Keeping score is a common method of motivation. But new research shows that even if the score itself has no inherent meaning, it can serve as an effective motivator, as long as the score is accelerating.

In the study, “Numerical Nudging: Using an Accelerating Score to Enhance Performance,” in the journal Psychological Science, University of Chicago Booth School of Business Professor Christopher K. Hsee and Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Assistant Professor Luxi Shen find that an accelerating number – even if the number itself is meaningless – can significantly affect performance.

“In this current digital age, it’s easy to imagine a number on the panel of a digital device to nudge people to change their actions,” Hsee said. “And it can help practitioners from game designers to marketers make better use of scores and points to influence behavior.”

We all know that people like high scores, but what is less known is how to give scores, said Shen, who began the research as a PhD scholar at Chicago Booth.

“Our research shows that what matters is neither how high the score is nor how fast the score increases, but rather the way it increases," said Shen. "It’s most motivating if the score first increases at a relatively slow rate and then increases faster and faster.”

In a series of six experiments, the researchers explored the potential of strategically using numbers that carried no substantive information, in other words an “X” number, to alter behavior.  Participants were asked to perform ongoing tasks, such as taking steps on a step machine or typing the same word as many times as possible on a computer, while watching a number change as they performed the task.

One experiment, run in a private gym room in Shanghai, China, asked 74 men to climb as many steps on a step machine as possible. Each participant performed four total rounds of exercise with each round lasting two minutes. The top performer in each round received a cash prize. The control group in the experiment had a standard step machine that measured basic workout information, such as time elapsed and number of steps taken. The other two groups had an additional “X” number described as a score. That score changed as they took steps, but it provided no meaningful information and it wasn’t linked to any reward. One group saw the “X” score accelerate, and the other group saw the “X” score decelerate.

Even as the participants grew fatigued in the last round, the group with the accelerating score generated more effort than both the control group and the group with the decelerating score.

In another experiment, participants were asked to complete online surveys evaluating advertisements. The participants were told that the three people who completed the highest number of surveys would receive a cash prize. Every time a participant completed a survey, the computer screen displayed a number of points, a meaningless figure the researchers again called the “X” number.

The researchers manipulated the pattern of the points to examine the survey takers’ motivations and found that the participants seeing an accelerating “X” number completed significantly more surveys than those seeing a decelerating figure. All three top performers in the task came from the accelerating “X” number group.

It turns out when it comes to keeping score, acceleration matters. People are more motivated by numbers that increase faster and faster than by numbers that increase at a steady fast rate.

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