RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm sitting in the studio with NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam. And, Shankar, do you know why you're here?
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Geez, David, that sounds really ominous.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well, I'm asking because I read a little bit about what you wanted to talk about today.
GREENE: You often bring social science research to the program, and...
GREENE: ...And it is actually that the mystery of not knowing why you are doing something can actually make you want to do it more, which sounds a little surprising. What's this new research?
VEDANTAM: Well, that's right. So when you think about human behavior, most of us think that we actually want to know what's going to happen. If I ask you, David, would you work at NPR, but we'll tell you only at the end of the year whether you're going to get paid and how much you're going to get paid? You probably would say, no, I don't want that job. There's too much risk and uncertainty.
I spoke with Ayelet Fishbach at the University of Chicago. She turns out to have a different point of view. Along with Lucy Shen and Chris Hsee, Fishbach finds that there are times when actually not knowing would you're going to get is actually a very strong motivator. So let me tell you about one of the experiments she conducted.
VEDANTAM: She asked volunteers to drink an enormous amount of water. And she tells some of the volunteers, if you can drink all this water, you can have $2. And she tells other volunteers, if you drink all this water, you can earn either $1 or $2 and we'll toss a coin to figure out which one you get. Now, people who are definitely going to make $2 should work harder than the people who only have a 50-50 chance of earning the $2.
GREENE: It should be a bigger incentive to know you're going to get more money, definitely.
VEDANTAM: Exactly, but Fishbach finds exactly the opposite. The volunteers try harder. They drink more water when they have the reward that's uncertain and unpredictable rather than the reward that's certain.
GREENE: It sounds like gambling, in a way. I mean, the mystery sort of makes it more fun? Is that what's happening?
VEDANTAM: That's exactly part of it, that the excitement and the mystery of not knowing exactly what's going to happen motivates people to actually work a little bit harder. Here's the interesting thing, David. When you ask people whether they will work harder for a reward that's certain or a reward that's uncertain, people will tell you that they will work harder for the reward that's certain. But that's not what they actually do in practice.
So in another experiment, Fishbach has volunteers bid for a bag of chocolate. So people predict that they will actually pay more when they know there's four chocolates in the bag compared to bags that can have either four chocolates or two chocolates.
GREENE: This is what they say in the beginning? I'll probably bid more if I know I'm going to get more chocolate.
VEDANTAM: Exactly, but what people don't realize is as the auction gets underway, the excitement of the mystery bag is a powerful motivator, and people end up bidding more for the bag that might have only two chocolates because that bag allows them to exercise all these feelings of hope, and fantasy and excitement. And that gets them more involved in the process. I asked Fishbach whether this means that people don't really understand themselves, and here is what she told me.
AYELET FISHBACH: It's not that people don't understand themselves. It's that they care for different things at different times. When I plan to do something, I look at, what can I get out of it? However, when I'm doing it, I really care about the experience.
GREENE: The experience being, in part, the mystery. But what are the implications here? Does that mean NPR should tell you there's just a 50-50 chance that you're going to get paid this year for what you're doing?
GREENE: And that'll be bigger incentive for you to work harder?
VEDANTAM: You know, I think there's a certain point in which excitement tips over into terror, David. And if NPR told me my salary was uncertain at that level, I don't think it would be enjoyable. It would be terrifying. But in much of...
GREENE: The stakes are high. I mean, you have to support your family.
VEDANTAM: Exactly, the stakes are super high. But I think in many areas of life, David, the stakes are actually very low. If you're trying to motivate a child to do something, or an employee to do something, coming up with an incentive structure that looks and sounds like a game can make people actually try a lot harder.
GREENE: All right, Shankar, thanks as always.
VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.
GREENE: There's no mystery in this. You can find Shankar Vedantam on Twitter - @hiddenbrain. And while you're at it, follow this program - @morningedition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.