Named after Bluma Zeigarnik – a Russian psychologist – as she was observing waiters, the principle states that we remember better that which is unfinished or incomplete. The waiters she observed seem to only remember the orders that were not complete and completely forgot those that had been completed.
This effect can also be seen with TV shows. It is the reason we sit infront of the TV for the premieres of the new seasons of our favorite TV shows. The uncompleted thought from the cliffhanger finale demands our attention and we absolutely can’t help ourselves but to sit down and watch to find out what happens next. The Best use of this was by the producers of LOST. Annoying for the consumer but great for views.
People are twice as likely to remember the tasks during which they were interrupted than those they completed.
Often times when we write for the web, we try to give our readers a multitude of information, that we think will be useful to them or they will find interesting. We link to other interesting articles, introduce other phenomenons or interesting facts. We write trying to provide maximum value to our users to keep them coming back to consume our content. Now this is not a bad thing, except if your goal is to push them down your conversion funnel.
If your aim is to convert your readers, all these extra tidbits only succeed at distracting them and disrupting your own intended sales path.
Lets take an example. I suffer from ADD, (self diagnosed) so when i browse, I have over 50 tabs open from all the things that caught my eye and i want to come back to.
I see an interesting link on either twitter, or my RSS feed, get to a website, and while reading the content, I see links to other content, ads on the side, and other things that might interest me and draw me away. I always tell myself i will come back to them, and finish reading what i am reading currently, or open them in a tab for later viewing. Now this is where the Zeigarnik effect kicks in full force.
All that content, the articles and links that i see create a mental tension and unbalance, as i try and focus on the current article i am reading because, my mind is telling me they are uncompleted tasks and i need to complete them. The Zeigarnik effect makes me want to go through each tab and read each article, or watch the video, etc.
My brain can’t focus on the current content i am consuming, until it has completed those other tasks at hand, being the other tabs open screaming my name (yes i hear tabs in my head). Now no matter how much i may want to focus on your compelling selling offer, or content, I am unable to. This means not only do you lose my attention, but I also do not go down your intended sales path or take any action. You have succeeded in distributing my attention away to other sources instead of keeping me on your own platform.