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Choiceology: Season 5 Episode 3

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Whatever the goal, we often increase our level of effort when the finish line seems near. How can we make the most of this tendency?

If you’ve ever signed up for a frequent flyer program, chances are good that you were awarded a certain number of bonus points to start. Those bonus points feel like a nice little gift, but they also serve another purpose: to increase your motivation to participate in the program.

In this episode of Choiceology with Katy Milkman, we explore how your proximity to a goal can affect the way you behave.

You’ll hear the fascinating story of Brian Zinn and his decade-spanning quest to unravel an elaborate riddle. When Brian was a college student, he stumbled upon a book called The Secret: A Treasure Hunt. In it were 12 cryptic puzzles—arcane verses and mysterious images that, when paired and solved, would point readers to 12 treasures buried in undisclosed locations around the United States.

The treasure hunt was a harmless pastime during Brian’s college days, but when he rediscovered the book years later, it became something of an obsession. You’ll learn about his escalating adventures attempting to locate one of the book’s hidden treasures. Since the publication of The Secret nearly 40 years ago, only three of the 12 treasures have ever been found.

Next, Oleg Urminsky joins Katy to reveal the behavioral mechanisms that drive us to increase our efforts as we approach a goal, or perceive that we’re approaching a goal. Urminsky’s research led him to demonstrate surprising shifts in behavior using a simple coffee card loyalty program.

Oleg Urminsky is a professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. You can read more about his research in the 2006 paper “The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected.”

Choiceology is an original podcast from Charles Schwab.

If you enjoy the show, please leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.

Click to show the transcript

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Speedy Car Wash.

Speaker 2: Yeah, hi. I’ll take the deluxe wash. No wax, please.

Speaker 1: OK, deluxe wash, no wax. All right, please pull up to the first window.

Speaker 1: So that would be $12.95. Thank you. Oh, also, we’re starting a new promotion today. If you purchase five washes, your sixth one is free. Here’s a stamp card. It’s good at any location.

Speaker 2: OK, sounds good. Thanks.

Katy Milkman: You’ve probably been in this situation at a coffee shop or the dry cleaners or a fast food restaurant. You’re offered a loyalty card that comes with a free perk after a certain number of purchases. I’m going to tweak the scenario just a bit. See if this feels any different.

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Speedy Car Wash.

Speaker 2: Yeah, hi. I’ll take the deluxe wash. No wax, please.

Speaker 1: OK, deluxe wash, no wax. All right, please pull up to the first window.

Speaker 1: That’ll be $12.95. Thank you. Also, we’re starting a new promotion today. If you purchase 10 washes, your eleventh one is free. Here’s a stamp card. It’s good at any location. And there … I’ve stamped the first five for you.

Speaker 2: Oh, that’s super nice—thank you.

Speaker 1: No problem.

Katy Milkman: If you’re anything like our imaginary customer the second time around, you’d feel pretty good about being halfway to a free car wash. The thing is, in both scenarios, the customer is five car washes away from a freebie, but she feels closer to her goal in the second version. Today on Choiceology, we’re talking about a tendency to change our behavior when we’re getting closer to a goal or when we think we’re closer. It’s a tendency that can influence small purchases …

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Speedy Car Wash.

Katy Milkman: … And big treasure hunts.

Brian Zinn: Oh, my adrenaline was going a mile a minute that day. I mean, I was so close to the prize.

Katy Milkman: I’m Dr. Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about the psychology and economics behind our decisions. We bring you true stories involving high-stakes choices, and then we explore the latest research in behavioral science that can help you make better judgements and avoid costly mistakes.

Brian Zinn: I’m Brian Zinn.

Katy Milkman: Brian is a lawyer based in Fort Myers, Florida. Back when he was in college at the very school where I now teach, he became fascinated by a book called The Secret, not the self-help book from 2006 but the fantasy adventure book from the 1980s.

Brian Zinn: I bought it when it first came out in 1982. I was in college at the University of Pennsylvania, and I saw it there in a bookstore, and I love puzzles and games and riddles and so this was right up my alley.

Katy Milkman: The publisher and coauthor, Byron Preiss, had buried 12 treasures across North America and placed clues to their whereabouts in the book.

Brian Zinn: Well, the cover was very intriguing. It had a picture of a woman opening a box, like Pandora’s box, with what looked like a shining treasure inside it, and it just says on the front The Secret: A Treasure Hunt. So I picked it up and started going through the pages, and there were these elaborate paintings in there and cryptic verses with different clues.

Katy Milkman: Inside the book, Brian found a series of 12 pictures and 12 verses. In order to solve each puzzle, you’d have to link a picture to a verse.

Brian Zinn: So the thing that attracted me at first was this one picture that had an aquamarine birthstone in it, and aquamarine is actually my birthstone. In the picture, it’s a picture of a centaur standing on an archway, and there is what looks like some type of fountain underneath that has an L and a bell and what looks like Benjamin Franklin’s face. And there I was in Philadelphia thinking maybe this treasure is in Philadelphia because L and bell could be Liberty Bell, and Ben Franklin founded Penn, and I also noted that the author Byron Preiss graduated from Penn. So it all was coming together for me, and I started trying to match verses to this picture.

Katy Milkman: Brian felt he was onto something, but deciphering the clues would take some legwork.

Brian Zinn: Well, I would say about once a week, I would go to the Penn library, which was pretty extensive, and I would try and look up different things based on what was in some of these verses. Just anything that could get me a clue.

Katy Milkman: Brian was invested in the treasure hunt, but he was only spending a bit of time each week on it. And it was slow going.

Brian Zinn: I didn’t feel too close because there was no internet back then, so it was just me doing groundwork. I remember one time I was downtown, and there was something that looked a lot like the arch and the fountain, but it wasn’t exact, and it was right next to a place called the Bishop White House. And one of the verses says, “White house close at hand.” So I got pretty excited about that, but it really didn’t go anywhere where for me.

Katy Milkman: At this point, it was just a harmless pastime for Brian.

Brian Zinn: I was having a lot of fun with it, but I wasn’t intensely following it. I was just doing things here and there about it.

Katy Milkman: Eventually, Brian’s interest in The Secret waned. He hadn’t gotten any closer to solving the puzzle.

Brian Zinn: Well, I kept doing that maybe once a week, once every two weeks, and really wasn’t getting anywhere.

Katy Milkman: The weeks and months and years passed. Brian graduated from Penn and finally set aside his quest. Eventually, he went to law school in Boston. He got married, had kids. More time passed.

Brian Zinn: I would say 10 to 15 years went by, and then one day I was unpacking this box, and there in front of me was The Secret, and it brought back so many memories. And during these 10 or 15 years where it was packed away, I still had that image burned in my mind. So I would be walking around wherever I was, and I would still be looking for that fountain and that archway in my mind.

Katy Milkman: Brian unpacked the book. And remember that there was a passage indicating that the author would eventually publish the solutions.

Brian Zinn: So I really, really wanted to know the solutions. So I brought it into work, and I talked to a friend of mine, and together we called the author’s office, Byron Preiss, and we wanted to know if there were solutions published. I asked him that and he said, as far as he’s concerned, the hunt is still on. And that’s all I needed to hear because now I was armed with the internet.

Katy Milkman: Brian got online in the early 2000s, and he found that there was a small community of people researching The Secret.

Brian Zinn: So we started talking about the book and the verses and the pictures, and with the internet, we could research things that there was just no way to research before. And so we started uncovering things like the latitudes and longitudes of cities hidden in the images. We could type in different things that are mentioned in there.

Katy Milkman: Brian started to feel that the momentum was building.

Brian Zinn: Oh, I was spending time, pretty much almost every day. Once some of the solutions started revealing themselves, then we just kept putting more and more effort into it.

Katy Milkman: This is an important point to remember. The closer Brian and his online friends seemed to be getting to the treasure, the more work they put in.

Brian Zinn: I felt that we might be able to crack one of them, and I really wanted to solve the one that I thought was still connected to Philadelphia. The one with the centaur in the arch and my birthstone on it.

Katy Milkman: Brian searched and searched online for landmarks related to the Greek philosophers and some of the verses, but nothing in Philadelphia seemed to match. Eventually, one of his fellow online treasure hunters discovered that the names of several Greek philosophers were etched on a wall in Cleveland.

Brian Zinn: But the most exciting part of that is they had a picture of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, and it pretty much matched the picture under the centaur in what I thought was the Philadelphia image. I had this tingling running through me like, oh my gosh, I’m actually looking at the picture that’s in the book in real life, and it turns out the picture in the book is like an amalgamation of different fountains and walls that are in the Cultural Gardens.

Katy Milkman: Brian was convinced he was on the right path.

Brian Zinn: So I got very excited and I said, “I don’t care where this is. I’m going there.” And I talked to my friend to see if he wanted to come with me. To convince him, I said, this is like a once-in-a-lifetime thing. This could be a story to tell your grandchildren. I finally got him to agree to come along with me.

Katy Milkman: Of course, you can’t just show up to a public garden with a shovel in your hand and start digging. You’d be kicked out or arrested. So Brian wrote to the Hellenic Preservation Society in Cleveland and managed to convince them to let him and his friend dig. It was May of 2004. Off they went to Cleveland.

Brian Zinn: It took about an eight- or nine-hour car ride. We left on a Friday night. We got into Cleveland at probably about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, went to sleep for three hours in a hotel. On the way there, we were studying the verse. It talks about, “Seven steps up you can hop.” That’s one of the things in the verse, and there are no seven steps that you can see anywhere online. So we had no idea what that meant. So we woke up, we drove to the gardens, and when I stepped out of the car, it’s like I stepped into fantasy land because there in front of me was this image that I had only seen in the book and had been burned in my mind for over 20 years.

Brian Zinn: The first thing I did is I ran to the Italian garden around the corner just to see the fountain before I did any digging. I just wanted to take it all in and see it all. We kept looking around, and then we went behind the Greek wall, and that’s where we saw the seven steps, and so we realized that that point that when you do seven steps, you’re actually counting six steps, and on the seventh one you’re hopping up into a planter, a giant planter at the back of the wall, and so we figured that’s it. It’s buried here in the planter. The verse starts out by saying, “Beneath two countries / As the road curves.”

Katy Milkman: I’ll read you the full verse to give you a sense of what Brian was working with. “Beneath two countries / As the road curves / In a rectangular plot.”

Brian Zinn: So the two countries are the Greek and the Italian gardens, and there’s a road that curves downwards and around the garden. It turns out that that road is called Liberty Boulevard. So that’s where the L and the bell come in. So the author was being very tricky with that. And then it says, “In a rectangular plot.” So that’s basically the giant planter behind the wall. And it says, “Beneath the tenth stone / From right to left” …

Katy Milkman: “Beneath the tenth stone / From right to left / Beneath the ninth row from the top / Of the wall including small bricks / Seven steps up you can hop / From the bottom level.”

Brian Zinn: And then it says, “Seven steps up you can hop.” And then it mentions the three philosophers’ names …

Katy Milkman: “Socrates, Pindar, Apelles / Free speech, couplet, birch / To find casque’s destination / Seek the columns / For the search.”

Brian Zinn: And a casque is what the author calls the buried treasure containers, and the columns are standing in front of the Greek cultural garden. So that’s the whole verse, and everything matched, and we were really excited.

Katy Milkman: Brian was tantalizingly close to solving what was for him a 22-year-old mystery.

Brian Zinn: And I started digging on the left side of the planter. I thought I’d find it in five minutes. And an hour later, two hours, three, four, five hours of digging the entire left side of the planter, and there was just nothing there, and it was starting to get dark, and I was getting very dejected, and I just sat down to have a soda. And my friend Andy, I hadn’t let Andy dig the entire day. I was doing all the digging because I was the one who wanted to find it and get it out of the ground. And Andy takes a probe that we had brought with us, walks to the other side of the planter, probes the ground with three shots, and he hears something crack. And he tosses me a piece of plexiglass, and I thought he was just kidding around.

Katy Milkman: The thing is, Brian knew that the treasures had been buried in plexiglass boxes.

Brian Zinn: So I got up in a nanosecond. I ran over and I started digging with my hands. Oh, my adrenaline was going a mile a minute that day. It was such a mentally and physically exhausting day, but I didn’t feel it at all because it was just all adrenaline at that point. I mean, I was so close to the prize, I was nine hours from New Jersey and 22 years from when I picked the book up, so this was the culminating moment. And there was the casque—we had found it. It was caked in mud. The top had caved in over all those years, 22 years in the ground.

Katy Milkman: The casque was just a few inches in size and completely covered in mud, but it was largely intact.

Brian Zinn: So we washed everything off, and it’s a white box, and there are 12 figures around it representing the 12 treasures, and only one of them was painted—the centaur was painted on the box. The cask is made of ceramic, and inside is a ceramic key. And if you turn the ceramic key in, the author will give you a jewel, supposedly the jewel that’s in the painting, which would be the aquamarine. But I mean, at that point I didn’t care if I got anything. I mean, I got the thing that I came for, and I was just absolutely ... I mean, there are no words for it. Just saying thrilled would be an understatement. It was just amazing, the whole experience.

Katy Milkman: Back in New Jersey, Brian reached out to the publisher and puzzle master, Byron Preiss.

Brian Zinn: He couldn’t believe that something was found after 22 years, but he had to locate the key for the safe deposit box that the jewels were in.

Katy Milkman: It took Preiss a few months to locate the key, but he did find it, and he invited Brian to his office in New York City. Brian and his friend Andy took the short trip over from New Jersey one afternoon.

Brian Zinn: I have to tell you we were joking along the way. It was like we were going to go meet Willy Wonka or something, and when we got in the elevator to his office, the elevator was coated in aluminum foil, the ceilings, the floor, the walls. So we were in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and we brought the treasure with us. It brought a huge smile to his face. He took a selfie with me and the casque, and he sent it to his wife. We went to the safe deposit box. It was rather dark in the vault. So he gave me the jewel, and I didn’t realize … later on, when I went to a jewelry store to put it in a setting, that he had given me the wrong jewel. After all that time, it was so funny. I had gotten the sapphire instead of the aquamarine. But that’s OK. I mean, I got to meet the author. I found the treasure. Everything was great.

Katy Milkman: And while Brian found the treasure he was looking for after 22 years, the story of The Secret isn’t over. Many of the treasures remain hidden. Tragically, Byron Preiss was killed in a car accident shortly after presenting Brian with his prize. It’s possible the remaining solutions to The Secret may never be revealed. So far, only three of the 12 treasures have been found. Thousands of people continue the search.

Brian Zinn: And the funny thing is, there were only like 20 of us back then looking for this stuff, and now there are over 4,000 people that are still looking for these treasures. Just a few months ago, someone found one in Boston, and he actually found it because a construction crew was digging up an entire baseball field.

Katy Milkman: Looking back on the experience, Brian notices an arc to the story.

Brian Zinn: So at first it started out slowly, just haphazardly here and there, just for fun, and then starting to work furiously and I’m finding these things on the internet, and then eventually having no other goal in mind other than to drive to Cleveland and dig out this treasure. And as I got closer to the solution, I just doubled, tripled, quadrupled my efforts. It was a real-life treasure hunt. Who doesn’t love that? And now I have a story to tell my grandkids.

Katy Milkman: Brian Zinn is an attorney at Zinn Law in Fort Myers, Florida. I have links to information about The Secret in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast. Anyone who’s done a crossword puzzle or read an interesting book can understand the impulse to redouble their efforts as they get close to something they really want. Marathon runners push extra hard as they near the finish line. Sales managers work extra hours to seal a deal that feels really close. You probably work harder or faster on that crossword puzzle once you get to the last few clues.

Katy Milkman: Researchers first noticed this tendency to accelerate goal-seeking behavior in the 1930s. But they didn’t notice it in people; they noticed it in rats. It wasn’t until far more recently that psychologists were able to prove convincingly that humans behave the same way as our furry rodent cousins, confirming what is now known as the goal-gradient hypothesis. In fact, the goal-gradient hypothesis seems to explain what happened to Brian Zinn during his treasure hunt. This effect relates to another interesting phenomenon too.

Katy Milkman: Remember the car wash scene from the beginning of the episode? Remember how it felt like the customer who started off with five stamps was closer to a free car wash—even though in both scenarios she was five car washes away from that freebie? Psychologist Oleg Urminsky and his colleagues Ran Kivetz and Yuhuang Zheng call this the progress illusion.

When people merely feel that they’re closer to a goal, even if they aren’t really, they tend to accelerate their efforts toward that goal. This means they’re more likely to stick with a loyalty program if they’re given the illusion that they’ve already made some progress towards a reward—by. say, getting free stamps on a coffee card or free points when they sign up for a frequent flyer program. I wanted to get Oleg’s perspective on the goal-gradient hypothesis and the illusion of progress. So I invited him to join me on the show. Oleg Urminsky is a professor of marketing at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

Hey, Oleg, thank you so much for joining.

Oleg Urminsky: Hey, Katy, thanks for having me.

Katy Milkman: First thing I want to ask you is if you could just explain what the goal-gradient hypothesis is.

Oleg Urminsky: Sure, so the basic idea is that our motivation is affected by a lot of things, but a particular thing that really strongly affects our motivation is how close we are to completing a goal. And so the closer we get to completing a goal, the more motivated we are to continue working on it and achieve that goal.

Katy Milkman: And could you tell me a little bit about some of the early animal research that generated the theory back in the ’30s, if I’ve got my facts right?

Oleg Urminsky: Exactly, yeah. So this is a really old idea that dates back to the early days of empirical psychology, which was largely done with animals. And so if you’ve seen in a movie, the scientists in white lab coats running rats through a maze, that’s the kind of research we’re talking about here. So the early studies would train rats to teach them basically that at the end of the runway would be a food pellet reward. And so they’d run them down these runways over and over and over until the rat knew to expect the reward at the end. And then in the experiments they would test this in a couple of different ways. So the simplest way was to set the rat down the course and then measure how long it took them to do equal lengths on the course. And the finding was that they would actually run faster on the sections of the course that were closer to the food rewards. So they’d start off not that fast and then speed up as they got towards the end.

Katy Milkman: Will you tell me a little bit about the studies that you ran in your now classic 2006 paper showing that this goal gradient also affects people?

Oleg Urminsky: Yeah, so it turns out that it’s actually a tricky thing to test in people. So there were some early studies that tried to test this in a couple of ways. Two of my favorites: One, some researchers designed a whole apparatus that 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, and then they tried to measure this same idea—that they’d, like, 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. I think that was a design failure of the study.

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. And it highlights a difference between rats in a lab and humans, which is we pace ourselves. You can think of this as like, 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 completely certain to us. And so what we wanted to do is to try to test this idea where we thought this goal gradient was more likely to apply in humans, which is more conceptual, right? 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 that level, we thought we might see this kind of a goal gradient.

And so one area of human activity that we thought would be a good laboratory for this motivational difference that we expected to see was loyalty programs. So think, buy-10-get-one-free coffee programs or airline frequent flyer miles or things like that. Where 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 for, or you could do something else. How do you choose between those things? That might be affected by your motivation to complete that coffee card?

Oleg Urminsky: And so our main study was literally 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. So 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? And that’s exactly what we found.

Katy Milkman: The thing I want to talk about next is actually super closely related, and you even studied it in the same paper, but it has a different name. I would love it if you could talk a little bit about the progress illusion. What is the progress illusion, and what study do you think best illustrates it, and how does it relate to the goal-gradient hypothesis?

Oleg Urminsky: Yep, so the idea of the progress illusion is we could think of this goal-gradient idea in one of two ways. We can think of it as just an objective reality. So when we’re actually closer to a goal, we’re going to be more motivated, and we can think of people as being very well calibrated at judging these kinds of things. That’s one possibility.

There’s a lot of research showing that humans approach lots of different problems heuristically, right? We’re trying to form judgments. We’re trying to use heuristics to simplify complex decisions. And so what that suggests is maybe it’s not the actual distance to the goal that matters in human behavior—it’s our perception of that distance. And so what we did in the study is we designed two different kinds of these coffee cards. One was a 12-stamp card, but we started people off with two free stamps. And so in reality, they just had to make 10 purchases to earn the free coffee. And so that’s a weird card, right?

The other version was a standard card, just buy 10 coffees, get one free. So in both cases, when people get the card, they’re 10 coffees away from receiving their reward. But in the first case, this illusory goal progress card, by framing it as 12 stamps and giving them two free stamps, they feel like they’re already part of the way there. Our prediction was as the subjective perception would be, “I’m already part of the way there. It’s not that far away.” And what we found is people completed those cards faster. So the same 10 purchases were made faster if they thought of it as the remaining 10 out of 12, as opposed to the full 10 required.

And you can see this thing in lots of different real-world settings, lots of rewards programs will give you free points to start, and we think that that real-world tactic is effective for exactly this reason. That it makes you feel like earning a reward is closer than it would otherwise be—holding constant what you actually have to do—just because you’re part of the way there already.

Katy Milkman: And by the way, I should say that’s one of my favorite studies of all time, Oleg. I teach it every year and I think it’s just so clever and interesting. Is there anything that you do differently in your life as a result of the research even on this topic?

Oleg Urminsky: Wow, thank you. Yeah, so 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 study what they’re bad at because they find it fascinating.

Katy Milkman: Me too. It’s me-search. So you suffer from it?

Oleg Urminsky: I do, yeah, absolutely.

Katy Milkman: And have you found any cures then for suffering from it? Do you have any sophisticated tips you can offer?

Oleg Urminsky: So I think the strategy I’d recommend—although I haven’t tested it, certainly not scientifically, I’ve tried to test it in my personal life with mixed results—is, I think you want to separate out goal prioritization and do that in a little bit of a colder mindset, if you will, 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 refer back to that list and try to focus yourself on the more important goal and think of ways to make that goal feel immediate.

And one common approach I think we all do, we all have this intuition of knowing that this is helpful even if we don’t know why, is for goals that are really far off, try to break it up into pieces and focus on the one part that you can complete soon to make progress on that goal motivating. If I’m writing a paper, thinking about the fact that in the best case it’s going to be published like two years from now, that might be pretty demotivating. But if instead I set the goal as I just want to have this first draft, and I’m going to pick a day by which I want to have the first draft, and I’m going to reframe it in my head as, think how happy I’ll be when I complete that first draft. That’s, I think, a good way—I think it often works for me—of managing these goals and restructuring these goals for ourselves to leverage this goal-gradient motivation.

Katy Milkman: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I really appreciate it.

Oleg Urminsky: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Katy Milkman: Oleg Urminsky is a professor of marketing at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. I have a link to the research paper he coauthored in 2006 called “The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected.” You can find it in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.

There are all sorts of challenges associated with making progress towards your financial goals, but the first step is making a plan. Check out our sister podcast, Financial Decoder, and the episode “Are Financial Plans Just for The Wealthy?” to learn about the importance of financial planning and how to overcome some of the mental barriers to just getting started. You can find it at schwab.com/financialdecoder or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Standard economic theory suggests that the objective distance to a reward should be what matters when we’re pursuing a goal. What we’ve learned from Oleg Urminsky and his collaborators, though, is that the relative or perceived distance that leads people to speed up when we’re after a prize. The goal-gradient hypothesis and the progress illusion are double-edged swords.

On the one hand, you can use what you’ve learned today to help you achieve your goals. For instance, by dividing large goals into smaller sub-goals, you can leverage the motivation that comes from feeling closer to achieving each incremental goal. Say you have lots of bills to pay off. Rather than thinking of that as one big challenge, you may be better off tackling each one separately, starting with whichever has the highest interest rate and celebrating each victory as you go.

Similarly, by doing all the easy prep work on a big project first, you may find yourself more motivated to persist when you get to the hard part because you’ll already have progress under your belt, but you also have to consider the potential of being manipulated by this effect. Automated messages telling you you’re almost there when you’re clicking through a shopping website and considering a purchase may compel you to buy when the best option might be to pause and reconsider.

Clearly from a business perspective, there’s value in giving out loyalty cards loaded with a few extra stamps or points. The progress illusion produced will encourage your customers to keep coming back. If you’re a consumer, though, it’s probably good to take some of these offers with a grain of salt.

Katy Milkman: In general, it makes sense that the closer we get to the finish line, the harder we push to ensure we successfully cross it. And that’s especially true because we know that people rarely ignore sunk costs. We’ve even discussed that on a past episode of the show. But now that you know about the progress illusion, I hope you’ll be aware of the ways it can be used to trick you.

Katy Milkman: You’ve been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you’ve enjoyed the show, we’d be really grateful if you’d leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps other people find the show. You can also subscribe to the show for free in your favorite podcasting apps. That way you won’t miss an episode. Next time we’ll look at the way people’s choices can change when they’re looking at a decision in isolation or instead making comparisons side by side. I’m Dr. Katy Milkman. Talk to you next time.

Speaker 6: For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit schwab.com/podcast.

Important Disclosures

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