Give up or Get Going? Motivational Effects of Accessible Uncertainty about Self and World
Methods: Three studies test the prediction that people are more likely to pursue their goals when relative uncertainty about the world and relative certainty about one’s own abilities are simultaneously accessible compared to other possible self-world certainty-uncertainty pairings. Participants were college students randomly assigned to condition (n = 102, n = 247, n = 84). Dependent variables were possible selves content-coded following Oyserman & Saltz (1993), self-reported study plans, and actual behavior in the form of a choice to use a resume builder software program rather than play games.
Results: In Study 1 the source of uncertainty was manipulated by randomly assigning participants to a self-uncertainty, context-uncertainty or no uncertainty control condition. Compared to participants in the self-uncertainty condition, participants in the context-uncertainty condition generated more school-focused expected and feared possible selves (control condition participants were midway between the two uncertainty conditions). To test the effects of both self and world (un)certainty simultaneously, the next two studies manipulated both using a two by two between subjects design. When relative self and world certainty are separately manipulated, students primed to feel relatively certain about themselves and relatively uncertain about the world’s predictability and orderliness planned to work more on academics, generated more school and career-focused possible selves (Study 2), and chose to work on their resumes rather than play computer games (Study 3). Cohen’s d effect sizes were in the moderate-range using Cohen’s rule-of-thumb.
Conclusions and Implications: In the current economy, it is hardly surprising that the world often feels uncertain, unstable, unpredictable, and even unfair. What is more surprising is that despite this uncertainty, people often do not give up on pursuing important future goals. Rather, in some circumstances, being reminded that the world is an uncertain place can be energizing and motivating.