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.

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  • Aspirational membership schemes and belonging The category size bias provides a credible explanation for why we human beings tend to associate with large groups that are viewed favourably by society. Being part of a large and “desirable” social group can make others believe that we also possess the many qualities of its members. For small businesses, it suggests that forming or being a part of a consortium or large and high quality networking group can dramatically elevate your brand image.
  • Communicating category sizes to nudge effectively Highlighting the differences between the large and small categories is highly likely to enhance the effect of the Category Size Bias. For instance, for software companies, stating that there are 10 features in the premium version versus 4 in the free version will help nudge a decision towards the premium version

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  1. The findings from this braingem can nudge better healthcare choices, encourage consumption of a given product, and lead to more confident consumer decisions.
  2. We mistakenly believe that items in larger categories have a higher probability of being picked than ones in smaller categories, despite all items having an equal chance of being picked.
  3. We’ll spend or gamble more money on items put in larger categories.
  4. We’re more likely to take action from tasks when they’re in a bigger list, over a smaller list.
  5. We once we put something into a group, we perceive it to adopt all the characteristics of that group. This suggests that small companies should foster alliances with similarly-principled, more established companies.

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