the Uncertain Condition. However, the researchers found just the opposite, that far more participants completed the task in the Uncertain Condition as compared to the Certain Condition. They found the same motivation-enhancement effect of uncertain rewards in other tasks and demonstrated that this uncertainty was motivating partly because it added an element of excitement to the task.

One message from this study is that uncertainty need not be negative. As with most things in life, uncertainty has both yin and yang. Uncertainty can make us uneasy, but it can also add an element of excitement to our lives. One of the goals of our work at New Paths to Purpose is to use behavioral science to discover ways for people to infuse even seemingly humdrum tasks with a sense of purpose. We have previously discussed how another NPP member, David Yeager, has found that purpose can be a powerful tool that helps students to overcome the tedium of completing class assignments, leading them to better achievement in school. The bottom line of the current research is that uncertainty need not be a sword of Damocles hanging over our head and can instead be like an unwrapped present, that we are just itching to unwrap. 


Alex Shaw is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Haotian Zhou is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose in Goal Pursuit Purpose & Well-Being

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