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Does certainty or uncertainty spur motivation?

Having the ability to motivate people to achieve a goal is a skill that everybody—individuals, companies, governments—want to possess. The science of motivation is still a growing field. Much past research states that people prefer certainty over uncertainty; we are risk averse in nature. But fascinating new research is leaning towards the opposite, that uncertainty is motivating.

Luxi Shen, Ayelet Fishbach, and Christopher K. Hsee (2015) recently published a study in the Journal of Consumer Research which found that uncertain rewards are more powerful than certain rewards in boosting motivation towards a goal, making us work harder, spend more, and enjoy the process more. The uncertainty, the study says, fosters a feeling of excitement and enjoyment.

The trio came to this conclusion after holding two separate experiments:

The Water Test: Participants were asked to drink a large amount of water within two minutes. Half were told they would receive £2 if they completed the challenge; others were told they would receive either £1 or £2, with the outcome dictated by a coin toss. Results found that those in the latter group, with the uncertain reward, completed the task 70% of the time, whereas the certain reward group only completed the task 43% of the time.

The Truffle Test: In the other scenario, researchers asked participants to bid on a bag of chocolate truffles. Half the participants were shown a bag with 4 chocolates in it, the other half weren’t shown the contents but were told that there was an equal chance of the bag containing either 2 or 4 truffles. Results found that participants were willing to spend over double the amount for the uncertain bag (£1.49) than the certain bag with 4 truffles (£0.66).


These two experiments found that we’re more likely to invest more effort, time, and money in pursuing rewards of an uncertain nature even if the uncertain reward has a lower potential value than a certain reward. These findings have huge potential implications for many fields including healthcare (getting people to do more exercise), gaming apps, loyalty cards (complete coffee card and receive 1 or 2 free coffees, to be decided by a coin flip) and show that a higher reward doesn’t necessarily mean a more motivating reward.

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