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18 Apr

Blocking closure, cliffhangers, nerd sniping, and other devious mischief

Before I started reading non-fiction regularly, not finishing a book really bothered me. I would start reading the book from the beginning if I had left it midway and gone back to it after a break.

In fact, I stopped watching content on Netflix or any other OTT because it often meant binging the content, which was smartly designed to hook me at the end of every episode and at the end of a season. Leaving the show midway just felt too unsettling. Post-completion, I would be riddled with guilt for getting baited by the hooks.

I noticed a similar feeling while scrolling through reels and Instagram posts. The harmless Read More nudge to click on a long post or reel caption regularly reels me in to spend a few more minutes on the app. But this sense of unease isn’t limited to the stray incidents I mention here. I noticed this elsewhere too. Look —

I started filling out a form to subscribe to a business tool. At every step of the way, it saved the progress of the page where I had input some details. It showed a progress bar that indicated how far I still had to go for a complete profile.

That, in turn, reminded me of this progress bar on LinkedIn that nudges you to complete your profile and tries to subtly gamify the process —

Consequently, I went down the stressful guilt trip of recalling the list of things I had yet to finish.

(I do not recommend it.)

Turns out there’s a name for this feeling.

It's called The Zeigarnik Effect.

The Zeigarnik Effect is a psychological principle that refers to the tendency for people to remember and think about unfinished tasks more than completed ones. The effect is named after the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, who first discovered it in the 1920s.

According to the Zeigarnik Effect, when we start a task but don't finish it, it creates a state of mental tension or “open loop” in our minds. This tension drives us to remember the task and think about it until we complete it to achieve closure.

Bluma discovered this psychological principle while dining in a restaurant. She noticed that the waiters in the restaurant seemed to have a better memory for orders that were still in progress compared to those that had already been completed. This led her to wonder if the fact that the tasks were unfinished is what made them easier to remember than completed tasks.

To test her hypothesis, Zeigarnik conducted a series of experiments in which participants were given a series of tasks to complete, such as assembling a puzzle or solving a problem. In some cases, participants were allowed to complete the task, while others were interrupted before they could finish. Zeigarnik found that participants were much better at remembering the details of the tasks they had not completed than those they had completed. She observed that the incomplete tasks created a sense of mental tension or a lack of closure in the participants' minds, which made them more likely to remember and think about the task until it was completed.

No wonder I was reminded of every other thing I had left incomplete. Even when I make notes in my diary of the things I wish to accomplish, I feel compelled to open my diary and check how much of the task list is still pending.

And it is this sense of discomfort that provides startups an opportunity to manipulate you in meaningful ways.

Booking a service through Urban Company

When you book a service through the Urban Company app, you are presented with a step-by-step onboarding process that breaks down the service into smaller, more manageable steps.

For example, if a customer books a cleaning service, they are presented with a list of rooms and areas needing cleaning. You get a bill based on the area and the number of services you booked. Urban Company also provides feedback and rewards along the way to reinforce the customer's progress and keep them engaged.

After the service is completed, customers are asked to rate and review the professional who provided the service. This creates a positive feedback loop that encourages customers to continue using the platform and booking services.

Additionally, Urban Company uses reminders and notifications to keep customers engaged with the platform. For example, if a customer has not booked a service in a certain amount of time, they receive a reminder email or notification encouraging them to book a service again.

Overall, Urban Company's onboarding process demonstrates how the Zeigarnik Effect can create a more engaging and satisfying customer experience. By breaking down services into smaller steps, providing feedback and rewards along the way, and using reminders and notifications to keep customers engaged, Urban Company is able to help customers achieve a sense of closure and satisfaction with their services.

Duolingo’s Design

Before we discuss how the design is related to the Zeigarnik effect, look at this set of screenshots —

What you will notice in each of the screens is that it keeps a tab of each activity. Your streaks are not just recorded and rewarded; they’re used to create this sense of recall about how much more there is yet to finish in case you wish to master a language.

A task as big and complex as learning a new language is broken down into smaller tasks that can be accomplished by chunking. The streak-keeping behaviour stems from how you constantly feel like you know it well enough but not quite and how even doing the task for 5 minutes positively reinforces you.

And of course, it is deliberate.

The app and other software you use or an onboarding procedure is designed to put you at a little bit of unease of leaving a task unfinished so that you come back and check again.

Cliffhangers in TV Shows

As you must've realized by now, yes, cliffhangers in TV shows are an example of the Zeigarnik Effect in action. A cliffhanger is when a narrative ends at a suspenseful or unresolved moment, leaving you in a state of anticipation and curiosity about what will happen next. This sense of incompleteness keeps the story fresh in your mind and generates a desire to watch the next episode or season to resolve the suspense.

By creating a sense of incompleteness, cliffhangers capitalize on the Zeigarnik Effect, as they make it more likely that you will remember the story and feel compelled to continue watching.

Nerd Sniping

I often find myself getting nerd sniped by interesting thought experiments and questions that come my way. Sadly, this comes at the expense of whatever I was currently doing.

For those of you who aren't aware of the term, Nerd sniping is a term coined by the webcomic xkcd to describe the act of distracting someone, typically a highly curious or analytical person, with an intriguing problem or question that captures their attention and diverts them from their original task. This can lead the person to become absorbed in the new problem, potentially losing focus on their original, unfinished task.

While the Zeigarnik Effect refers to the increased likelihood of remembering and being motivated to complete unfinished tasks, nerd sniping can inadvertently create a new unfinished task in the form of the intriguing problem or question. In this sense, it may create a situation in which you feel compelled to complete the new task due to the Zeigarnik Effect, even though their primary focus should be on whatever you were doing previously.

The Zeigarnik effect, in sum, creates very sharp hooks in our minds and pulls us to finish the loop of an incomplete task.

If you’re an email marketer, you most likely use this while crafting the subject line and title of the email campaigns. The idea is to give just as much information that will get the prospective reader to click on the email. At the base of the effect is every human’s need to complete the narrative. No one likes to be left hanging.

The effect pushes audiences to crave completed narratives, resolved problems, answered questions, and achieved goals.

But before you rush to apply this effect in your marketing copy or product, beware of the limitations too.

The thing is — awareness of this concept has led to every Tom, Dick, and Harry going out there and designing experiences that provoke this effect in the customer. Remind me of any app that didn’t encourage you to complete your profile or showed a status bar reflecting your progress in accomplishing a certain task on the app.

The Zeigarnik effect, if overused, can have negative consequences. Constantly leading your audience on without delivering satisfying closure can result in audience irritation and fatigue. While creating suspenseful moments and evoking unfinished emotions is useful, failing to deliver an equally satisfying payoff can lead to disappointment and ultimately undermine your efforts.

But when used sparingly in your products, the Zeigarnik effect could reap the kind of benefits it has for a business like Duolingo. As always, finding the right balance between giving away too much information and giving too little also lies at the base of all communication.

In fact, now that you know how effective our need for closure can be, here are a few things you can do to manipulate yourself into increased productivity:

  • Start with a challenge. Begin your work by tackling a challenging or complex aspect of the task. This will create a sense of incompleteness that will keep you engaged and motivated to finish the task.
  • Leave work incomplete. At the end of your workday, leave a task partially finished. This will create a sense of incompleteness that will make it easier to pick up where you left off the next day.
  • Use reminders. Place visual reminders of your unfinished tasks in your workspace, such as sticky notes or open documents on your computer. These will serve as cues to keep you focused on the tasks you need to complete.

The effect and what it states might seem obvious once you read about it, but using awareness to influence consumer decisions and yourself is certainly something to think about.

But I’ll leave it up to you to finish that task.

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