Zeigarnik Effect

Wesley Chang
Dec 15, 2015 · 5 min read
need to fill the gap…


The essence of The Zeigarnik Effect is “incompleteness”. When things are left incomplete, we feel uncomfortable and our attention remains drawn to it until we can find some kind of resolution. In fact, some of the highest-selling books and highest-rating Television shows are built upon The Zeigarnik Effect, but more on that shortly … First, let’s clear a common confusion between The Zeigarnik Effect and curiosity. The two are not synonymous as often claimed. Curiosity is one of the reactions to, or an effect of, The Zeigarnik Effect. As well as curiosity, The Zeigarnik Effect gives rise to other emotions, such as uncertainty, discomfort and confusion. For example:

If I were to tell you a story and depart without finishing the end, I would be using The Zeigarnik Effect on you. The information I imparted through the story remains uncomfortably in your mind like an itch that you want to scratch. One of the effects of that incompleteness is that you would be curious about the end of the story.

If a person ends a relationship with another, the rejected party often desires to know the reason “why” the relationship came to an end. If the person forcing the break-up is unable to provide a satisfying reason why (and let’s face it, there seldom is one), the rejected party experiences frustration and confusion over the lack of closure.

Origins: The Zeigarnik Effect was coined by a Russian Psychologist called Bluma Zeigarnik. She was fascinated by the way in food servers were able to remember lengthy food orders and match each meal to the right customer. She observed however that as soon as the meal was delivered, the information vanished from the waiter’s mind. The theory was that a yet-to-be-filled meal order created a state of “incompleteness” in the mind of the waiter, who was unable to let go of the information, until resolution had been made on the meal delivery.

Examples found in media, books, TV:

If you’ve ever read Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code you may already know that one of the ingredients to making that book such a page-turner was that each chapter ended with a “Zeigarnik Hook”. That hook compelled the reader to continue reading in order to find resolution.

The Harry Potter books are another great example. Children (and adults, you know who you are) were drawn to reading the entire series of seven books, simply to find out how all the threads J.K. Rowling wove into her books were resolved. Like Dan Brown, Rowling peppered the books with incomplete situations, history, statements, plots and ideas — resulting in intense speculation amongst readers and fans as to how they would be resolved by the writer.

The CNN Headline News end their half-hour news program and lead to the sports report with a trivia question. The sense of incompleteness that this trivia question poses in the mind of the viewer is enough for the viewer to continue watching the entire sports report to find out the answer, even if he or she has no interest in sport.

TV Serials also employ the same method by using cliff-hangers when a program cuts to an advertisement break. The viewer is compelled to suffer the advertisements in order to continue watching. Such techniques are also used to entice viewers back each week. Examples of television programs that employ The Zeigarnik Effect include: Lost, 24, The X-Files, Twin-Peaks, The Biggest Loser, Survivor, The Fugitive, Heroes, Dancing With the Stars. Soap operas such as UK’s Coronation Street, Days of our Lives and General Hospital, all use “incomplete stories” to retain their following of viewers. The resolution of one story is always overlapped by the incompleteness of another. The effect is so powerful that a viewer will continue to watch the same program for years. The above, of course, are just a few examples, and there are countless others.

The technique, while effective, can backfire if it is: A. Overused; and/or B. There is failure to live up to the expectations left by the Zeigarnik Hook. (Otherwise known as a “let down”.) One television program that arguably overused The Zeigarnik Effect is The X-Files. Although Zeigarnik hooks certainly helped to propel The X-Files to top rating status, the viewership steadily declined during the final 3 years of its run. Of course the causes for the decline can be attributed to many factors, and the show ended with very respective ratings, but many people followed the program will agree that a failure to properly fulfill the expectations built by the show’s “incompleteness” played its part in the decline. Instead of being enticingly watchable, viewers began to give up out of frustration the program wasn’t “going anywhere”. Even the final episode ended on a cliff-hanger, which arguably signifies that the program had never intended to offer its viewers full and ultimate resolution.

Use in Marketing:

When advertising, a marketer will being by telling a story that attracts a potential customer’s attention, and then keep him following in search of a satisfying conclusion. By peppering more hooks throughout the sales copy or by revealing small bits of the puzzle at a time, the marketer is able engage the viewer deeper and deeper into the sales process.

A simple and fairly benign an example of a Zeigarnik Hook occured earlier in this entry: do you remember reading the following:

In fact, some of the highest-selling books and highest-rating Television shows are built upon The Zeigarnik Effect, but more on that shortly … This sentence planted a seed in your mind that required resolution. If you had stopped reading right there, you would not have found out what books or television programs used the Zeigarnik Effect. Even if you were not particularly interested in finding out, for some, this will have been enough to compel them to continue reading.

Remember though: never overuse The Zeigarnik Effect and never promise something you cannot ultimately deliver, otherwise the visitor will feel like his/her time has been wasted.

Psychology Secrets for Marketing

Dangerous insider materials

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store