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Psychol Sci. 2011 May;22(5):607-12. doi: 10.1177/0956797611404899. Epub 2011 Apr 7.

Stuck in the middle: the psychophysics of goal pursuit.

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Department of Marketing, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208, USA.


The classic goal-gradient hypothesis posits that motivation to reach a goal increases monotonically with proximity to the desired end state. However, we argue that this is not always the case. In this article, we show that motivation to engage in goal-consistent behavior can be higher when people are either far from or close to the end state and lower when they are about halfway to the end state. We propose a psychophysical explanation for this tendency to get "stuck in the middle." Building on the assumption that motivation is influenced by the perceived marginal value of progress toward the goal, we show that the shape of the goal gradient varies depending on whether an individual monitors progress in terms of distance from the initial state or from the desired end state. Our psychophysical model of goal pursuit predicts a previously undiscovered nonmonotonic gradient, as well as two monotonic gradients.

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