In 2004, a professional car wash in a big city gave away 300 loyalty cards with spaces that would receive stamps upon subsequent washes. 150 customers got a card with eight empty spaces, and the other 150 got a card with 10 spaces, two of them already stamped. The rules: a fully stamped card entitled the holder to a free carwash.
Objectively, each group had to do the same thing – get eight more car washes – to earn a free wash. So assuming true random distribution of the cards, there should have been no difference in the customers’ behavior between the groups, right?
Actually, one group got more washes and more stamps. Can you guess which one?
It was the group with 10 spaces, two of them already filled. After 3 and a half months, 34% of this group filled up their card, vs. just 19% of the 8-space group.
Why on earth?
The Endowed Progress Effect
The researchers surmised that the group with 10 spaces felt like they had already made progress toward their goal – 20% of the way, in fact. While the other group, which needed only eight stamps, was starting at zero.
They termed this phenomenon the “Endowed Progress” Effect.
That is, the researchers endowed the 10-space group with the idea that they had already moved partly along the road to redemption (of the free car wash, that is).
Application of the Endowed Progress Effect in Health Improvement
Why is this insight so important to those of us trying to improve our diets and lifestyles and working to help others improve theirs?
Simply this: the more progress we think we’ve already made, the more invested we become in continuing the journey. We feel the momentum, we don’t want to lose what we’ve already “gained,” and we continue on the path.
Most of my clients, when we begin working together, think that they’re starting at zero in at least one domain of their life:
“I don’t exercise.”
“I don’t eat healthy food.”
“I’m always sleep-deprived.”
Sometimes that assessment is largely correct. I read clients’ food journals and marvel at how little whole plant food they’re consuming. But that doesn’t matter.
Coaching to Endow Progress
My job, if I want them to change, is to show them how much progress they’ve already made. If all they eat is Big Macs, I go through the 1970s jingle that still runs on an endless loop in my brain: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.”
“Hey, you already eat lettuce, onions, and sesame seeds.”
I find the spinach in their lasagna, the carrots in their carrot cake, the rice and bell peppers on their fajita platter. I show that they already eat lots of whole plant foods during their day. I give them two stamps, in other words, rather than insisting they start from zero.
Endowing Progress for Exercise
It’s easy to do the same thing with exercise. Even if they don’t work out and sit at a desk all day, they still walk to their desk. They go up and down stairs. They steer their car. Doesn’t matter how little or how silly. The key is to reconceptualize that perceived “zero” as a 20 out of 100.
One study that showed precisely this was conducted by maverick social scientist Ellen Langer. She told a group of hotel room cleaners who did not exercise much (67%) or at all (33%) that they actually were exercising, and gave them precise calorie counts for all their room cleaning activities (vacuuming was clocked at 200 calories per hour, in case you’re interested). And she told them how good exercise is for us.
A second group of cleaners (the controls in the experiment) were given information on the benefits of exercising, but not told that their jobs were considered exercise. Nor were they given calorie counts for their work activities.
The result was fascinating: on average, the “cleaning rooms is exercise” group lost 1.8 pounds over three weeks, while the control group didn’t lose any weight.
And here’s the kicker: the first group didn’t change their exercise patterns. They didn’t work more. They didn’t eat differently. They just… lost weight.
But how? Are bathroom scales susceptible to the placebo effect? Not that we know of.
Chip Heath and Dan Heath, co-authors of Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, offer the Endowed Progress effect as an explanation: once the room cleaners believed they were already exercisers, they were already 20% of the way to 100%.
So now, perhaps, they scrubbed sinks more vigorously, took multiple trips to the linen cart, engaged in squats (and I like to think pirouettes) as they vacuumed, and generally burned more calories.
Maybe they started adopting other “regular life as exercise” habits like parking farther from the entrance and taking stairs instead of elevators.
You have probably made more progress than you think
So if you’re trying to get fit and well, why not endow yourself with some progress? Often, all this entails is cutting ourselves some slack, relegating the Vicious Inner Critic to a corner, and realistically assessing how far you’ve already come.
Sometimes, you might have to engage in “creative reinterpretation” – but that doesn’t make it not true. Unless you’re Lord Kelvin, you have no idea where absolute zero is. All things being equal, it’s much more useful to assume that you’re some way along the path.
If you’re working on your diet, look for and write down all the “good foods” you already eat. Whole grain toast? Oatmeal for breakfast? Salad? Soup with veggies in it?
See, you’re already well on your way. Just eight more stamps and you get a free car wash!
This isn't about “progress, not perfection.” It's about progress TOWARD perfection.
I'm not trying to say that 20% is good enough. The goal of the car wash card wasn’t to stay at 20% stamped. Even 90% gets you nothing but a crumpled card in your wallet. You've got to go all the way to get any tangible benefit.
Rather, the Endowed Progress principle tells us that it’s easier to continue doing something that to start something new. A simple mental trick can overcome inertia, one of the biggest enemies of change.
And hey, good news! By reading this article, you're 20% of the way toward signing up as a member of Triangle Be Well 😉