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The Benefits of an Uncertain Fall: Science Says It Can Increase Motivation

By Ask a Psychologist Contributor — August 19, 2020 1 min read
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Today’s guest blogger is Ayelet Fishbach, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and president of the Society for the Study of Motivation.

How do I make plans for teaching when so much about the school year is uncertain?

Is it just me, or do you also wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about how you’re going to do your job this fall? Clearly, the only thing that’s certain is that the near future is uncertain. So how do we move forward?

As you can tell from your own feelings of discomfort during this pandemic, humans deeply dislike uncertainty. In a classic study, people read about a new disease that is expected to kill 600 people in their community. Most of them chose to adopt a treatment that will definitely save 200 people rather than one where there was a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that no one will be saved. (But interestingly, people were much more accepting of uncertainty when the choices were framed in terms of deaths). Not knowing made an option unattractive even though it could potentially save more lives.

When there’s uncertainty, we’re impatient for it to be resolved. For example, most people seeking medical treatment would rather get a painful shot now than wait to take a pill in a few months. They prefer to get it over with even if it means more pain. For educators, that might mean preparing for a less-than-ideal scenario feels better than not knowing what to prepare for.

Yet, putting discomfort aside, there’s a benefit of uncertainty: It makes us better. We work well and we work harder when the outcome is unknown. Uncertainty keeps us on our toes, and that’s good for motivation.

Take an experiment that examined bidding prices for a bag of chocolate truffles. Players planned to set higher bids when they knew the content of the bag, but once they entered a bidding war, they went further and set higher prices when the content was unknown. They put in more effort when the outcome was unknown—and were more eager to win.

Will you be able to effectively do your job when school starts? I’m not sure. But given you’ll feel more motivated to succeed, I’m optimistic your students will bring out the best in you. And you might win the bag with the most chocolate truffles.

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.