Warning: Zeignarnik Effect Ahead

Reading Roadguy’s account (I’ve got the Twin Cities on my mind, I guess) of his trip to this year’s American Planning Association meeting, I was intrigued by his description of a panel on “digital billboards.”

Roadguy noted a delicious sort of Catch-22 during the talk: “Fellow panelist Marya Morris, a Chicago-area consultant, pointed out the conundrum that owners of digital signs face: They argue that the signs aren’t distracting while simultaneously telling advertisers that such billboards “can’t be ignored.”

I’ve not yet seen a good, peer-reviewed study on the safety (or lack thereof) of digital billboards (and if anyone has, please advise). Anything from the industry must be viewed as suspect (guess what: they’re safe!), and a controlled, before-and-after study of a highway section where a billboard has been added would be a tricky proposition (unless it became an immediately apparently crash hotspot). One study I’d like to see done, just of out curiosity, would be to gather loop data near the billboards: Do they have a deleterious effect on traffic flow itself?

Roadguy noted something else of interest: “Morris and Baker both spoke about the Zeignarnik effect, a psychological compulsion to focus on a task not yet completed, and how it causes drivers to look at digital signs repeatedly. Baker cited a billboard in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as particularly perilous: it displays multi-part riddles.”

Not having had any psychology as an undergrad, this Zeigarnik effect was new to me, but as I love a good effect (who doesn’t?), I cast a cursory Google-glance over at 43folders and found this delightful account:

“While sitting in a restaurant in Vienna—every good story about a psychologist takes place in Vienna—Bluma Zeigarnik noticed that a waiter could remember a seemingly endless number of items that had been ordered by his customers. However, once he had delivered the orders to the waiting diners, he no longer remembered what he had just served….

Though Zeigarnik didn’t get her coffee cup refilled following her meal, she did get into the annals of psychology. Zeigarnik theorized that an incomplete task or unfinished business creates “psychic tension” within us. This tension acts as a motivator to drive us toward completing the task or finishing the business. In Gestalt terms, we are motivated to seek “closure…”

The implication is that people remember incomplete processes more more than those that are completed.

I’m no brain expert or psychologist, but I wonder if the waiter was simply storing those orders in short-term memory, and, having concluded they were no longer of importance, was not encoding them to longer-term memory (and just how many orders could a waiter remember, echoes of that “seven-digit” effect of short-term memory).

And I can also imagine this this effect might be served up by marketers as a bit of psychological juju to help sell their product: As opposed to a static billboard, whose message one would instantly absorb and then discard (as with one’s memory of traffic signs they’ve passed), some sort of narrative-in-progress might leave the driver/viewer hungry for a kind of resolution, “wanting more,” and thus dwelling more on the subject than they might have. But again, it’s hard to argue that the same stickiness that’s good for marketing would be good for driving.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 20th, 2009 at 10:24 am and is filed under Traffic Culture, Traffic Gadgets, Traffic safety, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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May 2009

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