Home Theories Motivating-uncertainty effect

Motivating-uncertainty effect

Reviewed by expert Scientifically proven

What is the Motivating-Uncertainty Effect?

Because the uncertainty makes it feel like a game, we are typically more driven by incentives of unknown magnitudes than by known benefits. However, this impact, known as the motivational uncertainty effect, happens only when we focus on the prize path rather than the reward's gaining.

Table of contents:
  1. Where this bias occurs
    1. Individual effects
    2. Systemic effects
  2. Why it happens
  3. Why it is important
  4. How to avoid it
  5. How it all started
    1. Example 1 - Skinner box
    2. Example 2 - Water drinking
  6. Conclusion

Where this bias occurs

Assume you're a long-distance runner who has signed up for two races shortly. The first-place reward in the first race is $50.00. The award for the winner of the second race, on the other hand, will not be revealed until after the event. You know it's a monetary award. Aside from that, there isn't much that distinguishes the races: both are 10 kilometers long and feature a comparable number of participants. Even though the races appear to be identical, you are more driven to win the second. The motivated uncertainty effect may be shown in this scenario.

The only difference between these two races is that the prize for winning one is known, while the prize for winning the other is unknown. We are more motivated by the promise of reaching an unknown reward than by the prospect of receiving a recognized honor. In this situation, you may discover that you push yourself harder in the second race than you did in the first and that you take more care in preparation for it by getting a good night's sleep, having a healthy meal, and stretching and warming up before running.

Individual effects

We're ready to put more effort, time, energy, and even money towards getting ambiguous honors than we are in achieving definite accolades. This indicates that, even if the tasks to acquire the reward were equal, we would be more committed to pursuing a 50% chance at a ten-dollar reward than we would to pursuing a ten-dollar reward that was assured. 1 Unfortunately, we put ourselves at risk of disappointment since the payoff is unpredictable. When we've put a lot of effort into achieving a goal, it's much more disappointing when we don't succeed.

Systemic effects

The motivating uncertainty effect might be an effective marketing technique. Many businesses, for example, post specials like "$50.00 off when you spend $200.00 or more!" According to the motivating uncertainty effect, an offer like "get a chance at a free sweater when you spend 200.00$ or more!" would be more effective to pique client interest. The unknown prize adds to the thrill of buying and makes it feel like a game.

We are determined to beat out our opponents and hope that luck is on our side in the chase of the prize, just as we are in a game. This may encourage buyers to spend more than they would normally to achieve the 200.00 dollar mark.

Why it happens

Uncertainty may make seeking a reward more enjoyable, prompting us to put more effort, time, and money into it. When you consider the ambiguity effect, which states that we avoid options that appear ambiguous or unclear because we dislike uncertainty and are more likely to choose an option for which the probability of obtaining a favorable outcome is known, the notion that uncertainty leads to excitement seems contradictory. It's vital to remember, though, that the motivating uncertainty effect only happens when individuals concentrate on the process of getting the uncertain outcome rather than the end itself. We no longer demonstrate increased motivation levels when we focus on the unclear result. Therefore the ambiguity effect may occur.

It is not the reward that drives us in the instance of the motivating uncertainty effect. It's the game that takes place around it. Is it possible for us to win? What is the award going to be? These questions increase our drive by making the pursuit of the goal more intriguing.

This is a very new field of research. Until recently, the majority of uncertainty research centered on its negative consequences. That makes its favorable effects an interesting new field of research, but it also means that our knowledge of the matter is currently restricted.

Why it is important

Marketing teams must grasp the motivating uncertainty effect to take advantage of it. Knowing that promotions and rewards programs with unknown outcomes might promote more spending can help retailers create customer incentive programs that boost sales. They may greatly increase their sales by making shopping at their business feel like a game.

How to avoid it

The influence of inspiring uncertainty isn't always a bad thing. After all, it motivates us to put forth more effort. Not only that, but the excitement generated by the potential of pursuing an uncertain prize adds to the enjoyment of the event. However, there are some circumstances in which it may be preferable to prevent this impact. Consumer incentive schemes, for example, are meant to urge consumers to spend more. The motivated uncertainty effect may lead us to a purchasing binge when we are promised uncertain benefits. Those of us trying to adhere to a budget would want to stay away from this.

We may avoid this impact by focusing on the reward rather than the process of obtaining it. When a business advertises a "Win a free sweater when you spend $200.00 or more" promotion, keep in mind that there's a strong possibility you'll get the less desirable reward. Consider if it would be worthwhile to spend the $20,000 to learn that you did not win the sweater. In certain cases, the motivating uncertainty effect can lead to overspending, with major long-term repercussions. While companies may profit, consumers may suffer as a result of gamification.

It's also a good idea to think about how much money you were willing to put up before you found out about the risky payoff. Remind yourself that you only planned to spend $100.00 on your shopping excursion before you decide to spend more only to receive a discount.

How it all started

In 2014, a study titled "Uncertainty Increased Motivation" was released by Ayelet Fishbach, Christopher Hsee, and Luxi Shen. 4 They demonstrated that people are not always opposed to ambiguity; in certain circumstances, it may boost motivation. They carried out four research to see how uncertain incentives affected resource investment.

Their initial study offered empirical evidence for their concept that higher motivation might be induced by uncertainty. The second research confirmed the effect and demonstrated that it holds across a wide range of uncertainty, from a 1% probability of receiving a reward to a 99 percent likelihood. Even though the latter had a higher monetary value, the unknown reward was always more motivating than the guaranteed reward.

The third research discovered that the motivating uncertainty effect is only effective when pursuing the reward rather than the reward itself. Finally, their fourth research discovered that uncertainty generates excitement, which boosts motivation.

Example 1 - Skinner box

B.F. Skinner's classic experiment on learned behavior serves as an illustration of the motivating uncertainty effect. 6 Rats are placed in a box nicknamed "Skinner's Box" and taught that pulling lever results in a reward. Some of the rats are on a fixed ratio reinforcement schedule, meaning they get food after pressing the lever a certain number of times. The other rats are on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, meaning they get food after pressing the lever a certain number of times. Because variable timetables are more unpredictable, the habit is less likely to die out. Behavioral extinction occurs when an organism stops doing a taught behavior, occurring more slowly for randomized than for fixed schedules. The mice were more driven to press the lever when given uncertain incentives rather than assured benefits, demonstrating the motivating uncertainty effect at work.

Example 2 - Water drinking

Shen et al. researched 20158 to put the idea underlying the motivating uncertainty effect to the test. The participants were randomly assigned to one of two reward conditions after completing a water drinking challenge. The participants in the certain-reward condition would earn two dollars, while those in the uncertain-reward condition would receive one or two dollars depending on the coin flip outcome. All of the participants were given a 3.8-liter pitcher and a straw, and they were instructed to drink the water down to a line on the pitcher that equaled 1.4 liters. They would get their prize if they drank the required amount of water.

It's crucial to remember that while drinking this much water at once is healthy, it's also rather difficult. The results were astounding: 70% of subjects successfully drank the water in the uncertain-reward condition, compared to only 43% in the certain-reward condition.


Many studies have demonstrated that humans have a fear of risk or uncertainty. According to contemporary studies, the Motivating-Uncertainty Effect suggests that unclear incentives might significantly motivate finishing a task. Researchers discovered that this system of changeable incentives adds to the excitement of the experience since we are frequently aroused by the unknown, which means we will be more driven to accomplish a task when the reward is unpredictable. Our concentration levels are motivated and thrilled more by the unknown than by the certainty of a goal, which is where motivation originates.

A new cognitive bias in your inbox every week

You'll get to learn more about CRO and psychology. You'll be able to take experimenting to a whole new level!

* We send our mails on Monday morning btw.

Frequently Asked Questions

Will you use psychology for your experimentation process?

Are you curious about how to apply this bias in experimentation? We've got that information available for you!

Join over 452+ users

  • Lifetime access to all biases
  • Filter on metrics, page type, implementation effort
  • More examples and code for experimentation

Choose your subscription!

Pay with Stripe

Lifetime deal PREMIUM

Get access to the search engine, filter page, and future features.

I want this

Lifetime deal

Get access to the search engine and filter page.

I want this

Do you think you know enough about CRO?

Join our monthly mailing to continue learning more and more about CRO and psychology.