Unfinished tasks are the more memorable, hoarding attention so they can be performed and dispatched successfully. Once completed, attentional resources are diverted from the undertaking to other pursuits; but while the initial activity is under way, a heightened level of cognitive focus must be reserved for it.
The Zeigarnik effect. For me, two important conclusions emerge from the findings of now over six hundred studies on the topic. First working on a task that we feel committed to performing, we will remember all sorts of elements of it better if we have not yet had the chance to finish, because our attention will remain drawn to it. Second, if we are engaged in such a task and are interrupted or pulled away, we’ll feel a discomforting, gnawing desire to get back to it. That desire—which also pushes us to return to incomplete narratives, unresolved problems, unanswered questions, and unachieved goals—reflects a craving for cognitive closure.
In one set of studies, people either watched or listened to television programming that included commercials for soft drinks, mouthwash, and pain relievers.
The greatest recall occurred for details of ads that the researchers stopped five to six seconds before their natural endings. What’s more, better memory for specifics of the unfinished ads was evident immediately, two days later, and (especially) two weeks later, demonstrating the holding power that a lack of closure possesses.
Perhaps even more bewildering at first glance are findings regarding college women’s attraction to certain good-looking young men. The women participated in an experiment in which they knew that attractive male students (whose photographs and biographies they could see) had been asked to evaluate them on the basis of their Facebook information. The researchers wanted to know which of these male raters the women, in turn, would prefer at a later time. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the guys who had rated them highest. Instead, it was the men whose ratings remained yet unknown to the women.
An additional piece of information allows us to understand this puzzling result. During the experiment, the men who kept popping up in the women’s minds were those whose ratings hadn’t been revealed, confirming the researchers’ view that when an important outcome is unknown to people, “they can hardly think of anything else.” And because, as we know, regular attention to something makes it seem more worthy of attention, the women’s repeated refocusing on those guys made them appear the most attractive.
One of my colleagues
Always impressed me with the quantity of her written output in a consistent stream of commentaries, articles, chapters, and books.
She never lets herself finish a writing session at the end of a paragraph or even a thought. She assured me she knows precisely what she wants to say at the end of that last paragraph or thought; she just doesn’t allow herself to say it until the next time.
I was preparing to write my first book for a general audience. Before beginning, I decided to go to the library to get all the books I could find that had been written by academics for non-academics. My strategy was to read the books, identify what I felt were the most and least successful sections, photocopy those sections, and arrange them in separate piles. I then reread the entries, looking for particular qualities that differentiated the piles.
The most successful of the pieces each began with a mystery story. The authors described a state of affairs that seemed perplexing and then invited the reader into the subsequent material as a way of dispatching the enigma.
When presented properly, mysteries are so compelling that the reader can’t remain an aloof outside observer of story structure and elements. In the throes of this particular literary device, one is not thinking of literary devices; one’s attention is magnetized to the mystery story because of its inherent, unresolved nature.
Besides mystery stories being excellent communication devices for engaging and holding any audience’s interest, I encountered another reason to use them: they were instructionally superior to the other, more common forms of teaching I had been using, such as providing thoroughgoing descriptions of course material or asking questions about the material.
A little-recognized truth I often try to convey to various audiences is that, in contests of persuasion, counterarguments are typically more powerful than arguments. This superiority emerges especially when a counterclaim does more than refute a rival’s claim by showing it to be mistaken or misdirected in the particular instance, but does so instead by showing the rival communicator to be an untrustworthy source of information, generally. Issuing a counterargument demonstrating that an opponent’s argument is not to be believed because its maker is misinformed on the topic will usually succeed on that singular issue. But a counterargument that undermines an opponent’s argument by showing him or her to be dishonest in the matter will normally win that battle plus future battles with the opponent.
There are various ways to structure a mystery-story-based case for the potency of counterarguments. One that has worked well in my experience involves supplying the following information in the following sequence:
- Pose the Mystery. after a three-year slide of 10 percent in tobacco consumption in the United States during the late 1960s, Big Tobacco did something that had the extraordinary effect of ending the decline and boosting consumption while slashing advertising expenditures by a third. What was it?
- Deepen the Mystery. The answer also seems extraordinary. On July 22, 1969, during US congressional hearings, representatives of the major American tobacco companies strongly advocated a proposal to ban all of their own ads
- Home In on the Proper Explanation by Considering (and Offering Evidence Against) Alternative Explanations.
- Provide a Clue to the Proper Explanation. In 1967, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had ruled that its “fairness doctrine” applied to the issue of tobacco advertising. The fairness doctrine required that equal advertising time be granted on radio and television— solely on radio and television—to all sides of important and controversial topics. If one side purchased broadcast time on these media, the opposing side must be given free time to counterargue.
- Resolve the Mystery. For the first time, anti-tobacco forces such as the American Cancer Society could afford to air counterarguments to the tobacco company messages.
During the three years that they ran, those anti-tobacco spots slashed tobacco consumption in the United States by nearly 10 percent.
When the logic of the situation hit them, the tobacco companies worked politically to ban their own ads, but solely on the air where the fairness doctrine applied—thereby
- Draw the Implication for the Phenomenon Under Study. one of the best ways to enhance audience acceptance of one’s message is to reduce the availability of strong counterarguments to it—because counterarguments are typically more powerful than arguments.
Notice that this type of explanation offers not just any satisfying conceptual account. Owing to its intrigue-fueled form, it carries a bonus. It’s part of a presentational approach constituted to attract audiences to the fine points of the information—because to resolve any mystery or detective story properly, observers have to be aware of all the relevant details. Think of it: we have something available to us here that not only keeps audience members focused generally on the issues at hand but also makes them want to pay attention to the details—the necessary but often boring and attention-deflecting particulars—of our material. What more could a communicator with a strong but intricate case want?
Albert Einstein claimed “the most beautiful thing we can experience” and “the source of all true science and art.” His contention: the mysterious.