Really. It’s the Journey that Counts

Nathan Novemsky and Ravi Dhar seek to understand how a dynamic sense of progress influences the perceived value of a reward

December 21, 2015

Most goals are achieved with the helpful prod of rewards. Dieters stick with a program for good health and svelte looks. Workplaces tie promotion and better compensation to achieving performance goals. Even when shoppers make purchases, these purchases can be turned into the pursuit of a goal: buy ten coffees and the eleventh is free.

For these reasons, among others, marketers have long scrutinized how individual motivation to achieve a goal changes depending on the distance from reaching that goal. A 2011 study, for example, found that people are more motivated to work toward their goals when they are near or far from completion rather than in the middle. However, surprisingly little research has examined how a dynamic sense of progress influences the perceived value of the reward.

Seeking to fill this gap, Jongmin Kim at Singapore Management University, with Nathan Novemsky and Ravi Dhar at the Yale School of Management, designed seven experiments to probe the question. Their main hypothesis, which held up to testing, was that a reward associated with goal achievement would be considered more valuable when people experienced a greater feeling of movement toward the goal, even if the actual amount of movement was the same. In other words, feeling progress makes the pot sweeter.

Through a variety of tests they manipulated the feeling of movement among study participants while keeping actual efforts and movement constant. They found clear results. For instance, when progress markers were used as evidence of progress on a task, people were more satisfied with their reward. But by undoing feelings of progress toward a goal the researchers were able to decrease the valuation of a reward. Partially explaining these results may be a misattribution of positive feelings—that is, feelings of movement toward a goal induce pleasure, and consumers misattribute this pleasure to the reward they receive.

Through a series of experimental variations, the authors stripped away competing hypotheses—that this result might be due to feelings of effort exerted, for instance—and tested mechanisms for increasing the sense of progress toward a goal. They also developed a series of untested new hypotheses, like whether bodily sensations of movement could operate like actual movement toward a goal. Might, for example, people perceive a greater sense of movement toward completing a task when they do the task on a moving train?

The findings of this study bear directly on one of marketing’s most fundamental tools: reward programs. Feelings of movement toward rewards vary depending on how frequently progress markers appear during goal pursuit, and this variation can affect how much consumers value the ultimate reward; people who earn 100 points per dollar in an effort to accumulate 1,000 points will experience a different degree of movement—and thus reward valuation—than people who earn 10 points per dollar towards 100 points. Likewise, companies may want to send consumers a reward activity update only when they have substantial activity to report rather than on regular time intervals; sending monthly statements indicating no progress could undermine consumers’ feelings of progress. On another front, displaying reminders of progress in a workplace may increase perceptions of movement and improve how employees feel about their reward.

 “By understanding the importance of feelings of movement,” conclude the authors, “firms can be more effective in managing consumer and employee satisfaction.”