The Secret of Success Is…

By | May 20, 2015

I’ve long been a fan of English author Thomas Hardy, and upon learning that a new adaptation of his novel Far From the Madding Crowd was headed for movie theaters, I decided to go back to the source material. While Wikipediaing to reacquaint myself with Mr. Hardy, I came across the line:

The term “cliffhanger” is considered to have originated with the serialised version of this story [A Pair of Blue Eyes] (which was published in Tinsley’s Magazine between September 1872 and July 1873) in which Henry Knight, one of the protagonists, is left literally hanging off a cliff.

The idea of the cliffhanger as a plot device dates back as far as The Odyssey, but has become a familiar device in novels, movies, and television. I can still remember “Who Shot J.R.?”/Dallas mania back in 1980. (There was also a 1979 TV series called Cliffhangers that featured three different serialized stories per episode—one a mystery, one a sci-fi western, and one a vampire story. It was very well done but, like most shows I have ever liked, it was cancelled after only 10 episodes. So it goes.)

What’s interesting, though, is that while I can recall the whole “summer of ‘Who Shot J.R.?’, I have no recollection of who actually did shoot him, even though I am almost positive I watched it (there weren’t many choices back then). I also remember the show Cliffhangers because it was cancelled before the stories could be wrapped up.

But then maybe that’s not that unusual. There is a phenomenon called “the Zeigarnik effect,” described in the 1920s by Russian psychologist and psychiatrist Bluma Zeigarnik, which states that “people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.”

Zeigarnik began this line of inquiry when she stumbled upon the observation that waiters had better recollections of unpaid orders—I know many people in the service industry and do not find this surprising—but as soon as customers paid, they had no recollection of the orders. One of the conclusions of Zeigarnik’s subsequent research into this was that “students who suspend their study, during which they do unrelated activities (such as studying unrelated subjects or playing games), will remember material better than students who complete study sessions without a break.”

Essentially, the mind hates unfinished business; it’s a source of tension that only the completion of a task can resolve.

Zeigarnik’s research is not without its dissenters; attempts to reproduce her findings have not always been successful, and it seems that the effect is dependent upon other factors, like how important the interrupted task is to the subject. (Unpaid orders are obviously of great import to waiters.)

The Zeigarnik effect has been applied to marketing (big surprise), specifically email marketing, and if you have ever opened an email or read a blogpost because the subject line contained an ellipsis, you have experienced the Zeigarnik effect.

When you have a subject line that finishes with a period, you are basically encouraging the recipient’s mind to think of the message as a completed task. But without the end punctuation, the subject line is perceived as unfinished, and the brain will not be happy with the idea of moving on without finishing the sentence.

The caveat to this is, again, what Zeigarnik’s critics found: the initial subject itself has to be of sufficient importance for our minds to want to care about seeing its resolution. If you don’t have a cat, the unfinished phrase “The best kitty litter is…” will mean nothing to you.

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