Progress and Loss

Illustrating both progress and loss are two twin techniques of effort manipulation where you both:

  • Make something seem as if it’s already in progress, which makes it sound less effortful;
  • Illustrate negatively how it would be to actively stop this now, which makes it seem more effortful to stop;

In short, if the person is in the process of buying, for example, you don’t make the purchase seem like a big step that comes out of nowhere. You make this seem like a progress that is mostly done, and the purchase is just the natural continuation, requiring no effort.

Underlying Psychology/Biases

This works because you are changing the perceived effort of both continuing and stopping:

  • You are making a purchase/doing your ask seem like less effort, because it’s not a manual action, starting, out of nowhere, it’s just a natural continuation, which is less effort;
  • You make stopping seem like something big, active, manual that the person must do, versus being something natural;

There are two types of biases that empower these principles:

  • Availability bias is the bias triggered by illustrating progress.
    • When you make it seem like the person has already progressed, it seems the purchase is more available. It’s closer to them. It’s just the next step, versus something big;
    • There’s also a small element of streamlining here. When you make a process more structured, it does seem simpler, so the person is more likely to buy (you’re reducing uncertainty – it’s 3 steps versus ??? steps);
  • Loss aversion is the bias triggered by illustrating loss (the person will be afraid to lose all they’ve achieved so far);
    • And to some extent, the sunk cost fallacy (“I started it, so I may as well finish it”) as well as the endowment effect (the person likes this relationship/progress more because they’ve already put effort into it);


  • To illustrate progress
    • You want to bring structure into the progress;
    • There are two similar ways to do it:
      • Number of steps progressed
        • “We are already at step 2 of 5!”;
      • Percentage progressed
        • “We are already at 35% of the way there!”;
      • Both make it seem like the person has already made progress, so the purchase seems like less effort, and stopping seems like they are wasting their progress;
      • There is a mental trick related to the 50% mark;
        • When the progress is less than 50%, focus on what has been done;
        • When it’s more than 50%, focus on what is left;
        • “We’ve already taken 3 out of 7 steps“;
        • “There’s only 1 out of 7 steps left“;
  • To illustrate loss
    • Ask about stopping in an accusatory way (a technique to remove exits called “inquisitorial confirmation“);
    • “John, do you really want to stop now and waste all this work?”;
    • “Richard, do you really want to throw this all away and choose another product?”;
    • It won’t prevent the person from leaving if they really want to, but it will make it a lot harder;
    • An interesting angle to use is the exclusivity one
      • By making it seem not a lot of people get to this point, they are being excluded from this group by leaving;
      • “Are you sure that you want to leave? Not a lot of people make it to this point. Do you want to leave this exclusive group?”;
      • It’s illustrating loss paired with exclusion confirmation;



  • “You’ll lose progress”
    • Every time that you try to quit a videogame or document without saving, it will ask, “Are you sure you want to quit? You’ll lose progress”;
    • It’s an example of both illustrating loss and removing exits;
  • “We’re almost there”
    • What parents say to children to (hopefully) get them to calm down;
    • Illustrating the progress done so far and the little that remains;
  • “Are you sure?”
  • Letting go of all
    • In movies or TV shows, the protagonist will want to change their life at some point and leave it all behind;
    • And someone, usually a family member or friend, will ask, “Are you sure that you want to leave this all behind?”;
  • “You won’t find better”
    • Usually said by people during breakups in relationships;
    • The technique itself is well used here, but in this case, there is usually so much baggage that the question itself doesn’t do much at this point;
  • “Not many get here”
    • Using the exclusivity angle to illustrate loss;
    • Not just illustrating what they lose, but them being removed from an exclusive group;
    • “Not a lot of people make it to this stage. Are you sure that you want to quit?”;


  • Gym reps
    • Intelligent training programs (and videogames like Ring Fit Adventure) will illustrate progress differently;
    • There’s 40 reps to do
      • Until you reach 20, you will hear, “You’ve done 1/2/3”;
      • After you’ve reached 20, you will hear, “Just 20/10/5 left”;

Commercial/Known Uses

Key Takeaways

  • Both illustrating progress and loss change the mental effort associated with something;
    • When something seems to be in progress, it’s easier to continue it;
    • When something is in progress, it’s also harder to actively stop it;
    • These work by triggering a powerful cocktail of biases;
      • While both trigger mental effort bias – and possibly the endowment effect – illustrating loss in specific also triggers loss aversion and the sunk cost bias;
  • You can illustrate progress using both a percentage of progress or the number of steps;
    • Remember the 50% rule. Before progress hits 50%, illustrate what has been reached, and when it’s more than 50%, illustrate what is left;