The Zeigarnik Effect

March 27, 2014 Social Influence 1 comment

Russian psychologist/psychiatrist Bluma Zeigarnik (source of image)

What do video gamers, book worms and waiters taking multiple orders have in common?

Well, they usually remember what they have not completed until the task is done. And then, it literally gets wiped out of their system.

This is why leaving something incomplete actually leaves you wanting it more than completing it.

Named after Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, the Zeigarnik Effect is defined here as…

“the tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about an objective that was once pursued and left incomplete.”

An unavoidable signal to our conscious mind that a previous activity was left hanging, the Zeigarnik effect causes us to experience cognitive dissonance.

In other words, any form of interruption to an activity, job or project leaves us feeling unnerved and jittery. A neurological reminder will be triggered in our minds, nagging us to complete the task at hand before we can “move on” from there.

Gaming Interrupted

The world of online role playing games are full of these situations.

Led from one scenario to another, you need to gain credits, slay foes, earn bonuses, buy weapons, or discover gems in order to complete certain levels. Only after you have completed the entire quest will you be able to put down your game controller (or laptop) and get on with real life.

Imagine playing your favourite game, be it World of Warcraft, Minecraft, or Candy Crush Saga. Suddenly, your mother/wife/kid pops over and snatches the device out of your hand.

How would you feel?

Chances are that you’ll be angry and irritated, even though you know that you ought to empty the rubbish, walk the dog or start on your homework.

Seeking Closure

In short, we all seek closure. Nobody wants to be left hanging – in a project, job, relationship, book or video game.

Everybody’s waiting for Star Wars Episode 7 (courtesy of Screen Crush)

The Zeigarnik effect is the reason why franchises like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter are hugely successful.

The creators of these entertainment icons know that once we’ve invested ourselves in “following” the adventures of their beloved characters, we’re addicted to chasing after each and every episode, book, and game until our thirst for completeness is quenched.

Zeigarnik Effect and Marketing

What about marketing? Is there scope for us to apply the Zeigarnik effect here?

Well, here are some thoughts to begin with:

1) Make your corporate, product or brand advertising appear to be “incomplete”. Find a way to ask a question or end the message with a cliffhanger. By doing so, your audience is left wandering – and perhaps a little preoccupied – over what’s going to happen next.

2) Find a way to roll out your products or services in an episodic and sequential manner. After each chapter, leave your audiences wanting more, providing teasers to what they can expect with the next “installment”.

3) Give your customers opportunities to “collect” products or experiences that form part of a greater set. Learn from companies like fast food giant McDonald’s and their famous/infamous “Hello Kitty” plush toy campaign. Package it such that getting the whole set becomes infinitely more valuable than just one, two, or five.

4) Weave multiple “tasks” or “stages” into your processes. As your customers complete each step, they’ll not only be rewarded with a tiny jolt of dopamine (a feel good hormone), but will be spurred to move closer to their goal of finishing everything.

The next time you seek to roll out a brand new line of products or services, consider applying the “Jedi mind trick” of the Zeigarnik effect. Let me know if it works, or if it doesn’t.

To be continued….

By Walter
Founder of Cooler Insights, I am a geek marketer with almost 24 years of senior management experience in marketing, public relations and strategic planning. Since becoming an entrepreneur 5 years ago, my team and I have helped 58 companies and over 2,200 trainees in digital marketing, focusing on content, social media and brand storytelling.

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