Psychology is every marketer’s friend, as it can be used to understand or even favorably influence the behavior of potential customers, as we have already discussed in detail in our blog article “The psychological triggers for email click-throughs“.

However, there is a psychological phenomenon that has not yet been mentioned, but is quite unusual and remarkable. – It is the so-called “Zeigarnik effect “.

In this short excursion into the far reaches of psychology, we will shed light on its origins and effects and, of course, the positive effects used in email marketing, the increase in the engagement rate being just one example.

Bluma Zeigarnik – The Psychologist

Bluma Zeigarnik is the eponym and she gained worldwide fame through her research into this psychological effect.

She was born Bljuma Wulfowna in 1901 in Prienai, Russia, now Lithuania, and in 1919 she married Albert Zeigarnik, whose name she adopted.

  • From 1920, she attended the University of Kaunas for two years, before continuing her studies at the University of Berlin in 1922, where she also gained her doctorate.
  • In 1931, Bluma moved back to her Russian homeland and to the University of Moscow, where she became a professor in 1953 and finally received her own chair in 1967.
  • Bluma Zeigarnik died in Moscow in 1988 at the age of 86, having dedicated her entire life to the field of psychology.
Bluma Zeigarnik

The First Discovery of the Phenomenon

The circumstances surrounding the discovery of this psychological phenomenon are interesting. Kurt Lewin, then a professor at Bluma Zeigarnik, observed in a restaurant that a waiter was able to remember the details of orders that had not yet been paid for. Surprisingly, however, this was in contrast to orders that had already been paid for and therefore completed. For these it was much more difficult for the waiter to remember these details.

After the initial discovery of this fact, Bluma eventually began to design a series of experiments to uncover the processes behind this phenomenon, a detailed research report was finally published in 1927.

The Definition – What is the Zeigarnik Effect!?

The “Zeigarnik effect “ is a psychological phenomenon and specifically relates to memories of tasks. According to this, memories of interrupted, unfinished tasks are stronger than memories of completed, finished tasks.

This finding is surprising from the perspective of memory psychology, as it also occurs when less time is spent on interrupted tasks than on completed tasks.

The causes of the Zeigarnik-Effect

Two things are considered to be the cause:

Residual tension in the memory: when we start an activity, a certain tension is created that makes it easier to remember this activity. The tension is only released when the activity is completed. If the activity is interrupted, the tension remains, making the memory more persistent.

Lack of fulfilment: The interruption of an activity prevents the feeling of completion and satisfaction. This unfulfilled desire reinforces the memory of the activity.

However, there is one downside. Even though the effect has been extensively researched and described, it is not a 100 percent phenomenon, as it could not be reliably replicated in all experiments. Nevertheless, the majority of people in everyday life have very probably had exactly this experience, and possibly you too!

Application in Email Marketing

The question now arises as to how this psychological phenomenon can be meaningfully utilized in email marketing and obviously this has to do with “unfulfilled tasks”. This argument can be used to maintain the “tension” in order to increase the open rate and conversion rate.

Below are some specific examples that can be used – or that you may already be unconsciously applying in one form or another in your email campaigns.

Measures in detail to increase engagement and conversions

  1. Subject lines: Subject lines that arouse curiosity or ask a question without answering it immediately build up the reader’s excitement about the unfinished task. This creates the urge to find out more and find answers. An example address line: “Discover the secret to increasing productivity…”
  2. Incomplete stories: Emails with incomplete stories or content can encourage the recipient to open the email to find the missing piece. For example: “Part 1 of our exclusive series: The incredible transformation…”
  3. Reminders of abandoned shopping carts: A started but incomplete order is already an aborted task. Stimulate the potential customer’s brain with an additional reminder email, which at best encourages them to “finish what they started” and thus reduce the tension.
  4. Countdowns and time-limited offers: A countdown timer in an email helps to create a sense of urgency and indicates that a time-limited offer or event is about to end. This builds tension in the recipient’s mind, which is resolved by them taking action and ideally placing an order before it is “too late”.
  5. Status and progress monitoring: If, for example, courses are offered, it is worth regularly informing subscribers about the status or progress in separate emails to remind them of their incomplete tasks and encourage them to continue.
  6. Unresolved issues: If there are unresolved issues, show that you want to relieve this tension and proactively reach out to customers or subscribers. This also enhances your reputation with customers as you are addressing their concerns and working to resolve them in their favor.
  7. Membership renewals: If a subscriber is reminded of the imminent expiry of their membership, this open task also creates a field of tension and thus the urge to resolve this grievance.


As the examples show, the Zeigarnik effect can be used strategically in many places in email marketing to arouse the interest of subscribers, increase their engagement and ultimately also increase the conversion rate. Under no circumstances, however, should you forget to strike a healthy balance. It can be too easy to overdo it, which can ultimately lead to frustration. Used in moderation, however, a positive user experience is sure to be maintained, along with all the beneficial effects.