Tips For Entrepreneurs: The Zeigarnik effect

It’s high time that you understand a bit about the inner workings of your and your clients’ brains.

February 27, 2012 23:17
The Jerusalem Post

Money 311. (photo credit: Bloomberg)

How would you like a lead sentence like this: Don’t bother reading this article, because you have more important things to do, like...

Look, it’s high time that you understand a bit about the inner workings of your and your clients’ brains.

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You, I and most other people consider ourselves to be smart people who can smell when someone’s fibbing. We also consider ourselves to have good mental recollection of past events, and we are folks who don’t fall for “simple stuff,” to part us from our heard-earned money, right? You don’t consider yourself more likely to buy something simply because the price is $14.99 and not $15.00, right? Whoa. Before you read on, be aware that you are probably shaking your head to agree, or mentally saying “yes!” to the questions I’ve just asked. It’s quite surreal to realize that while reading an article, you can become involved in a one-to-one conversation with the writer... I mean I’m not standing next to you as you read this, and yet, you and I are having a conversation.

Yep, so fascinating is the human mind. But read on...

I’d venture to say that this article, and especially the sentence above, is not one that you’d usually expect to see in The Jerusalem Post. After all, it’s improper grammar and bad form. So why is it there? Why have I finished (or rather, left unfinished!) a sentence in that manner? Meet Bluma.

In the 1920s, Russian psychologist Dr. Bluma Zeigarnik did research on a fascinating topic: How and why could waiters in a restaurant so easily remember the orders of patrons without writing them down – but a mere 20 minutes later had no recollection as to what the orders were at all? What her research ultimately discovered was that the human mind hates unfinished tasks. This is so because as long as a task is unfinished, the brain is forced to carry thoughts of the task. Every so often the brain needs to trigger the tasks on its plate, to finish them off and be able to relax and get comfortable again.

The more tasks the brain has to juggle, the more the mental stress on the brain. So the waiter’s brain had no trouble remembering the orders, because the brain had the capacity to handle them. However, once they were no longer relevant to the brain, the mental notes were dismissed to give the brain less stress until such mental memory power was necessary for the next group of diners.

Similarly, if you are in the middle of doing something unimportant, such as sorting coins, and you get called to do an important task. You might find yourself saying, “I’ll be finished this in five minutes, and then I’ll get right to that.” The Zeigarnik effect is the reason you cannot bear the thought of leaving this task only partially complete, even though a more important job awaits.

Humans love to collect things. One of the most powerful things that writers and many other types of businesses can do to increase sales is simply to add the words “volume one” to the book or product – because humans, by nature, love to collect things, and when you have volume one of a series and then you see volume two, the hoarder and collector mentality wakes up and wants you to have the complete set.

(That’s why numismatic collectors end up with complete sets of coins out of circulation. And the same goes for stamp collectors – which incidentally is a great source of revenue for the post office because the stamps are bought at full price and are never actually used!) So back to the subject of this article. You read the lead sentence, but the “loop” did not finish. By ending the line with an ellipsis rather than a period, as you would expect, you would feel the same way you’d feel when you take a bite of a plate at a dinner and the waiter whisks away the plate before you are done. Your mind wants to read until the end of something before it locks the subject with a closed circuit. This is also why newspaper articles often finish on another page – to get you to find the ending, and by looking for the ending, you page through the paper, coincidentally, looking at other stories and ads.

That’s why in many publications the end of an article will have a little black box or logo at the end of each article.

This lets your brain know it’s done with this information and can move on.

It’s fascinating to realize how giving away too much information in your headline or email subject line can work against you. Yes, you want to hook your reader on moving deeper into reading what you are offering, but think about this: If your reader already knows the gist of what you want to say, whether it’s about some new breakthrough or about a sale, when you mention it in the headline, the rest of the message can have less of a shot at being read.

This is because even though you might be providing tremendously valuable information to the recipient, if that subject line is something that he checks off as “I already know about this,” or “I’m not interested in donating to this organization right now,” his or her brain has just decided that this is not worth his time. You can’t break through the clutter enough to get your reader’s attention to whatever you are proposing.

Stay tuned for next week’s Purim column...

Okay I’ll be nice and not leave you hanging.

Here’s the end of the column. Think of it as a mental piña colada – a brain-release gift from me to you!

[email protected]

Issamar Ginzberg is a rabbi, businessman, public speaker and marketer.

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