Ever struggle with how to get employees or consumers to remember things?  One small part of this puzzle was solved in a restaurant almost a century ago.  The famous psychologist Ken Lewin noticed that the waiter in the local coffee shop had a much better memory of unpaid orders.  Once the order was paid, the memory was gone.

One of his students, Bluma Zeigarnik, studied this phenomenon and came up with something called the Zeigarnik effect.   This states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.  Apparently, when we hold things in short-term memory, we have to rehearse them otherwise they disappear like a light going out. This requires cognitive effort, and the more things we are rehearsing the more effort. The waiter’s trick is thus to keep spinning the plates of the open orders while letting those which are completed fall.

So why shouldn’t I tell you this?  Well, as soon as I end the suspense, you are more likely to forget it!  But wait!  There is more!

The Zeigarnik effect also says there is a strong desire to finish a task once you start.  This is often referred to as closure.  Think of all the forms you have finished filling in once you started, or articles you have continued to read because they started with something like, “The 5 things everyone who drinks coffee should know!”  In fact, if you are still reading, it is because you have the desire to find out if there is anything more.

The bottom line? If you are trying to get others to complete a task or to remember something, there is a good reason to leave them in suspense for as long as you can.  Suspense keeps the mind engaged and thinking about the uncompleted task … perhaps long enough to remember the Zeigarnik effect the next time you bump into it.

How could you be using suspense in your business?

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