As humans and other animals approach reaching a goal, their efforts toward that goal increase (Locke & Latham, 1984). Rats run faster as they approach a food reward (Hull, 1934), and humans increase effort as they approach rewards such as gift certificates (Kivetz, Urminsky, & Zheng, 2006) or goals such as visual finish lines (Cheema & Bagchi, 2011). This is what we refer to as the ‘goal gradient effect’.

In this article we explore 3 different case studies on how the goal gradient effect has a powerful impact on social motivation.

1. The coffee loyalty card

Coffee shops offer their customers loyalty cards, which encourage them to purchase faster; collect all stamps in return for a free cup of coffee. Customers who receive a 12-stamp loyalty card with 2 existing “bonus stamps” complete the 10 required purchases faster than a standard 10-stamp card. The loyalty card scheme demonstrates the goal gradient effect as an “illusionary progress” toward the goal induced by accelerating the user’s progress, hence a bogus “head-start”.

Beware though, motivation and purchases have a tendency to drop after the goal is reached; this is called “post-reward reset phenomenon”. So, after a reward is reached, you are at risk of losing your customer.

2. Profile completion in LinkedIn

People are more than likely to complete a goal when they feel they are making progress. The goal gradient effect has not only been applied to coffee loyalty cards, but on websites and applications. A good example of this can be found in LinkedIn’s profile development; users are encouraged to add more personal information by completing objectives. Each objective can be as simple as adding your employment history, or even adding a charity you sponsor. The ultimate goal is for the user to complete as many objectives, and in return their profile will become more exposed to new connections.

The goal gradient effect comes into play when the user is able to measure their goal success rate with a progress bar. For newly registered users in particular, the progress bar is pre-filled. Because of this, new users will already feel a sense of progression and will feel more motivated to complete their profile.

3. Checkout steps

Another classic example of the goal-gradient effect can be seen in online checkout progress bars or steps; the user is given feedback on their journey to give them an illusion of a faster checkout. However, too many steps in a progress bar may result in negative feedback and a frustrating user experience.