Uncertainly isn’t all bad

Our brains hate uncertainty because it creates stress. But stress caused by uncertainty is critical to our continued survival – if our ancestors hadn’t fretted about a chance encounter with a hungry leopard, where would we be now?

However, uncertainty isn’t all bad and in some situations can be motivating. Think about when you were last offered an enticement to spend more at your favourite store, or switch service providers. Which reward was more compelling: the promise of a set dollar amount credited to your account, or the chance to win?

Turns out we’re more motivated by rewards of unknown magnitude  – the chance to win – than by known rewards, a phenomenon called the Motivating-Uncertainty Effect.

Psychologists say that uncertain rewards generate more excitement and make the journey to the reward feel more like a game, creating an overall more positive experience.

The idea seems to fly in the face of the ambiguity effect, which describes our tendency to avoid options that seem ambiguous or unclear, because we dislike uncertainty and the stress it triggers.

The apparent contradiction is explained by the focal point of our attention. The motivating uncertainty effect comes into play only when people focus on the process of obtaining the uncertain outcome, and not the outcome itself.

It’s all about the game attached to the reward. What are the odds? What’s the prize? Am I feeling lucky today? These questions make the pursuit of the reward more exciting, boosting our motivation.

An early experiment with rats conducted by American psychologist and the father of operant conditioning B. F. Skinner shows how uncertain rewards are more motivating.

Rats placed in a box learned that pressing a lever produced a reward. Some rats received food after pressing the lever a set number of times (fixed ratio reinforcement schedule) while others received food after pressing the lever a random number of times (variable ratio reinforcement schedule).

Uncertain rewards (variable reinforcement) motivated the rats to press the lever more than certain (fixed) rewards, demonstrating the motivating uncertainty effect at work.

The phenomenon has obvious potential for marketing. When the possibility of an unknown reward is more motivating than the offer of a known award, marketers could fairly expect a better return on their promotional investment with a ‘chance to win’ offer.