The Netflix Runner

Now that I am watching the new season of my favorite series The Blacklist, I notice I am speeding up near the end of this season. Every night I watch more episodes and stay up later than the night before. I realize that this acceleration doesn’t only happen when binge watching Netflix. It also happens when I go for a run. What are the reasons behind this acceleration and how it can be used when exercising and trying to eat healthy.

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– How to use the insights from behavioral science to improve your health and wellbeing –

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Below you see a typical summary of my pace during a 6.7 kilometer run. I start out slowly and then pick up a pace around 6 minutes for each kilometer. However, when I am reaching the last kilometer I speed up. It is strange that the last kilometer is the fastest, because I have already covered nearly 6 km. I should be more likely to slow down, because I’m getting tired.

Goal-gradient effect when running: speeding up during the last kilometer.

I experience the same phenomenon when I am watching Netflix. I am currently watching season 7 of the Netflix series The Blacklist. Whenever possible I watch multiple episodes of The Blacklist. Sometimes too many episodes and then it is getting late. When I pause an episode that is nearly finished – say 10 minutes left- I am much more likely to finish watching the episode than when it is only half way through. It is much more easy to stop watching if the episode is half way through, although in both cases I am left in suspense of what will happen next to Raymond Reddington. Sounds familiar? Now why is this the case?

Both examples show my irrational behavior of speeding up my behavior when the goal is near. The underlying principle is the same for both watching Netflix and finishing my run, and as a consequence I have come to see myself as The Netflix Runner. Both are demonstrations of the goal-gradient effect and have been know by both scientists and business owners for some time now.

The goal-gradient effect

As people get closer to a reward, they speed up their behavior to get to their goal. This effect is known as the goal-gradient effect. This effect was beautifully demonstrated in an experiment by the psychological researchers Kivetz, Urminsky & Zheng in 2006.

They performed a study in a coffee shop where customers made coffee purchases using a frequent-coffee buyer card. When customers completed the frequent-coffee buyer card, they received a free cup of coffee. Some of the customers received a “Buy 10 Cups” card. Other customers received a “Buy 12 Cups” card with two bonus stamps. So both groups of customers had to buy 10 cups of coffee to complete the card.

Two frequent-coffee buyer cards: “Buy 10 cups” (left) and “Buy 12 cups” with two bonus stamps (right)

The results showed that customers using the “Buy 10 Cups” card completed the card in 29 days. The customers using the “Buy 12 Cups” card (with two bonus stamps) completed the card in 24 days. Thus, because this latter group seemed closer to their goal, they speeded up their behavior to get to their goal and completed the card 16% faster than the first group. Many companies employ this principle to enhance customer experience.

Dominos Live Pizza Tracker

When I recently ordered a pizza at Domino’s, I first went through the process of selecting the food and paying. When that was done I had already completed the first part of the process, which was now green. When I checked back some five minutes later, it was already in phase 3: pizza in the oven. Great: already half of the waiting time behind me!

Dominos Live Pizza Tracker: Placed order > Preparation > In the oven > Ready in store > Delivery > Rate your order

At the moment the pizza arrives in the longest phase in the process – delivering the pizza – the process is already at phase 5 out of 6 (=83%). Whereas the first 4 phases take about 10 minutes all together, the delivery at my place can take about 15 minutes. So actually only 40% (10 minutes dived by 10+15 minutes) has passed, but it feels like the process is 83% done and that pizza is almost there!

Improve your health and wellbeing

We’ve talked a lot in our blogs about how to start a new habit, but have not talked much about maintaining your habit. The goal gradient effect may help you maintain our habits, and all you need to do is keep track of your progress. So, for example:

  • When you want to eat vegetables 3 times a week, then stick a Post-It to your fridge, write down when you plan to eat vegetables that week and check the box when you eat them. Once you have eaten vegetables once, the next one will be easier. As you get closer to reaching your goal, you speed up your behavior and eat the last vegetables quickly.
  • When you want to drink less alcohol for a month, then draw 30 boxes on a chalkboard and cross off a box for each day you do not drink. Once you have checked your first boxes, it becomes easier to abstain from alcohol. As you get closer to reaching your goal, you are more motivated to abstain from alcohol the last couple of days.
  • When you want to take a stroll during your lunch break at least 3 times a week, keep track of how you are progressing towards your goal each week. Or for the Dutch users, install the Ommetje App and invite your colleagues. The more distance you cover, the easier it becomes to walk the next day as well.

Two tips may be helpful to get you started:

  1. First, very little wiggle room. This means setting clearly defined rules or standards. It is a rule with unambiguous interpretation and very little wiggle room. For example, you need to define whether your week starts on Sundays or on Mondays in two of the three examples earlier.  
  2. Second, you need to counteract the post-reward reset phenomenon. This happens when motivation drops to the baseline after a goal has been reached. So plan ahead a little. For example, instead of starting over after a week of eating vegetables, extent your goal to eating vegetables 12 times that month, with 3 bonus checks for eating vegetables last week: steady start at 25% of your goal!

Binge watching

Now that I am reaching the end of this season of The Blacklist, I even find myself watching increasingly more episodes. After all, the end of the season reveals how it all ends! Right? Not right: the final episode of a season always leaves me with more eagerness to watch the next season. But I know why this is and I can use the goal gradient effect to improve my health and wellbeing. Can you as well?

The Netflix Runner Click To Tweet

Niels Vink (1975) is a behavioral economist and sports enthusiast. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior. He lives and works (out) in Haarlem.

Want to know how you can get your marketing, communication and sales in better shape? Drop me an email at niels@behavioralinsight.nl


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