The race goes not to the swift ... but to those who can visualize the finish
By Susan Trulove
Whether you are swimming in the Olympics or saving for a vacation, being able to visualize your goal will help you reach it. Visualizing a goal can even help you persist in more mundane activities, like waiting for help online.
"And the easier a goal is to see, the closer it seems," says Rajesh Bagchi, assistant professor of marketing in the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech.
The germ of the idea, about the effect of being able to see a goal, was planted in Bagchi's mind the summer of 2006 as he was rushing to class at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "I noticed that, of two paths from my office, I preferred the one that allowed me to see my destination sooner, which led me to believe – erroneously – that the building was closer."
Bagchi discussed this perception of distance with his friend Amar Cheema. "He had a lot of interesting insights. He suggested looking at swimmers to see if this basic idea can be replicated in the real world."
Flash forward: Cheema is now associate professor of marketing with the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia. He and Bagchi have studied the effect of goal visualization on goal pursuit and reported their results in the March 2011 Journal of Marketing.
Findings that commitment increased when closer to a goal were presented as early as the 1930s by the famous American psychologist Clark Hull, who reported that rats run progressively faster as they approach food. "We also found research in environmental design that confirmed our observation about visibility and perceived distance," says Cheema.
What Cheema and Bagchi brought to the study of goal pursuit was the realization that visualization is valuable and useful in reaching abstract goals as well as physical destinations.
Being marketing professors, they suggest a scenario where salespeople are offered a trip to Hawaii if they achieve sales 20 percent above the annual target. If progress is reported visually by showing a bar filling, the sales staff will be more energized than if progress is reported numerically, as dollars or percent of sales.
"The same thing happens if you are saving for a vacation with a definite goal and you see an image of a piggy bank filling up, instead of the dollar total only," says Bagchi.
Cheema suggests that even drawing a graph representing your savings will provide motivation. "The gap of what remains appears smaller in the picture than if you are simply looking at the dollar amount," he says. "Progress is important. When what is left seems smaller than the number, that is when the motivation happens."
One example is the fundraising thermometer that fills as donation amounts approach the goal. At Virgnia Tech, huge thermometer cutouts are posted at the entrances to campus each year during the Commonwealth of Virginia (charitable) Campaign. The thermometer should not be put up until there are already contributions to report, Bagchi says. "The beneficial effect of visualization occurs when we can focus on the goal, and this is more likely to happen when the goal is near."
Physical goals and proximity
Cheema and Bagchi studied swimming competitions and then carried out four experiments – one requiring physical effort, two in marketing contexts, and one in a sales context. "We manipulate visualization in different ways across the studies," says Cheema.
Before they settled on swimming as the real-world study, Cheema and Bagchi also toyed with the idea of looking at runners or bicyclists or even horses. "But it was hard to find situations where end-goal visibility would be easy or difficult," says Bagchi. "We started by looking at the 2004 Olympics and were amazed at how well our hypotheses were supported. We then looked through other swimming data and, to our amazement, all the data sets showed similar patterns of effects. We used this as the springboard to then study whether we can replicate these effects from physical settings in more abstract settings."
To determine effort during the race, the researchers grouped times into three segments so that they could discern the expected slowing over time and any difference of times in the laps away from the finish line compared to those toward the finish line. "As the 50 meters away from the finish line precedes the 50 meters towards the finish, expectedly, participants swim away faster than they do towards the end that hosts the finish line, owing to fatigue. However, the difference in times taken to swim the away section and the towards section decreases as one approaches the finish of the race," says Bagchi.
Cheema, who ran several 10K races in Boulder, explains in the context of running. "The second half of a run is often referred to as 'running downhill' because it is psychologically easier."
The physical experiment conducted in the lab required individuals to sustain their grip for 130 seconds on a hand dynamometer, a gauge that records force exerted. Half of the subjects could see a bar on a computer screen fill as the 130 seconds passed. The other half saw a stopwatch; however, 130 seconds required 4.33 cycles of the watch hand, "so it was not so easy to visualize progress," says Bagchi.
"As individuals approached the goal, effort declined more steeply for participants who had the stopwatch image. While fatigue led to a decline in the force exerted over time, this decline was less steep for the people who could easily visualize the goal relative to those who could not," says Bagchi.
Abstract goals and visualization
The marketing experiments addressed real-life situations: The first the pleasant happenstance of saving for a vacation, and the second the all-too-realistic likelihood of waiting for software support via a live chat with a technician.
In the software-support scenario, the participants were told they are trying to install software that could help them edit pictures before printing. When purchasing the software, they had expected it to be compatible with their computer. However, they found out later that additional drivers need to be installed for the software to work. These drivers are available on the vendor's website, and the participants need to contact the vendor to access the drivers. It is Friday evening when they log onto the vendor website to find the drivers. They click on a "chat" button to start a text conversation with a service agent, and a message informs them that the wait is 13 minutes.
Half the participants saw a visual representation of a bar that was shaded, while the remaining participants were informed about the number of minutes they had been waiting. "Among participants near the goal, those in the easy-to-visualize condition are more likely to persist than those in the hard-to-visualize condition," says Bagchi. "More significantly, participants who are near the goal reported greater progress.
"Interestingly, for participants who are far from the goal, those in the easy-to-visualize condition perceive the goal to be farther; that is, they report less progress than those in the hard-to-visualize condition," says Bagchi.
Cheema explains that in visualization, the focus is not the active filling of the bar, but the decreasing unfilled portion. "It is the smallness of the task remaining that strengthens commitment."
The waiting-for-service scenario was not inspired by Bagchi's experience as an online client, but rather by a time in his life when he was the technical support specialist for whom clients were waiting. "Often, consumers would be upset with me by the time I answered, even though I and many of my colleagues were working extra hard to keep our consumers happy. We were often responding to scores of calls in a day. It was unfortunate for the consumer to have to spend such long times waiting to speak to one of us," he says.
"This research provides one way to provide information about wait time that can reduce tension," says Bagchi.
Waiting time is an important issue in many service settings or marketing interactions, he says. One application could be managing perception of wait times as Web pages load in a browser. A filling bar may decrease perceptions of loading time, so individuals persist longer relative to hard-to-visualize representations, such as a spinning wheel.
In the final study, salespeople were told to finish selling to 20 clients as soon as possible. A second part of this study looked at the effect of setting subgoals. "Unpacking a goal into subgoals can make the tasks more manageable and may increase effort and performance," says Cheema. "But, on the other hand, splitting a goal into multiple subgoals may also shift motivational focus away from the main goal. We found this to be the case when distance to the goal is well-known and information is certain, such as in selling quickly to 20 clients."
Each sale required participants to click through Web pages. "So it was a physical exercise for an abstract goal," says Bagchi. Progress was reported as either a bar filling up or numeric information.
The researchers measured the time it took to click through the pages and then ran a statistical analysis, which showed that salespeople who had the bar fill as an indicator of progress moved more quickly.
"Most marketing undergraduates are surprised that they have to learn to master data analyses techniques. However, most of what we study in marketing requires the use of analytics," says Bagchi. His research scenarios make such skills relevant.
The sales experiment once again demonstrated the motivational effect of goal visualization and proximity, where participants had a financial incentive to perform well, and demonstrated that a well-visualized abstract goal, such as making a sale, elicits commitment as if it were a physical goal.
Findings regarding presenting a goal in a consolidated fashion are applicable in other contexts too, says Bagchi. "For example, a goal to lose 20 pounds has a better chance of success than four successive subgoals to lose five pounds."
"In the context of physical distance perceptions, seeing the destination provides real progress information. Our research results suggest that we process visual representations in a manner similar to distance, influencing perceptions of proximity and effort as we pursue everyday tasks or make decisions about investing time and effort for a particular outcome," says Bagchi.
"Visualization is powerful," says Cheema.