Nephi Seo ‘23, Health Science, 6/17/20
A herd of bikers pushing each other to the finish line in a road race.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Almost everyone has goals they would like to achieve. But often, goals are left unfulfilled due to a lack of motivation or effort. What can be done in this case? The goal gradient hypothesis is one theory that suggests a solution.
Simply put, the goal gradient hypothesis states that people become more motivated and encouraged when they get closer to achieving a goal.1 In 2006, behavioral scientist Oleg Urminsky put this theory to the test. In the study, the researchers conducted a rewards program at a coffee shop, at which a loyalty card was given to customers. The program was designed so that after receiving ten stamps for each coffee purchase, one free coffee was rewarded to the customer. Interestingly, the researchers found that on average, the time in between purchases decreased by 20% as customers drew closer to the goal of ten coffee purchases.2 In other words, customers returned to the coffee shop sooner and sooner. This suggested that the goal gradient hypothesis could be a possible explanation for goal-oriented behavior.
The researchers further speculated that this behavior was the result of perceived distance to the goal and not the actual distance to the goal. To test this, the researchers performed another experiment in the same study at a coffee shop, in which customers were given the illusion of progression towards the reward goal. This time, customers were to obtain twelve stamps to get a free coffee but two were given as a head-start, giving the illusion that progress was already made. Results showed that customers given a head start were even more motivated to finish the rewards program than if they just had to get ten stamps without a head-start.2 Even illusory progress was effective as a motivation towards the reward goal.
Could the goal gradient hypothesis be applied in our own lives? Perhaps. In a recent interview, Oleg Urminsky was asked why the goal gradient hypothesis might exist, and he speculated that close and imminent rewards are seen as more valuable, so the human brain prioritizes achieving proximate goals over other things. We can utilize the findings of these studies by setting up goals with close and clear deadlines to which we are committed.1 If proven powerful enough for goal-driven individuals, this theory may have tangible applications for marketing and business operations as well as individual lifestyles.
- Milkman, K., & Kassie, B. (2020, June 09). Why Feeling Close to the Finish Line Makes You Push Harder. Retrieved June 16, 2020, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-feeling-close-to-the-finish-line-makes-you-push-harder/
- Kivetz, R., Urminsky, O., & Zheng, Y. (2006). The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected: Purchase Acceleration, Illusionary Goal Progress, and Customer Retention. Journal of Marketing Research, 43(1), 39-58. doi:10.1509/jmkr.43.1.39