100 Things You Should Know About People: #38 — Even The Illusion Of Progress Is Motivating

Picture of graph showing the goal gradient effectYou are given a frequent buyer card for your local coffeeshop. Each time you buy a cup of coffee you get a stamp on your card. When the card is filled you get a free cup of coffee. Here are two different scenarios:

Card A: The card has 10 boxes for the stamps, and when you get the card all the boxes are blank.

Card B: The card has 12 boxes for the stamps, and when you get the card the first two boxes are already stamped.

Question: How long will it take you to get the card filled up? Will it take longer or shorter for scenario A vs. scenario B? After all, you have to buy 10 cups of coffee in both scenarios in order to get the free coffee. So does it make a difference which card you use?

The answer apparently is yes. You will fill up the card faster with Card B than with Card A. And the reason is called the “goal-gradient” effect.

The goal-gradient effect was first studied in 1934 by Hull with rats. He found that rats that were running a maze to get food at the end would run faster as they got to the end of the maze.

The goal-gradient effect says that you will accelerate your behavior as you progress closer to your goal. The scenarios I describe above were part of a research study by Ran Kivetz, Oleg Urminsky, and Yuhuang Zheng (full reference is below).  They decided to see if humans would behave like the rats. And the answer is, yes they do.

Here are some important things to keep in mind about the goal-gradient effect:

  • The shorter the distance to the goal the more motivated people will be to reach it.
  • You can get this extra motivation even with the illusion of progress, as in Scenario B above. There really isn’t any progress (you still have to buy 10 coffees), but it seems like there is some progress so it has the same effect
  • People enjoy being part of the reward program. When compared to customers who were not part of the program, the customers with the reward cards smiled more, chatted longer with café employees, said “thank you” more often and left a tip more often (all statistically significant for you research buffs out there).
  • In a related experiment the same researchers showed that people would visit a web site more frequently and rate more songs during each visit as they got closer to a reward goal at the site. So this goal-gradient effect appears to be generalizable across many situations.
  • Motivation and purchases plummet right after the goal is reached. This is called a “post-reward resetting phenomenon”.  If you have a 2nd reward level people will initially not be very motivated to reach that 2nd reward. Right after a reward is reached is when you are most at risk of losing your customer.

And for those of you who want to read the original research:

Ran Kivetz, Oleg Urminsky, and Yuhuang Zheng, The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected:Purchase Acceleration, Illusionary Goal Progress, and Customer Retention, Journal of Marketing Research, 39 Vol. XLIII (February 2006), 39–58.


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100 Things You Should Know About People: #37 -- People Assume It's You, Not The Situation

18 Replies to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #38 — Even The Illusion Of Progress Is Motivating”

  1. Thanks Sharon for this interesting insight! It would be interesting to take the “goal-gradient” effect principle back and implement it not just in a way reward programs can be created for customers but also for employees, and different stakeholders in the organization internally too!

    1. I experience goal gradient behavior every growing season after each winter when I mow the yard about every other week. The closer I get to finishing the yard, the faster I push the mower with higher and growing expectations of completion.

  2. Wicked post! Love it. Some of these simple little tricks can make a massive difference. This is one I have never really considered, yet it makes sense and ought to be taken into account whenever we are designing stuff.

    Thanks for highlighting this interesting psychological phenomenon.

  3. Wonderful quick introductoin to the goal gradient effect. Really enjoyed it. Just wondering . . . what you might say Susan as to the best way to overcome the ‘post reward reset’?

  4. Perfect timing! I am in the process of implementing a reward program for my art, and this bit of information was very helpful. Thanks, Daniel

  5. Graham,

    Interesting question you raise about how to overcome the post reward reset. You will need to pay special attention to people at the end of the reward cycle. I would a) try and reinforce why they would want to continue to be loyal, and/or b) get them going on a new cycle with some progress already built in, and/or c) accept that it is happening, give it some time, and then reach out to them again.

  6. I believe this research, and I appreciate this insight to my own behavior. For those of you familiar with the game made famous on Facebook, Zynga’s Mafia Wars, I did exactly what this article predicted. There was a huge effort involved in climbing the ranks (by doing tasks on a daily basis). After I acheived a new rank, I felt satisfied for a short moment, and then began reaching for the next rank, and dreading it a little bit more with each rung climbed. I dropped out after achieving “boss” ranking because it was so hard, I couldn’t imagine putting myself through that effort again in a differnt city (level), so I closed my Mafia Wars account and quit cold turkey. Prior to that, I was logging in daily for a few months and was discussing strategies with my real-life family members who had joined my online Mafia Family. As a matter of fact, I would have quite sooner, but they released a new city (level) in which I could quickly climb the ranks again…while my “boss” qualifications dragged on in the other city. Had it not been for those “quick wins” I would have dropped out sooner. Very interesting that this research could predict this behavior.

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