How to Implement Digital Psychology Into Your Marketing: the Need to Complete, Reciprocity, and Rewards

8 min read
Jun 4, 2020
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Studying cognitive biases in recent weeks has made me more aware of how big of a role they play in our everyday lives. More importantly, that knowledge should help you become better marketers. Once you figure out the mechanisms behind your consumers' decision-making, you’ll be able to tailor your marketing and sales communications to meet those needs. This is eventually going to lead them to the choices you want them to make.

After I covered anchoring, commitment, and loss aversion last week, it’s time for a deep dive into three more digital psychology principles. 

The need to complete and the Zeigarnik effect

Do you know that itchy feeling you get when you set yourself a deadline to do something and then fail to meet it eventually? Like most of you, there are tasks that I’d happily do on the spot, and there are tasks that just need to be done even though you’d prefer to do something else. Sometimes, the work on these tasks drags on for weeks before you’re finished. But, when you are, it feels glorious. It feels that way because that’s just our nature. We feel the need to complete a task only for the sake of it even if there are no rewards for doing that. 

We feel that way because unfinished tasks are unsettling to our minds. A while ago, I was working on a project for weeks, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wanted to finish it as soon as possible, but, every now and then, other things that required my attention would come up and cause delays. Then, the weekend came, and, with the task still unfinished, I couldn’t get my mind off of it. As a consequence, I couldn’t rest properly like you should on the weekend. Then, when I put the last piece of the puzzle in place, my mind was finally at ease again. 

It’s the Zeigarnik effect that pushes us to finish whatever we’re doing. It was first noticed by  Gestalt psychologist, Kurt Lewin. He saw that waiters could remember their open orders far better than the orders that had already been closed. He introduced the topic to Bluma Zeigarnik, a Lithuanian psychologist who studied in Berlin at the time. She designed a series of experiments to study the phenomenon and published the results of her work, “On Finished and Unfinished Tasks,” in 1927.

In one of the experiments, she asked the people who participated in the research to complete simple tasks, with half of them interrupted midway through the process. When both groups finished, they took an hour break. Then, Zeigarnik asked them what they had been working on. It turned out that those who had been interrupted remembered their tasks a lot better as opposed to those who completed their tasks with interruptions. 

Other scientists later studied the effect, and not all of them found the effect to be true to the same extent. They pointed out that many more factors influence how we remember our tasks than just interruption. Different levels of motivation to complete the tasks are among them. 

The Zeigarnik effect in everyday life

The Zeigarnik effect is more present in our lives than we’re aware of. You may have noticed that it can be more beneficial to interrupt whatever you’re doing at a specific time instead of cramming everything into one sitting. Whether you’re studying for an exam or trying to memorize something important, it’s best to give yourself a break and focus on something else. Then, go back to studying whatever you were trying to remember.

The Zeigarnik effect will also help you to stop procrastinating. I have to admit that I have been guilty of that a few times in my life. Merely starting a task will help you overcome this habit. Once you’ve begun, your brain will keep you alert and won’t let you forget about it. This is the exact same mechanism that caused me to keep thinking about one of my unfinished tasks over the weekend. 

As far as marketing goes, Netflix is a perfect example of a company utilizing the Zeigarnik effect. That’s the exact reason why people are binge-watching shows. Almost every episode of a show ends with a cliffhanger that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The need to complete keeps you engaged until you watch the season finale and feel the sense of accomplishment connected with completing something.

Reciprocity is as old as time

Reciprocity dates as far back as Hammurabi’s 4000-year-old code. Luckily, we’re far away from the “an eye for an eye” type of rules. Still, the psychological concept of reciprocity is similar, and it focuses on repaying a favor. When we get something, whether it’s from a family member, friend, or a stranger, we feel the need to reciprocate. 

Reciprocity has a significant impact on how we build our relationships. When we benefit from someone doing us a favor, we create an emotional connection with that person. This connection is the reason why we choose to return the favor. 

Types of reciprocity

Verywell Mind distinguishes three main types of reciprocity:

Reciprocity in marketing

Reciprocity in marketing is used on a large scale, with content marketing taking the lead. For years, content strategists and marketers have been advised to give and give before asking for anything in return. Everyone’s doing their best to create exceptional content in different forms. Articles, videos, webinars, and white papers are all designed with one goal in mind. 

Some people will be ready to give their data or money for that content sooner, and some will take more time and digest more content before the exchange. High-quality content helps people solve their problems. When they find value in that content, they'll return the favor by either sharing it with others or paying for your product or service. 

Another example of reciprocity in marketing is connected with guest blogging. The goal of this strategy is to publish articles on websites owned by other businesses and bloggers. Ideally, those websites should have a similar target audience to yours and should help you expand your reach. On top of that, guest blogging helps you get backlinks that are an important ranking factor for search engines.

The best thing about quality guest blogging is that it’s beneficial for both you and the blog that hosts your article. A blog owner will be happy to share your blog post on their communication channels, and that will drive more traffic to both websites. 


Rewards keep us coming back for more of a product or service. The way we react to rewards is heavily linked with dopamine, which is a hormone and neurotransmitter. It’s responsible for the happiness and pleasure that our brain feels. A surge of dopamine causes our brain to remember the reason that led to those positive feelings, and that memory is the reason why reward systems work so effectively.

Think about collecting points in your Starbucks app, or from any other coffee shop, that gives you a 10th coffee for free if you have stamps from the previous nine that you paid for. Every time you buy one coffee, you get a smaller reward leading up to the big one. Even though you’re only going to get your free coffee after you have purchased the other nine before, you keep going. This is also connected to loss aversion. Once you’re already invested in collecting your stamps, you don’t want to waste them by buying coffee from a different cafe.

The rewards can take different forms depending on what works best for you. Apart from points, businesses can use a variety of tactics to lure people back. Unlocking features after reaching a certain threshold or inviting people to early access are some of the rewards used to increase user engagement.

The rewards system is also the reason why social media platforms are so addictive to some people. Likes, share, comments, and views all give you that dopamine rush that makes you want to come back for more. In his guide to digital psychology, Daniel Stefanovic mentions a study in which the researchers observed how people react to browsing social networks. Some subjects experienced dilated pupils when they scanned the news feed on Facebook. They were fully immersed in this activity. This is one of the reasons why social media platforms are so successful.

There’s a dark side to rewards, too. Unfortunately, this is the mechanism that leads people to different types of addictions. Social media addiction is one of the most recent that some people suffer from. Gamblers are another group that goes down the rabbit hole because they keep responding to their urge to gamble even if they have a losing streak. Because, you know, you’ve got to win again eventually, right?

What’s your take on the need to complete, reciprocity, and rewards? Have you had any success (no pun intended) implementing any of them into your marketing strategy? I’d love to learn how they work for you.

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