What it is
The motivating uncertainty effect explains why we are often more motivated by unknown rewards than we are by known rewards. This only occurs when we focus on achieving the reward; the effect is attenuated when we focus on the reward itself.
Why it happens
By fostering excitement, uncertainty can make pursuing a reward a more positive experience, thus motivating us to invest more effort, time and money into it.
Example 1 – Skinner box
B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning experiment, the Skinner Box, placed rats in a box with a lever they could press in order to receive food rewards. Rats on a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement, that is, those who received food after pressing the lever a random number of times, were more motivated to press the lever than were rats who received food on a fixed ratio schedule of reinforcement, or received food after pressing the lever a set number of times.
Example 2 – Water drinking
In one study, participants were instructed to drink a large quantity of water in return for a reward. 70% of participants in the uncertain-reward condition successfully completed the task, while only 43% of participants in the certain-reward condition completed it. Uncertainty alone was sufficient to motivate an additional 27% of participants to complete the task, which is important evidence in support of the motivating uncertainty effect.
How to avoid it
We can avoid the motivating uncertainty effect by focusing on the uncertain reward instead of on the journey to achieve that reward. Furthermore, considering the amount of resources we would be willing to invest in the venture before we learned of the reward can help keep ourselves in check.