29 June 2021

Not all cliffhangers are equal

This is Lab Test #06 from the Digital Habit Lab

Each week we release two new experiments from the Digital Habit Lab, launching on Kickstarter later this year. It is designed to help you bring awareness to your digital habits and make them more intentional.

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Many centuries ago, there was a Persian king named Shahryar who was devastated when he learned that his wife had been unfaithful to him. His reaction was, well... a bit over the top. Driven by his anger he began to marry a new woman every day, and by the end of each night he would send his new wife to have her head chopped off.

This understandably was a difficult situation for the senior advisor to the king who had to deal with this utterly ridiculous and tragic situation. Even worse, though, the advisor was overcome with dread as he realised that his very own daughter, Scheherazade, was due to be married to the king the following day...

Scheherazade, however, was cunning and had a plan. She loved literature and had spent much of her childhood consuming as many books and stories as she could. Before she was sent off for beheading, Scheherazade offered to tell the king a story and began mixing together the most thrilling tales she could remember from her books. Once in the middle of the story she then stopped and refused the king's requests to finish it, forcing him to spare her life for another day so that he could complete the story.

Scheherazade and Shahryār by Ferdinand Keller, 1880

By using cliffhangers in this way, Scheherazade was able to survive for 1,001 nights, by which time the king had fallen in love with her and decided to spare her life and make her his queen.

You may already know this story from the famous Middle Eastern collection of tales known as the One Thousand and One Nights. While, as a folk-tale, it is suitably far-fetched it is undeniable that the cliffhanger is an incredibly powerful device. We have all had an experience of reading a novel or watching a TV series where the end of a chapter leaves us beside ourselves in anticipation for what comes next.

Cliffhangers are the point when the audience decides to keep buying—when, as the cinema-studies scholar Scott Higgins puts it, “curiosity is converted into a commercial transaction.” When our minds are denied the completion of the story, this causes them to keep recalling the part of the story that we do know in a repeated fashion in the hope that this will drive us to search out the conclusion and bring some closure.

If you have ever left the supermarket and found yourself singing the last song that you heard there over and over again then this is the same thing and it is often referred to as the Zeigarnik effect; the phenomenon that when an activity that has been interrupted it is more easily recalled.

Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik first studied this after noticing that her waiter could effortlessly recall every last detail from the unpaid orders of every table in the restaurant. However, after the completion of the task – after everyone had paid – he was unable to remember any more details of the orders.

The Zeigarnik effect can be really helpful, such as being used on purpose to help remember details or to tell a gripping story. But it can also cause us unwanted problems. For example, whenever we begin a task which is then interrupted, our minds will be unsatisfied and continually jump back to that task until there is some closure. You may start to write an email but then get interrupted by a phone call leaving the message sat unfinished in your drafts for the rest of the day. Every now and again in the middle of another task you will suddenly remember the email draft, but it is now competing against so many other uncompleted tasks that you end up spinning around in circles getting none of them done.

So take some time to reflect— in what way are you the architect of multiple mini cliffhangers throughout your day? Is it possible that by keeping an eye out for them and taking care to complete the stories on a regular basis that you can help make your day a lot less stressed and also more productive?

Ok, now what?

Below are two experiments from the Digital Habit Lab to help you consider where your daily cliffhangers arise and which of them are useful or not. Over the next week, try playing with these and observe what happens to gain insight into your own habits.

We would love to hear how you get on, so do get in touch and let us know what you find!