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Incompleteness and Attention


Explanations > Perception > Attention > Incompleteness and Attention

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



Do, say or show something that is not complete, and where the other person either has to fill in the remainder or has to enquire or wait for the rest of the item.

Ways to use incompletion include:

  • Show a close-up of an object where the viewer has to put effort into working out what it is.
  • Leave out parts of a sentence, especially the end of the sentence, where the reader is left wonder what it
  • Tell a part of a story, stopping on a 'cliff-hanger' tension moment.
  • Ask a question but do not give the answer.

You may then let the person work out the rest of what is missing or you can keep them thinking until you give the complete answer later on.


A salesperson gets a customer's need by using an incomplete sentence: 'And today you're looking for...'

A series of TV adverts shows a part of a story in each advert. Audiences are left hanging and desperately waiting for the next instalment.

A photographer shows a part of a celebrity's face. Viewers have to look closer to realize who it is.

An author starts a part of a story and then goes off to another scene, leaving the resolution of the story


We have a deep need for completion, which is probably based in the evolutionary need to identify threats. It has been said that 'nature abhors a vacuum', which leads us to trying to fill in anything that is left incomplete. This requires attention.

When we are perceiving things, whether it is something we see, hear or otherwise sense, we try to make sense of it by identifying, naming and hence inferring meaning, including by comparing what we see with our internal models.

We also remember things which are left incomplete. This Zeigarnik Effect is useful for not only gaining attention but sustaining it over a prolonged period.

Getting people to think more about what you are communicating and not trying to give them every detail has the paradoxical effect of drawing them in. As they become engaged, they starts to persuade themselves as they justify their involvement as being because they really are interested in this.

Jokes and stories use this principle when they delay the punchline or completion to the end.

So what?

Do not rush to complete what you are saying or showing. Construct your words and images so they keep the person on the edge of their seat, hanging on every word as they wait for the end. Design your images and writings without thinking you must show everything. Leave things to their imagination.

See also

The Need for Completion, Completion principle,

Zeigarnik Effect

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