Motivation complex: What explains that extra burst of energy as we near completing a goal or task?

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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.

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.

[Scientific American:] Can you explain what the goal gradient hypothesis is?

[Urminsky:] 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.

[Urminsky:] 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… 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.

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