Know Your Nuggets: Goal Gradient Effect

Bob Sullivan

Editor’s Note: I was hoping to publish about 15 Know Your Nuggets pieces within a year of launching PeopleScience. Instead of asking our writers for all that, I asked for one per month. It’s been nine months. We’ve published eleven.I’m terrible at math, but I think that means (Jeff stops to stare at fingers as if counting) we’re doing OK. More importantly, I unwittingly used the Goal-Gradient Effect. #EditorsRule

New Year's resolutions are a great idea, in theory. But January promises so often turn into February failures – if they last that long. Social exercise firm Strava once labeled January 12 "Quitters Day,” with user data showing that a surge of New Year's Day joggers became couch potatoes before even two weeks had passed.

There's plenty of good advice about avoiding the dreaded "goal release," when good intentions turn bad, and would-be dieters, runners, and early risers give up after a few failures. Many strategies probably sound familiar: Make concrete plans, not vague goals. (Vow to bring salads, not to "eat less.") Use peer pressure to your advantage (Join a running group). But here's an idea that might be new to you:

Move the finish line closer.

That's not cheating. It's motivating. Turns out there’s something radically inspiring about the words, “You’re almost done.”

There’s something radically inspiring about the words, “You’re almost done.”

Behaviorists call this the Goal Gradient Effect. When the end comes into sight, our natural urge to finish kicks in. Humans -- and, by the way, animals, too – seem wired to complete tasks, as if something in our heads hears the words, “Down the stretch they come!” The age-old experiment (from the 1930s) demonstrating the Goal Gradient Effect involved rats in a race, which reliably sped up just as they were about to get their food treat. It’s been repeated countless times. Try this with Rover at home, you'll see it in action. (Editor’s note: Bob’s knowledge of pet names is also “from the 1930s.”)

In laboratory experiments, humans reliably exert more energy when a goal is nearly reached, and appearances matter -- a lot. Rajesh Bagchi at Virginia Tech and Amar Cheema and the University of Virginia had interview subjects sustain grip a hand dynamometer for 130 seconds. Those shown a countdown clock squeezed harder as the 130-second mark approached than those who couldn’t tell how much time was left.

The phenomenon has been repeated in multiple commercial contexts, too. Coffee shops that offer a free drink after 10 purchases see greater returns when they offer consumers loyalty cards with 12 empty circles, but two "credits" already applied. In fact, other research has shown that as caffeine lovers approached their free gift, as the card starts to fill up, they accelerate their rate of purchase. Similar research on free car washes showed the same result. (Editor’s note: These examples also show the effect of Endowed Progress.)

Other projects show that consumers are more likely to donate to charitable causes when they’re told the fund-raising goal is almost reached. For some reason, the donation feels more valuable or impactful when it might be the one that puts the charity over the top. In one experiment, contributions doubled when consumers were told a charity was more than two-thirds of the way towards its goal vs. less than one-third along the way.

The Goal Gradient Effect can be really helpful when setting up a concrete plan to turn your resolutions into reality. Simple changes in language can make a big difference. On long runs, some apps will flip verbiage from "You've run 5 miles" to "Only 5 miles to go" after the half-way point of a 10-mile run, which runners find more inspiring.

This technique works for organizations, too. Telling groups they are well on the way toward achieving a bonus or reward provides extra motivation. Visual finish lines, such as progress boards, can be helpful. One simple way to move the finish line closer is to give workers a head start -- a phenomenon we covered in our "endowed progress" essay. (Editor’s note: Yeah, that’s what I said a few paragraphs ago.)

Telling groups they are well on the way toward achieving a bonus or reward provides extra motivation.

In one very pragmatic use of the Goal Gradient Effect, Bagchi showed that giving consumers who are on hold a progress bar showing that they are almost next in line increases the odds they’ll stick out the wait. Plenty of websites encourage consumers to fill out user profile data by showing a progress bar and telling them they are XX% complete.

Creating small, achievable goals – sub-goals – rather than grandiose, and often less concrete, goals can help. It's fine to say you want to run a marathon in August, but start by saying you'll run a 5k race in February. Don't vow to lose 20 pounds by summer; lose 4 pounds by Valentine's Day (or better still, replace a meat meal with veggies three times per week and let the scale take care of itself). But note that use of sub-goals has its limits. Bagchi has found that the benefits of visualizing finish lines can be diminished by creating a series of mini-finish-lines.

“Moving the finish line closer” isn’t fool proof.

So “moving the finish line closer” isn’t fool proof. Progress boards can sometimes shame employees, or create despair, leading to goal release – quite the opposite of the intended effect. There's also the very real problem of what happens after the reward is granted and the "end" is reached. Consumers who achieve their free coffee are at risk of defection, research has found. Organizations are most at risk of losing customers, or losing employee focus, right after a goal is reached. It’s called “post-reward resetting.” Consumers take a while to buy that next coffee when they’ve scored a free one after filling their loyalty card. And who doesn’t celebrate reaching a new weight goal by scarfing down a pizza or a juicy steak?Sadly, resetting seems just as much a part of human nature as the kick to the finish line. So Goal Gradient inspiration, like all behavioral tricks, should be deployed judiciously.

Bob Sullivan


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