How Uncertainty Motivates Us

Not knowing what reward you might get for a task could encourage you more than a sure thing.

The promise of a big fat bonus for completing a project or task may not be as motivation as a not knowing what your bonus could be. I’ve written previously about how big rewards can cause people to choke under pressure (my write-up heavily cites Ariely 2009). But there’s a related concept in motivation research that’s equally important to personal productivity.

Not knowing what reward or bonus you might receive for a job done well increases motivation and cause more people to fulfill assignments than when they knew exactly what their reward would be.

Fischbach, Hsee, and Chen (2014) have a great overview on this topic. They point to a two studies in particular that show how motivation goes up when rewards are uncertain.

In one study they mention, people are given a water-drinking task. When people were told they’d get $2 for completing the task, about 43 percent of them did it. When another group of subjects were told they would earn either $1 or $2 for drinking all the water in time, 70 percent got the job done. Even when the highest reward in the uncertain condition was the same as the sure-thing reward in the certain condition, people were more enticed to finish when uncertainty entered the picture.

Another study had people evaluating advertisements. They got a few cents for each ad they reviewed. When they didn’t know what kind of payment they were getting, they reviewed more ads than when they knew for sure they were getting the highest possible amount per ad, a mere 50 cents.

Why Does Uncertainty Increase Motivation?

But why does uncertainty motivate us?

Fischbach and her colleagues point out that:

  • positive feelings increase motivation, or at least can increase motivation
  • excitement can increase motivation, and
  • uncertainty can increase motivation.

So there may be something about uncertainty that’s related to excitement and positive feelings.

As I read their work, gambling came to mind. Gambling tends to cause all three of those feelings at once. Gambling is exciting (at least for those who enjoy it), raises positive feelings, and contains a whole lot of uncertainty, although the uncertainty are always bound by some set of rules. When we are given tasks to complete, they’re also bound by some kind of rules.

Can Self-Inflicted Uncertainty Increase Motivation?

Anyone looking to increase their personal productivity needs to find daily motivation to get stuff done. Motivation is a tricky little bugger, though. Since reading about uncertainty and motivation, I’ve been wondering how (or whether at all) you can entice yourself with an uncertain reward, or whether the uncertain must be set by someone else. For example, would we see similar results in an experiment in which individuals set their own possible rewards, and when they completed their tasks, they had to flip a coin to decide which reward they get? Or does the motivation come from the feeling that the chances are entirely in someone else’s hands?


Ariely, D., Sneezy, U., Lowenstein, G., and Mazar, N. (2009). Large Stakes And Big Mistakes, Review of Economic Studies, 76, 451-69.

Fishbach, A., Hsee, C., and Shen, L. (2014). Uncertainty Increases Motivation, in NA – Advances in Consumer Research, 42, 681-82.

Image by Zdenko Zivkovic, CC. 


One thought on “How Uncertainty Motivates Us

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s