IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this paper

The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected: Purchase Acceleration, Illusionary Goal Progress, and Customer Retention


  • Ran Kivetz
  • Oleg Urminsky
  • Yuhuang Zheng


The goal-gradient hypothesis denotes the classic finding from behaviorism that animals expend more effort as they approach a reward. Building on this hypothesis, the authors generate new propositions for the human psychology of rewards. They test these propositions using a field experiment, secondary customer data, paper-and-pencil problems, and Tobit and logit models. The key finding indicate that (1) participants in a real cafe reward program purchase coffee more frequently the closer they are to earning a free coffee; (2) Internet users who rate songs in return for reward certificates visit the rating Web site more often, rate more songs per visit, and persist longer in the rating effort as they approach the reward goal; (3) the illusion of progress toward the goal induces purchase acceleration (e.g., customers who receive a 12-stamp coffee card with 2 preexisting "bonus" stamps complete the 10 required purchases faster than customers who receive a "regular" 10-stamp card) and (4) a stronger tendency to accelerate toward the goal predicts greater retention and faster reengagement in the program. The conceptualization and empirical findings are captured by a parsimonious goal distance model, in which effort investment is a function of the proportion of original distance remaining to the goal. In addition, using statistical and experimental controls, the authors rule out alternative explanations for the observed goal gradients. They discuss the theoretical significance of their findings and the managerial implications for incentive systems, promotions, and customer retention.

Suggested Citation

  • Ran Kivetz & Oleg Urminsky & Yuhuang Zheng, 2006. "The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected: Purchase Acceleration, Illusionary Goal Progress, and Customer Retention," Natural Field Experiments 00658, The Field Experiments Website.
  • Handle: RePEc:feb:natura:00658

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: no

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Hsee, Christopher K, et al, 2003. "Medium Maximization," Journal of Consumer Research, Oxford University Press, vol. 30(1), pages 1-14, June.
    2. Klaus Wertenbroch, 1998. "Consumption Self-Control by Rationing Purchase Quantities of Virtue and Vice," Marketing Science, INFORMS, vol. 17(4), pages 317-337.
    3. Dilip Soman & Mengze Shi, 2003. "Virtual Progress: The Effect of Path Characteristics on Perceptions of Progress and Choice," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 49(9), pages 1229-1250, September.
    4. Ayelet Fishbach & Ravi Dhar, 2005. "Goals as Excuses or Guides: The Liberating Effect of Perceived Goal Progress on Choice," Journal of Consumer Research, Oxford University Press, vol. 32(3), pages 370-377, December.
    5. Kahneman, Daniel & Tversky, Amos, 1979. "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 47(2), pages 263-291, March.
    6. J. Tobin, 1958. "Liquidity Preference as Behavior Towards Risk," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 25(2), pages 65-86.
    7. Seetharaman, P B & Chintagunta, Pradeep K, 2003. "The Proportional Hazard Model for Purchase Timing: A Comparison of Alternative Specifications," Journal of Business & Economic Statistics, American Statistical Association, vol. 21(3), pages 368-382, July.
    8. Richard J. Herrnstein & Drazen Prelec, 1991. "Melioration: A Theory of Distributed Choice," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 5(3), pages 137-156, Summer.
    9. Huber, Joel & Payne, John W & Puto, Christopher, 1982. "Adding Asymmetrically Dominated Alternatives: Violations of Regularity and the Similarity Hypothesis," Journal of Consumer Research, Oxford University Press, vol. 9(1), pages 90-98, June.
    10. Bruce G. S. Hardie & Eric J. Johnson & Peter S. Fader, 1993. "Modeling Loss Aversion and Reference Dependence Effects on Brand Choice," Marketing Science, INFORMS, vol. 12(4), pages 378-394.
    11. David R. Bell & James M. Lattin, 2000. "Looking for Loss Aversion in Scanner Panel Data: The Confounding Effect of Price Response Heterogeneity," Marketing Science, INFORMS, vol. 19(2), pages 185-200, May.
    12. Thaler, Richard, 1980. "Toward a positive theory of consumer choice," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 1(1), pages 39-60, March.
    13. Kristiaan Helsen & David C. Schmittlein, 1993. "Analyzing Duration Times in Marketing: Evidence for the Effectiveness of Hazard Rate Models," Marketing Science, INFORMS, vol. 12(4), pages 395-414.
    14. Rajiv Lal & David Bell, 2003. "The Impact of Frequent Shopper Programs in Grocery Retailing," Quantitative Marketing and Economics (QME), Springer, vol. 1(2), pages 179-202, June.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)

    Most related items

    These are the items that most often cite the same works as this one and are cited by the same works as this one.
    1. repec:cup:judgdm:v:1:y:2006:i::p:23-32 is not listed on IDEAS
    2. Nicolau, Juan L., 2011. "Differentiated price loss aversion in destination choice: The effect of tourists’ cultural interest," Tourism Management, Elsevier, vol. 32(5), pages 1186-1195.
    3. David Gal, 2006. "A psychological law of inertia and the illusion of loss aversion," Judgment and Decision Making, Society for Judgment and Decision Making, vol. 1, pages 23-32, July.
    4. Peggy J. Liu & Kelly L. Haws & Cait Lamberton & Troy H. Campbell & Gavan J. Fitzsimons, 2015. "Vice-Virtue Bundles," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 61(1), pages 204-228, January.
    5. Chunhua Wu & Koray Cosguner, 2020. "Profiting from the Decoy Effect: A Case Study of an Online Diamond Retailer," Marketing Science, INFORMS, vol. 39(5), pages 974-995, September.
    6. Necati Tereyağoğlu & Peter S. Fader & Senthil Veeraraghavan, 2018. "Multiattribute Loss Aversion and Reference Dependence: Evidence from the Performing Arts Industry," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 64(1), pages 421-436, January.
    7. Kwangpil Chang & S. Siddarth & Charles B. Weinberg, 1999. "The Impact of Heterogeneity in Purchase Timing and Price Responsiveness on Estimates of Sticker Shock Effects," Marketing Science, INFORMS, vol. 18(2), pages 178-192.
    8. M. Keith Chen & Venkat Lakshminarayanan & Laurie Santos, 2005. "The Evolution of Our Preferences: Evidence from Capuchin-Monkey Trading Behavior," Cowles Foundation Discussion Papers 1524, Cowles Foundation for Research in Economics, Yale University.
    9. Kopalle, Praveen K. & Kannan, P.K. & Boldt, Lin Bao & Arora, Neeraj, 2012. "The impact of household level heterogeneity in reference price effects on optimal retailer pricing policies," Journal of Retailing, Elsevier, vol. 88(1), pages 102-114.
    10. Pranav Jindal, 2015. "Risk Preferences and Demand Drivers of Extended Warranties," Marketing Science, INFORMS, vol. 34(1), pages 39-58, January.
    11. Dmitri Kuksov & Kangkang Wang, 2014. "The Bright Side of Loss Aversion in Dynamic and Competitive Markets," Marketing Science, INFORMS, vol. 33(5), pages 693-711, September.
    12. Scott, Anthony & Witt, Julia, 2020. "Loss aversion, reference dependence and diminishing sensitivity in choice experiments," Journal of choice modelling, Elsevier, vol. 37(C).
    13. Elshiewy, Ossama & Peschel, Anne O., 2022. "Internal reference price response across store formats," Journal of Retailing, Elsevier, vol. 98(3), pages 496-509.
    14. (Xiao-Tian) Wang, X.T. & Ong, Lay See & Tan, Jolene H., 2015. "Sense and sensibility of ownership: Type of ownership experience and valuation of goods," Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), Elsevier, vol. 58(C), pages 171-177.
    15. Arkes, Hal R. & Hirshleifer, David & Jiang, Danling & Lim, Sonya, 2008. "Reference point adaptation: Tests in the domain of security trading," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 105(1), pages 67-81, January.
    16. Bahamonde-Birke, Francisco J., 2018. "Estimating the reference frame: A smooth twice-differentiable utility function for non-compensatory loss-averse decision-making," Journal of choice modelling, Elsevier, vol. 28(C), pages 71-81.
    17. Neumann, Nico & Böckenholt, Ulf, 2014. "A Meta-analysis of Loss Aversion in Product Choice," Journal of Retailing, Elsevier, vol. 90(2), pages 182-197.
    18. Ifcher, John & Zarghamee, Homa, 2020. "Behavioral economic phenomena in decision-making for others," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 77(C).
    19. Davis Brennan & Currim Imran S. & Sarin Rakesh K., 2012. "Reference Dependence and Conjoint Analysis," Review of Marketing Science, De Gruyter, vol. 10(1), pages 1-29, September.
    20. Manel Baucells & Martin Weber & Frank Welfens, 2011. "Reference-Point Formation and Updating," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 57(3), pages 506-519, March.
    21. Dan Ariely & Kristina Shampan'er, 2006. "How small is zero price? : the true value of free products," Working Papers 06-16, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

    More about this item


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:feb:natura:00658. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: . General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If CitEc recognized a bibliographic reference but did not link an item in RePEc to it, you can help with this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: David Franks (email available below). General contact details of provider: .

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service. RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.