Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Motivation via The Goal Gradient Effect

Charting progress is important. If you are a software developer, keep a list of the bugs you fix and knock them off one by one. If you are cold calling, keep track of the calls made and hopefully a few sales too. This sounds a bit obvious, we are likely to track work we have completed. The point here however is that it’s a good idea to visually display the work completed as progress, so you can see a list or some other evidence that you are getting places. This is known as the Goal Gradient Effect.

An article on Business Insider explains this in a neat way. It cites a study in the Journal of Market Research which looked at a coffee shop that uses frequent buyer cards. Regular customers were given frequent buyer cards. Each time they bought a cup of coffee they got their card stamped. When the card was filled they got a free cup of coffee. However there were two different scenarios:

Card A: The card had 10 boxes for the stamps, and when you get the card all the boxes are blank.
Card B: The card had 12 boxes for the stamps, and when you get the card the first two boxes are already stamped.

The research looked at how long it would take to get the card filled. Would it take longer or shorter for scenario A vs. scenario B? After all, you would have to buy 10 cups of coffee in both scenarios in order to get the free coffee. So does it make a difference which card you use?

The results say it does. Card B gets filled faster than Card A. It is the Goal-Gradient Effect in action.

The goal-gradient effect was first noticed in research with rats where they would run faster as they got to the end of the maze and closer to their food reward.

The goal-gradient effect makes us accelerate our behaviour as we get closer to our goal.

The take-way here could be these two points. Firstly, the closer we get to our goal the more motivated we are. Therefore structuring peoples work schedule (to have goals tangibly close and not weeks or months away) or sales targets becomes an important part of ensuring people are motivated and pushing themselves.

Secondly, the progression towards a goal can be an illusion or contrived (as shown the in coffee shop research). Giving someone a ‘head start’ or making it look like you can start progressing straight away improves motivation. Getting back to the software developer, give them some short ‘easy’ bugs first to get the ball rolling. For the cold caller, have the early targets based on getting the sales script right rather than closing any sales.

For the marketing people, maybe the coffee shop customer behaviour has lessons for how we distribute loyalty card points or explain bulk purchase schemes. We like our goals, almost as much as our coffee. 

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