The Zeigarnik Effect: How To Create A Magnetic Attentional Pull

Have you ever found that procrastination comes at the end of a milestone? As your eyes hurriedly finish a chapter, you quickly close the book and open Twitter. As you’ve finished an essay question, you reward yourself by delving into YouTube, only to emerge several hours later, now several hours behind work.

A brilliant psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik spotted this too. Only she noticed this about a local waiter with an impeccable memory. It’s not that he procrastinated, in fact it was the opposite. He spent every evening, juggling multiple large orders, much to the amazement of Zeigarnik and her fellow Berlin psychologist friends. Despite no writing pad, or written record of any description, the waiter remembered every order… until he didn’t.

Zeigarnik asked the waiter to recall one of his usual orders after he had delivered the order to a table. And he couldn’t do it. It was well within his capabilities to remember before setting the dishes down on the table, he proved that several times over each night.

What Zeigarnik found was that once we’ve completed something (e.g delivering an order) we have a cognitive spring clean and redirect attentional resources away from finished tasks onward to unfished tasks. In fact, we are able to remember details of interrupted tasks around 90% better than the equivalent completed tasks. As Robert Cialdini puts it in Pre-Suasion “That desire — which also pushes us to return to incomplete narratives, unresolved problems, unanswered questions, and unachieved goals — reflects a craving for cognitive closure”. There’s an attentional magnetic pull that keeps individuals wired and on task that dissipates when no longer needed. Hence why the desire to keep reading vanishes as you finish the chapter, and the desire to scroll through Twitter overtakes.

It’s something that I’ve noticed about one of my favourite writers: Malcolm Gladwell. In almost everything he writes, his stories are interwoven; starting with Story A before moving aside and inspecting Story B and then finally sewing them together. By starting with Story A he creates an unfished task, a magnetic pull that lingers as you read through a completely separate story and only vanishes at the interweaving conclusion. He uses the Zeigarnik effect effortlessly.

I noticed it while watching the 2014 film Whiplash too. The film follows a fairly typical narrative, until the climax. Smacked by the proverbial drum cymbal only moments before, the protagonist storms on stage and captivates the crowd with a long drum solo, rapidly growing in intensity, never wavering from the perfect ‘tempo’ before, finally, the band joins in with a wave of orchestral support — roll credits. Most films would have half an hour extra of reconciliations, standing ovations, winning back the girlfriend, hugging parents, scholarship committee meetings, superhero schwama outings. There is no Act 4. The film ends on the climax, and it’s this fact that makes it so memorable. Can advertising learn from this too?

In fact, advertising has known about this for a long time. Zeigarnik produced her study in the 1920s, and inspired by this, Heimbach and Jacoby produced an even more relevant study in the 1970s. They found that people remember advertising better, even 1 week later, if the advert was cut 5 seconds before it’s natural end point. This potent technique generated 34% more immediate recall and 52% recall one week later, versus the completed un-cut advert. These figures correlated with brand awareness too. Now, you might argue it’s not preferential to shave 5 seconds of an advert, especially as that’s where the branding usually sits. Also, if everyone did this, TV would be unwatchable.

Zeigarnik would argue, I think, that advertising doesn’t necessarily need 5 seconds chopped of a TV ad. What it needs is to look for are attentional magnetic pulls. What stories, information, ratings, reviews, pictures, promotions, exhibits, behaviours can be left unfinished, so as not to be redirected in the proceeding cognitive spring clean? How can advertising tell you a story whilst leaving the hook unresolved all with the intention of being memorable? I think the answer to this is -


Most info is taken from Pre-Suasion by Cialdini, with additional stats taken from the 1972 Heimbach and Jacobly study ‘The Zeigarnik effect in Advertising’.