Behavioural Science
The Goal-Gradient Effect

Ever feel that a goal seems most unattainable right at the moment you set it? When there’s still a long ways to go before completing a task, it often feels easier to move on to something else. It’s not an uncommon notion, and its inverse is a human behavior that brands would do well to observe. It’s called the goal-gradient effect. Originally described by the behaviorist Clark Hull in 1932, the goal-gradient effect a bias in humans whereby the closer we get to a goal, the more motivated we become to reach it.

Businesses can use this principle to incentivize and motivate their consumers to engage in a desired behavior. For example, a 2006 study by Ran Kivetz, Oleg Uminsky, and Yuhuang Zheng, of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, utilized two different types of loyalty cards at a cafe (Card A, Card B). Customers would receive a stamp for every coffee they bought, and the loyalty cards promised a free coffee after obtaining a certain number of stamps. Card A had 12 stamps on it, while Card B had 10. So why did customers who received Card A complete the task on average five days earlier than those who received Card B?

It was the goal-gradient effect in action. On Card A, despite needing 12 stamps before the reward of a free coffee, the first two spaces had already been stamped for free. This brought consumers perceptually closer to the goal of completing the card, and thereby, motivated them to do so. Those with Card B may have needed the same amount of stamps as those who were given Card A, but the goal was perceived to be further away.

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