Everyone has goals they’re striving to achieve, even during a global pandemic. Maybe you’re a scientist working around the clock to find a cure for COVID-19 (if so, thank you and good luck!). Or maybe you’re stuck working from home and pushing hard to hit 10,000 steps a day while confined to a small, urban living space. Whatever it is you’re striving to achieve, science shows you’re likely to push harder the closer you feel to the finish line. When researchers first speculated about this tendency, they called it the goal gradient hypothesis. And it turns out to have interesting implications not only for predicting when we’ll push ourselves the hardest, but also for marketers hoping to convince us to buy our next cup of coffee or take our next airline flight (at least, once we start flying again).

Oleg Urminsky, a professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, has been studying the goal gradient hypothesis since he was a doctoral student. Recently, Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, got to chat with Urminsky in an interview for the podcast Choiceology.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

Can you explain what the goal gradient hypothesis is?

The basic idea is that the closer we get to completing a goal, the more motivated we are to continue working on it and achieve that goal.

Can you please explain how your classic 2006 paper demonstrated this?

There were some early studies that tried to test this in a couple of ways. Two of my favorites: in one, some researchers designed an apparatus they would attach cigarettes to, bring smokers into the lab, and then the smoker would have to pull the cigarette on this sliding apparatus into their mouth to take a drag.

This was done in the 1970s. They tried to measure this idea that they’d pull faster as the cigarette was almost in their mouth. Of course, you probably don’t want this cigarette-laden apparatus to crash into your face, so they didn’t find any results there.

There was another study that looked at people going into a bank to cash checks and they tried to measure how fast they were walking. This highlights a difference between rats in a lab and humans, which is that we pace ourselves. You probably don’t see people breaking into a run as they get to the door of a cafeteria. We know the reward is going to be there and we decide how much effort to put in and how quickly to walk for these kinds of rewards that are already certain to us.

We wanted to test our idea that, in humans, this goal gradient was more likely to apply conceptually when we’re thinking about the different goals in our life and how to prioritize them, how much effort to put into each one at what time. We thought a good laboratory for this motivational difference was loyalty programs.

Think “buy 10, get one free” coffee programs, or airline frequent flyer miles. If you think about the coffee program: You’re thirsty, you want to get something to drink, you could either go to the coffee shop downstairs where you have a loyalty card or you could go somewhere else. How you choose between those things might be affected by your trying to complete that coffee card. Our main study was in a buy 10, get one free coffee card program on campus. We managed this program, collected the cards, and measured how long it took people to come back for their next coffee as a function of how many stamps they already had on their card. When you have only one stamp on your card, nine to go, are you going to be less motivated, and therefore it’ll take you longer to come back and buy another coffee, than if you already have eight stamps and only two left to go? That's exactly what we found.

Why do you think it is that people behave this way?

I think the way basic cognition is organized prioritizes things that are larger rewards and rewards that we’re closer to achieving. And in rats, that plays out in a very simple and direct way. But for humans, everything we do is filtered through much more complex, higher-order cognition.

Another way of saying it would be that we’re present-biased, and that’s actually part of what’s going on. When you only have one stamp on your card, that’s pretty far away. Whereas when you only have two stamps to go, that coffee is imminent—you could get it really soon. And so, it seems more valuable.

My guess is that we spontaneously think about goals more if they can be achieved sooner and that we also take them more seriously and value them more.

I would love it if you could talk about the “progress illusion” and how it relates to the progress illusion.

There’s a lot of research showing that humans try to form judgements and use heuristics to simplify complex decisions. What that suggests is that maybe it’s not the actual distance to the goal that matters in human behavior, but our perception of that distance. And so, the progress illusion is theoretically interesting as a way to test if motivation is about real goal proximity or subjective perception.

The basic idea is to hold constant the objective distance to the goal, but make some people feel like the goal is pretty close and others feel like the goal is farther away. And so, in the study we designed two different kinds of these coffee cards. One was a 12-stamp card, but we started people off with two free stamps. The other version was a standard card, just buy 10 coffees, get one free.

In both cases when people get the card, they’re 10 coffees away from receiving their reward. But in the first case, by framing it as 12 stamps and giving them two free stamps, they feel like they’re already part of the way there.

People completed cards faster if they thought of it as the remaining 10 out of 12 as opposed to the full 10 required. You can see this in lots of different real-world settings. Plenty of rewards programs will give you free points to start.

Where do you think this finding matters outside of the domain of rewards programs? Could this even be important for people who are trying to pursue goals?

One of my colleagues, Devin Pope, has a great study looking at standardized testing. He looks at a setting where there’s different tests on different days and the students know in advance which subject will be administered first, second, third or fourth.

He finds that students consistently score higher on the first test. The idea is that the week before, they’re sitting there thinking about these four goals that they’re trying to achieve, which is to do well on four different tests covering four different topics, and they focus their efforts on the one that’s the closest. They think of the first topic, “let me study really hard for that one.” And they maybe overprioritize that first one.

This implies that understanding the goal gradient is important for managing our own motivation because it can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, having a salient goal that we’re committed to with a clear deadline or requirement is really motivating. It focuses our attention, gets us to muster our energy and really work on achieving that goal. It’s a great source of motivation and we can use that by setting up our goals in a way that we always have a goal in our sights that feels close.

The potential dark side of the goal gradient is that when we’re really focused on the proximal goal, it can make us shortsighted, just like the students. And so, the flip side of understanding the goal gradient is realizing that it can be really helpful to motivate us to have this upcoming goal in our sights, but we want to make sure it’s not blinding us to other, later goals that are equally or maybe even more important.

Is there anything you do differently in your life as a result of the research on this topic?

What I’d love to tell you is that I’m great at time management and at prioritizing projects and my work. Unfortunately, I’m the classic case of people studying what they're bad at because they find it fascinating.

I have a very long to-do list and I use goal setting to try to prioritize. And then I struggle with how a goal that’s really in your face can distract us from longer-term, potentially more important goals. If I’m working on multiple projects and one of them is with a coauthor and I have a meeting with that coauthor the next day, that seems like the most important thing in the world, even if there’s something else that’s a lot more urgent but where the next step in completing that goal is less salient or less immediate.

Have you found any cures for suffering from it? Do you do anything where you try to dodge it or do you have any sophisticated tips you can offer?

The strategy I’d recommend, although I haven't tested it scientifically—I’ve tried to test it in my personal life with mixed results—is to do goal prioritization with a bit of a colder mindset, where you’re thinking of all your goals as a little bit distant and trying to be objective about how important they are. And then, take the most important goals and put them first on your list and think of ways to make those goals feel immediate.

We all have this intuition of knowing that this is helpful even if we don’t know why. For goals that are really far off, try to break them up into pieces and focus on the part that you can complete soon to make progress on that motivating. And so, if I’m writing a paper, thinking about the fact that, in the best case, it’s going to be published two years from now, might be demotivating.

But if, instead, I pick a day by which I want to have the first draft done, I’m going to reframe it in my head and feel more motivated.