Much research has shown how people tend to have an aversion to risk or ambiguity (eg. Ambiguity Aversion, Ellsberg 1961; Risk Aversion, Tversky & Kahneman 1979). However, newer research (Moon & Nelson; Klein & Fishbach, 2014) has begun to suggest that uncertain rewards can actually be a strong motivator for completing a task: this is the Motivating-Uncertainty Effect. For example, in a competition where a task must be completed to win a monetary prize but in situation A the amount is unknown (so could effectively range from small to very large) and in situation B it is a known amount, people are more likely to be stimulated by situation A. Researchers have found that this system of variable rewards makes the experience more exciting as we are often more stimulated by the unknown, meaning we will in turn be more motivated to complete a task where the reward is unknown. Motivation comes from our concentration levels, which are stimulated and excited more by the unknown than by the certainty of an outcome.
This can also lead people to have more interest in repeating an experience as well: the psychologist Skinner had already revealed in the 1950s that a variable rewards system induces stronger compulsions to continue the same behaviour with a well-known experiment called Skinner Box. During this experiment, he observed that lab mice responded most strongly to random rewards. The mice could press a little lever and sometimes they’d receive a small treat, sometimes a large treat, and sometimes nothing at all. In comparison to another test sample of mice who received a small treat every time they pressed the lever, this first set were shown to press the lever compulsively, seemingly addicted to this unknown pattern of rewards. In 2014, another experiment was carried out using people with participants asked to drink a large quantity of water in 2 minutes. Group A was told that they would receive a reward of 2 dollars for completing this task and Group B were told that they would receive either 1 or 2 dollars. The results showed that 70% of Group B (with the variable reward) completed the task as opposed to 43% of Group A.
The Motivating-Uncertainty Effect can be effectively used in business and marketing: offering up uncertain rewards can be a potent strategy for gaining and maintaining customer loyalty. For example, it could be possible to encourage an online visitor to complete a desired action (buy, click, share, sign up, etc.) if this comes with a potentially unknown reward.