Goal Gradient Effect Definition:
The goal gradient effect means that as people or animals get closer to achieving a reward they accelerate their behaviour to progress towards the goal. People are more motivated by how much is left to reach their target rather than how far they have come. This may be related to the commitment they have invested in the activity which is why commitment and consistency is such a strong motivator.
The goal gradient effect is also consistent with Pavlov’s work on ‘classical conditioning’ and B F Skinner on operant conditioning. These psychologists found that you can get people to respond automatically to certain rewards (e.g. food) and that positive rewards are more effective than punishment. Skinner found the frequency and predictability of rewards also has a significant impact on motivation.
Evidence of the Goal Gradient Effect:
The American psychologist C Hull developed the goal gradient hypothesis whilst conducting experiments with rats. He noticed that the rats level of effort rose as they got closer to the food they were being rewarded with.
Psychologists monitored behaviour during a café reward program where customers were given a free coffee after completing ten purchases. They found that customers purchased coffee more frequently the closer they were to receiving a free coffee.
Customers of a music rating website were offered reward certificates to encourage them to rate songs. Those users who were offered reward certificates visited the site more frequently, rated more songs per visit and put more effort into rating songs as they got closer to the reward goal.
Even the illusion of progress towards a reward can be motivational. In the experiment with a café reward program two “bonus” stamps were pre-completed on 12 stamp promotional cards. Other customers received standard 10 stamp cards. However, customers who received the 12 stamp card (with 2 stamps already populated) completed the 10 required purchases faster than those who received the standard 10 stamp card.
The stronger the customer’s inclination to accelerate towards the reward the higher their retention rate and the quicker they re-engaged with the program. This may be related to the psychological desire to be consistent when we show commitment to a behaviour. Commitment and consistency are a powerful motivator of behaviour and this may be coupled with the sunk-cost fallacy if we perceive we have invested significant time or money into something.
User centred design and Conversion rate optimisation apply the goal gradient effect to ensure users get positive feedback when they interact with a website or app. For example, using a prominent progress bar or indicator to provide users with regular feedback during a sign-up process. Always set the progress bar to show some progress even on the first step as this will help increase your conversion rate. Display a green tick when an input field or drop down is correctly completed. Remember to highlight how close the user is to completing the task.
For example, web forms should always clearly display the total number of steps so that the user understands how close they are to completing it. Forms that don’t show the total number of steps create anxiety and users may abandon a form because they don’t understand how much commitment is required. The registration form below from Casumo.com has twelve steps, but still has one of the best conversion rates in the sector. Each page is dedicated to a single question and progress together with the total number of steps is clearly shown at the top of each screen.
Ensure that you focus on how close people are to a reward to motivate them effectively. Reward the desired behaviour positively and experiment with different frequency and predictability of rewards.
Ensure progress indicators are prominent and lean towards the end goal in registration and check-out forms. People are motivated by the illusion of progress and so begin by showing progress even at step 1 of your form or checkout.
Free trial periods can benefit from the goal gradient effect by regularly informing users how many days/hours there are left before the offer period ends. This can help persuade people to upgrade as it highlights how little time is left before they lose access to the service.
Rewards and motivations – The psychology of rewards & how to motivate your customers.
Psychological nudges – Inside the Nudge Unit – How small changes make a big impact
Habit formation – The Fogg behaviour model.
Change frameworks – How to use behavioural science to create new habits.
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