… you may have felt an involuntary, possibly almost overwhelming pull to want to read these next lines following the truncated, incomplete headline. Let’s look at why this might be.

In her 1962 work “The Pathology of Thinking”, Russian psychologist Blyuma Zeigarnik had first reported her studies on a curious phenomenon: People in all sorts of situations could remember incomplete tasks or issues much more readily than completed ones. This therefore became known as the Zeigarnik Effect.

She had been a student of one of the proponents of so-called Gestalt Psychology, Kurt Lewin, and it was this school of psychological thought that had first brought up the issues of Foreground/Background awareness and perceptual processing.

[You may have seen one or more of the famous Gestalt images that can take on different appearance and even rapidly alternate between two interpretations, e.g. the image of an old woman can change into a young woman or vice-versa].

Another psychologist heavily influenced by Gestalt thinking was Fritz Perls, the creator of the more practically oriented Gestalt Therapy movement, which you may have hard of. He famously saw “the unfinished business of one’s life” as likely one of the primary causes for personal blocks, issues, and so forth.

Back to the question of how this all relates to the question of unfinished headlines, Email subject lines, and even stories:

You may have heard a professional public speaker use a technique called “opening up a metaphor”, which simply means to begin telling a story and then cutting it off at about 80-90%, ideally at the point of maximum suspense.

Why? Because it keeps the audience’s minds open and on alert, scanning for when the speaker might relinquish that last missing bit of information on “how the story ends”. In the process you will be more likely to have good absorption of the presented materials, which is what the speaker likely had in mind.

The downside of this technique is that you may get someone from the audience with such a strong response to it that in the right sort of setting (smaller, more open, less formal), one or more audience members may actually be clamoring for the information:

“Hey, you didn’t finish your story… !?” Which brings up group dynamics issues of a different sort unless you know how to properly handle this type of situation.

It turns out the strength of this response (the “Zeigarnik Effect”), is strongly correlated to the Myers-Briggs personality dimension of Judger(J)/Perceiver(P):

The more you tend toward the Judger end of the spectrum, the higher should be your perceived need for closure, for having the story finished. Conversely, if you tend far toward the Perceiver end, you may notice that something was left unfinished, but you just may not care that much at all.

Luckily for public speakers, most people will fall somewhere in between those extremes.

So, you may already know what’s coming next… this is the part where I tell you that I’ll tell you more about how specifically this effect is used in Marketing and Advertising, actually to such an extent and to such great effect that some marketing gurus call it the “most hypnotic” marketing technique ever.

So go ahead set your internal clock for the continuation of this post one week from now.

63 thoughts on “The Zeigarnik Effect explains why…

  1. Interesting how much we are being manipulated with every turn we take these days. I wonder how much this technique is being used for more sinister ways…

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