The goal-gradient effect

What motivates people to complete their goal?

The illusion of progress is motivating

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, I will explore 3 classic 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 demonstrates the goal-gradient effect as an “illusionary progress” toward the goal which helps accelerate 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

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 too. 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. Check out 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 frustrating user experience.


Congratulations — you’ve now reached the end of this article and can enjoy a virtual coffee on me.

Rewards can help incentivize progress, particularly when a head start is given. However, this comes with a caveat that once a reward is reached, there is a risk of losing the customer, unless you can find more ways to motivate them.

Next time you have your coffee loyalty card stamped, have a think about the goal-gradient effect and what kind of impact it has on you.