We purchase faster if the task is started for us

Goal Gradient Effect

Our efforts increase as we move closer to a goal

A 10-space coffee card pre-stamped twice will be completed faster than an 8 with no pre-stamps.

Kivetz, Urminsky & Zheng (2006) The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected

As humans and other animals approach reaching a goal, their efforts toward that goal increase (Locke & Latham, 1984). Rats run faster as they approach a food reward (Hull, 1934), and humans increase effort as they approach rewards such as gift certificates (Kivetz, Urminsky, & Zheng, 2006) or goals such as visual finish lines (Cheema & Bagchi, 2011).

Studies have shown that the goal gradient effect has a powerful effect on social motivation. For instance, a recent study has shown that people are more likely to pitch in as charitable campaigns approach their goals. This is because they feel a greater degree of perceived impact and a heightened level of satisfaction in donating at a later stage.

Sadly though, people are not charitable simply to be kind or to relieve negative emotions. Instead, they find satisfaction from having personal influence in solving a social problem.

Takeaways for decision-makers

  1. Helping customers to get started, through the use of incentives (artificial (as with the pre-stamped coffee card), or real) will significantly increase the likelihood of them completing a task or purchase.

  2. For loyalty programmes, use the goal gradient effect to incentivise initial adoption.

  3. Beware though, of the post-reward reset phenomenon, where motivation has a tendency to initially drop to the baseline after a goal has been reached. This is the case even if there is a second reward on the horizon. This is the point at which you are most likely to lose your customer. Think of ways to counterbalance this, potentially through staff training, targeted marketing or random rewards that sit outside of the perceived loyalty structure.

  4. In line with your programme of incentivisation, heighten the sensations experienced as the user gets closer to the goal. Peggle, the highly-popular casual game, uses sound in increasing tones to incentivise and encourage goal attainment.