The illusion of progress lights a fire

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.

The full study is available online as a pdf and Kivetz discusses the study (albeit in passing) on a recent ABC Radio National programme on ‘Reward, regret and consumer behaviour’.

Link to study summary.
pdf to scientific paper.
Link to ABC RN on ‘Reward, regret and consumer behaviour’.

4 thoughts on “The illusion of progress lights a fire”

    1. I do this technique (not exactly though).. I glorify my reps during lifting weights…

      I start counting from 1 and have a goal of 10 reps.. Just when I start to struggle (5th rep and do only till 8 if I counted the normal way).. I start counting 95,96… yay 100!!!

  1. Really interesting finding.

    I was in Professor Montoya’s class, “Introduction to Marketing & Marketing Management,” at Columbia University last Summer and he touched briefly on this fact as it relates to the many consumer purchasing biases.

    The way we as a people frame and evaluate purchase decisions can be fascinating (and frightening).

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