Using the goal gradient hypothesis to help people cross the finish line

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Our perception of progress can impact our overall drive to reach a goal. The goal gradient hypothesis posits that our efforts increase as we get closer to achieving a goal: when the reward is in sight, we feel incentivised to reach the finish line. Designers and decision-makers can effectively use goal gradients as a motivational tool.

The concept of a goal gradient

The goal gradient hypothesis was first introduced by Clark Leonard Hull in 1932. He tested his theory on rats, noting that the rodents ran faster the closer they got to a food reward. This phenomenon can also be observed in marathon runners of all abilities who, despite exhaustion, find a sudden burst of energy once the finish line is in sight.

In 2006, researchers Ran Kivetz, Oleg Urminsky and Yuhuang Zheng followed up on Hull’s work. They investigated the goal gradient hypothesis and its relevance to purchase acceleration and customer retention for businesses.

Customers were either given a 12-stamp coffee card which included two stamps to get them started, or an empty 10-stamp card. The study confirmed that those given the 12-stamp card completed it faster than those who were given an empty card, despite both groups needing to collect 10 stamps in total.

The research team also noted that the frequency of coffee purchases increased as individuals approached their free coffee reward. Motivation therefore intensifies with proximity to a goal. 

The impact of the goal gradient hypothesis

Goal gradients do not only impact our motivation. In 2013, it was demonstrated that goal gradients could also impact how helpful or socially minded we might be. Researchers found that people were more likely to donate to charitable campaigns if the fundraiser was already close to reaching its target.

Donations made in the late stage were made not only out of kindness or to relieve negative emotions, but because donors found “satisfaction from having personal influence in solving a social problem.”

Those who make a charitable donation in the late stage of a campaign may feel that their contribution has a more personal impact on achievement of the fundraising target. The prosocial act of donating becomes an “influential source of satisfaction”.

However, research suggests that the impact of a goal gradient can be affected by your power status. Those who perceive themselves to be in a position of low social or professional power are more likely to be motivated by proximity to a goal.

For example, if a senior member of the team tells you that you can use examples from a previous job as credits towards your current goal, this can boost your motivation to complete any professional requirements. 

Conversely, goal proximity may be of less importance to those who feel more powerful. If you are financially comfortable, two extra stamps on a coffee card may have less impact on your motivation to earn a free coffee than it might for someone who must budget carefully. 

How you can motivate others to achieve their goals

The great thing about goal gradients is that they can be used as an effective tool to motivate those around you to succeed. Whether you are a manager, designer or decision-maker, certain strategies can help you to encourage your employees, customers, or users to reach a goal.

1. Offer a head start. At the beginning of a project, it can feel like there is a marathon ahead. It can be hard to imagine getting to the finish line, and so giving those around you a head start can increase motivation.

For example, you could offer a head start by creating pre-filled templates or example answers so that it appears that some of the work has already been completed, while also providing inspiration for the rest of the task, or by acknowledging previous studies and allowing a student to use them as credits for their current training.

2. Track and acknowledge progress. In the depths of a project, it can be hard for someone to see how close they are to achieving their goal. Track your colleagues progress manually or using a project management tool, and show them just how close they are to reaching the finish line. Hearing your manager tell you that you are almost there can be the motivation that is needed to finalise a project more quickly than if your progress had not been acknowledged.

Consumers may also be encouraged to achieve a goal more quickly if they are made aware of their progress. If you want to encourage customers back into your coffee shop, sending an email update of the points they have accrued on their online loyalty card will not only tempt them back, but could also increase the rate at which they then reach the required points to qualify for a free coffee. This is also why progress bars are so common in mobile apps and online forms.

3. Break down milestones. Someone who perceives that a project is a long way off completion may feel demotivated. Breaking down the project into smaller milestones and celebrating micro-wins can make the goals feel more achievable. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the volume of work left to do, your team will feel encouraged and motivated by the satisfaction that comes from ticking small victories off each day.

Customer loyalty can be encouraged by the insertion of small milestones on the way to the main milestone. For example, a customer might be rewarded with a half-price coffee when they reach 5 stamps, and then a free coffee once all 10 stamps have been collected. Closing the gap between the start and finish line, with small milestones in between, can make the goal feel more attainable.

As you have seen, the goal gradient hypothesis increases motivation to cross the finish line. By making projects appear easier, quicker, or simpler to complete, we feel incentivised to strive to reach our goals. But don’t keep this secret to yourself — your team can benefit as well for using goal gradients! To help boost the motivation of those around you, you can offer a head start, acknowledge someone’s progress, and create smaller milestones to help maintain focus and enthusiasm.

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