We do a better job when we don’t know what the reward will be

Throwing a little randomness into your reward structure can increase employee (or customer) engagement

Woman at combination slot-vending machine selecting a soda.

(Illustration by Kagan McLeod)

We’re more motivated to complete a task when we don’t know exactly what the reward will be, according to a joint study from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Chicago. Researchers found that people are more likely to complete a task when the magnitude of the reward is uncertain as opposed to certain.

In the study, 87 college students from the University of Chicago were given the task to drink 1.4 litres of water in two minutes for different cash rewards. The study divided the participants into two groups and rewarded them differently: some participants would receive $2 upon completing the task, whereas in the other case the experimenter would flip a coin to determine whether the reward would be $2 or $1. What they found was that 70% of the participants in the uncertain-reward condition successfully completed the task, but only 43% of the participants in the certain-reward condition.

The researchers wrote: “the findings suggest that uncertainty increases motivation even though the uncertain reward had a lower expected value.” In follow-up studies, they found that motivation boost from uncertainty only occurred when participants were focused on the process of pursuing a reward and not the outcome. When the researchers ran a study on the process of bidding, they discovered that when the participants were solely focused on the process, uncertainty increased their investment. But when participants shifted their focus to the outcome, uncertainty decreased their investment.

So why does the process of pursuing an uncertain reward drive people to accomplish it? Researchers explained that uncertainty triggers positive experiences such as excitement, which in turn increases motivation. Uncertain rewards can also be applied to marketing and be beneficial for marketers, they argued. First, uncertain rewards can be less expensive. For example,  a promotion that offers either $30 or $50 if customers spend over $200 is less expensive than a promotion that definitively offers $50. Second, from a motivation perspective, uncertain rewards can increase our investment in the outcome. Finally, it can make otherwise rote tasks seem more fun. But remember: know when to fold ’em.