Psychologists have longed talked about ‘goal gradient’ which describes how we work harder to achieve a goal as we get closer to it. I just came across a fantastic study published in the Journal of Marketing Research which shows that we can be convinced to shift into a higher gear of work and spending, even when the perception of progress is a complete illusion.
The ‘goal gradient hypothesis’ was original discussed in the 1930s with regards to rats in mazes, based on the observation that the animals ran more quickly when they got nearer the end.
Ran Kivetz and colleagues wondered whether this would apply to shopping behaviour and ran a series of experiments to show that this was the case.
One was to see how quickly people with ‘coffee shop loyalty cards’ would fill up their cards as they got nearer to the ‘buy ten get one free’ goal. Sure enough, the last few stamps were acquired more quickly than the first ones.
But here’s the clever bit. They did an experiment where they gave some customers a ‘buy ten get one free’ card, while others got a ‘buy twelve get one free card’ but with the first two stamps already filled in.
In practical terms, the loyalty scheme was identical, but the customers bought coffees more quickly to full up the ‘buy twelve’ cards in less time – in line with ‘goal gradient hypothesis’ – despite the fact that the actual progress towards the goal was no different.
The researchers call this the ‘illusory goal progress’ effect and shows that our perception of how close we are to achieving something can be easily manipulated by shifting the goal posts.