Goal Gradient Effect
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Overview

Are you struggling to motivate yourself or others to reach goals? 

The Goal Gradient Effect describes how your progress towards a goal, or even the illusion of progress towards it, will increase your motivation to achieve said goal.

FROM RATS TO PEOPLE. 

In 1934 Clark Hull noticed that rats ran running through a maze ran faster near the end. Since then this tendency has been demonstrated in human behaviour in a range of contexts, including an experiment with loyalty cards for a coffee shop: 

  • Group A was given a loyalty card with 10 spots to stamp before receiving a free coffee. 

  • Group B was given a card with 12 spots to stamp before receiving a free coffee, however, the first two spots were pre-stamped. 

Both groups had to buy 10 coffees to receive the free coffee, yet Group B purchased coffees faster and more consistently than Group A. 

IMPLICATIONS. 

The Goal Gradient Effect might play out in a variety of ways, including: 

  • Raising funds: People will tend to increase the likelihood and size of donations for crowdfunding campaigns and/or charity fund drives as the campaigns are nearing their targets;

  • Loyalty programs: People will tend to increase engagement in loyalty programs when they have a sense of rapid progress towards a goal and/or when such goals are broken down into interim stages;

  • UX design: People will tend to stay engaged with a process, eg. signing up, loading time, or providing feedback, when they can see a progress bar and how they are moving towards an endpoint;

  • Enabling change: People will tend to increase energy for change when they can see progress towards a goal and that they are nearing the ‘finish line’.   

The main takeaway here is that when you’re designing a journey towards a goal, in whatever context, ensure that your audience can see their progress; consider using multiple interim goals; and experiment with providing the perception that they’ve already started on their journey by marking previously completed steps as done. One warning though, before you break everything down into smaller goals, keep in mind that after achieving a goal people might experience dips in motivation. 

IN YOUR LATTICEWORK. 

The Goal Gradient Effect can in part be explained in reverse by Activation Energy and the challenge of getting started. It also links to Loss Aversion and Hyperbolic Discounting, our tendency to overvalue short term smaller returns over distant, larger ones. Academics have posed a related concept of ‘endowed progress’ in relation to the completed steps towards a goal, which has links to the Endowment Effect and our tendency to overvalue our possessions. The tendency to stay in loyalty programs might also be related to past investment, which ties this model to the Sunk Cost Fallacy. Finally, Temporal Landmarks provide an interesting opposite of this effect, pointing to opportunities to create a fresh start. 

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Actionable takeaways
  • Show progress towards a goal. 

Provide your audience with a visual representation of their journey and how they are progressing so that they can become excited and motivated during the last stretch. 

  • Provide the perception of progress.  

When designing a journey towards goals, consider providing your audience with a ‘head start’ for a sense of accomplishment to take advantage of the Goal Gradient Effect. Similar to providing two pre-stamped circles on a loyalty card, consider how you might provide that sense of momentum and progress to your users in your context. 

  • Break down the journey into smaller pieces. 

Breaking down a large goal into smaller ones can repeatedly leverage the Goal Gradient Effect. Want to write a book? Focus on writing a chapter, or even have a goal of writing 300 words each day. The trade-off or risk here is that people tend to have less motivation directly after a goal is reached. 

Explore More
Goal Gradient Effect is featured in these Playbooks:
In Practice

Contributing to charities. 

This study entitled Goal Gradient in Helping Behavior, found that “People are more likely to pitch in as charitable campaigns approach their goals. Such “goal gradient helping” occurs in part because late-stage efforts provide donors with a heightened sense of personal impact, an influential source of satisfaction from prosocial acts.” 

Car wash loyalty. 

This 2006 study, similar to the cited coffee loyalty card example in the summary above, used loyalty cards for a car wash. In this case, one card had 8 spots to fill for a free car wash, the other had 10 with two already stamped. The group given the perceived head start resulted in a 34% engagement rate in the loyalty program compared to 19% for the others.

Limitations

A variation on the Goal Gradient Effect was posed by marketing academic and researcher Andrea Bonezzi, who argued that “motivation to engage in goal-consistent behavior can be higher when people are either far from or close to the end state and lower when they are about halfway to the end state.”  Thus rather than focusing on the end aspect of the journey, Bonezzi describes a ‘U-shaped’ model of motivation, with the problematic middle between starting point and end goal. 

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Origins & Resources

The Goal Gradient Effect was first identified by Clark Hull during the 1930s in relation to animals, particularly his study of rats accelerating their pace closer to the end of a maze and a food reward. Hull, an engineer by background, went on to break down his observations and interpret them as a mathematical formula which he outlined in his book Principles of Behaviour.  

The effect was expanded to humans in a 2006 study by Ran Kivetz et al. The authors of that study explained: “The key findings indicate that (1) participants in a real café reward program purchase coffee more frequently the closer they are to earning a free coffee; (2) Internet users who rate songs in return for reward certificates visit the rating Web site more often, rate more songs per visit, and persist longer in the rating effort as they approach the reward goal; (3) the illusion of progress toward the goal induces purchase acceleration (e.g., customers who receive a 12-stamp coffee card with 2 preexisting “bonus” stamps complete the 10 required purchases faster than customers who receive a “regular” 10-stamp card); and (4) a stronger tendency to accelerate toward the goal predicts greater retention and faster reengagement in the program.”

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