Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Since I’m already part way there…

October 25th, 2010

In your personal bid to change the world, you’ve established a loyalty program. Do 20 hours of volunteer work and earn a free pizza. Or make 10 purchases to get the eleventh one free. Or make five donations to earn a matching donation from an outside organization.

reciprocity nudgeYour loyalty card is virtual or real, scanned or hand-stamped. Everyone says they like it, but hardly anyone redeems it for a reward. They all seem to stop paying attention after only a few steps toward the goal.

How can you fix this?

As it happens, there’s a simple way to increase the number of people who use a loyalty program enough to earn a reward: start them off with a few “free points” toward their goal.

This is called the “endowed progress effect” and in 2006, Joseph Nunes and Xavier Drèze published a study that confirmed that it works. A professional car wash handed out 300 loyalty cards to random customers as part of a “special promotion”. Half the cards required 8 stamps (purchases) to earn a free car wash; the other half required 10 stamps but the first two were already in place.

A Week in Tokyo 57Even though both types of card made the same offer – buy 8 car washes to earn a free one – they weren’t used equally. Customers who received the 10-stamp card were almost twice as likely to make all 8 purchases and redeem the card.

It turns out that we are more motivated to complete a set of tasks if we see ourselves as having already made some progress toward the final goal – even if that progress is imaginary, as in the car wash example.

Part of the reason is that incomplete actions nag at us to complete them. Another factor is that we tend to become more motivated as we approach a reward (the “goal-gradient effect”), so we move faster when we’re part way through (even if the progress is an illusion) than when we’re just beginning. Nunes and Drèze found that the number of days between car washes dropped as customers got closer to their reward and other experiments have shown the same effect.

To make this work, it helps, for some reason, if you convert purchases or hours or donations into “points” or “stamps” or something similar. It also works better if you can give your volunteers or customers or donors a reason (even a weak reason) they’re receiving “bonus points” toward their goal. Nunes and Drèze found that handing out free points without a reason was much less effective.

These principles apply to more than loyalty programs. The fact that we are more motivated when we’re closer to the finish line applies to personal goals and tasks – have you ever found it easier to finish a job that you’ve already spent a few minutes on compared with one you haven’t started at all?

We can also motivate others more effectively by focusing on how much has already been done rather than how much lies ahead. Replace “We need to double our participation levels” with “We want to reach a participation level of 50 and we’re already halfway there!”

Another application: If you make the first parts of a project easier, participants will have the psychological advantage of having already completed several steps once it becomes more difficult. I’m sure there are many other ways to use this.

Meanwhile, you know, of course, that once you’ve read 10 of my blog posts, you get a prize?* And hey, you’ve already read this one! Only 9 to go!

*A small prize. Very small. Er, to be specific, what you might call a virtual prize. But you’ll definitely get it. Really.

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