The Zeigarnik effect is used in entertainment, education, advertising and marketing throughout the world. It can be quite manipulative, but if used for good, rather than evil, it can be incredibly useful.
Some of the diverse characters to use it are Billy Connelly, Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, Stephen King and Charles Dickens, plus every single marketing professional you will ever meet.
So, what is this Ziegarnik effect? Well, it states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed ones. Or, in slightly more psychological language an incomplete task or unfinished business creates ‘psychic tension’ within us. This tension acts as a motivator to drive us toward completing the task.
We all want completion, whether it’s finishing Sudoku, crossing off items on a ‘to do’ list or doing the housework. You know what it’s like when you procrastinate, it’s impossible to concentrate on reading, watching television, or anything else. The longer we leave it, the more energy it drains from us. Conversely, when we complete a task and scribble it off the ‘to do’ list it will give us energy.
Encounters of a Zeigarnik kind
I first encountered this effect (Zeigarnik, not the energy rush) in the Maxime cinema Blackwood in the late 1970s where I used to watch Saturday morning pictures. Following the show there was the serial with Buck Rogers or a cowboy whose name I forget. And at the end was a ‘cliff hanger’ designed to keep you coming back for more. It worked.
In a slightly more sophisticated form, the Blair Witch Project achieved exactly the same effect in 1999. The incompletions went on for months. The amount of hype and ‘psychic tension’ created was unbearable. No one had ever used the Zeigarnik effect so well.
Comedian Billy Connelly uses it effectively as well, making his act a series of incompletions, building and releasing tension in a series of long, seemingly pointless but very funny, diatribes.
Charles Dickens and in recent times, Stephen King, published books in serial form to keep people interested and paying and it’s the staple for a lot of television today; EastEnders “I know who the murderer is” – cue drums.
For more than a bland one-dimensional piece of writing or any set of tasks you need a series of nested loops to maintain the tension. You introduce an idea, but before you resolve it you introduce another idea. The audience will stay with you, allowing you to introduce a key concept idea or advertising product until you complete all the loops.
Marketing people and advertisers have, of course, sucked the blood from this phenomenon. They use this technique unashamedly from the unsophisticated ‘coming soon to a cinema/supermarket/garage near you’ to the unsubtle Gold Blend – will they/won’t they – couple.
There is a good reason for this. It’s based on a theory by a Russian psychologist who was sitting in a restaurant in Vienna with the Polish born social psychologist Kurt Lewin in the 1920s and noticed something very interesting concerning the waiters…
But before I tell you what it was, here is some background on the psychologist Zeigarnik. She was Bluma Wulfowma Zeigarnik, a graduate of the University of Berlin. She was born in 1900 in Prienai, then Russian, now Lithuania.
Anyway she discovered, well, she (or Kurt Lewin, accounts vary) noticed that waiters could remember orders only so long as the order was in the process of being served. As soon as the order had been completed they totally forgot about it.
The best managers use it to keep people interested in presentations and boring work. It works best when it’s not manipulative. When you’re not deliberately teasing someone by withholding information. The best people know when to use it and when to stop. If people are desperate for information let them have it straight away. It’s a technique that should be used sparingly because initially it can hold people’s interest and keeps them gasping for more, eventually it just becomes irritating.
In marketing terms it seems to be the only marketing tool anyone has used since 1927, so it really must be time for another theory. So please, please can someone come up with a new way of influencing us? I’ve got one idea. It’s terrific, original and something you wouldn’t have expected... I guess I’ll leave it until next time.