Being outright honest, direct, open, and frank are all well-respected virtues (and ones which if you ask me I would fully subscribe to). But let’s face it – often times the spice of life is in that which is slightly concealed; from not knowing the whole truth, at least not immediately; from maintaining a healthy interest in the matter by revealing it one step at a time. We’ve all encountered this. No salesmen with sound self-respect, for example, would reveal everything he knows about their product or the discount they are willing to give. Or consider the early stages of intimate relationships – not knowing or having it all from the very beginning only makes us want it more. The effect is also often times used in art and photography – the best pieces are probably the ones that make us look twice and look for more, i.e. the not-so-obvious ones. And of course, this has wide applicability in the area that is the paragon of concealment-followed-by-complete-exposure – streaptease (‘tease’ is there for a reason).

The peekaboo ploy

The concealment effect (also known as the “peekaboo ploy”) is also widely used in marketing to inspire interest in new products. This Honda advertisement is an excellent example. Clearly, the goal of showing just the outline of the truck is to engage our attention and make us want to learn more in the future. And many other ads utilize this effect. Any time you see just half of the product, or a third of it, that’s the peekaboo ploy in action. Supposedly, it sparks our curiosity and raises our interest, which in turn are expected to keep our attention, which in turn should make us consider and eventually buy the product.

That’s all very good but important questions come up when one contemplates the concealment effect. Does it make us like the products more? What’s the psychological mechanism behind it? Are there boundaries beyond which it doesn’t work? How much exactly should one conceal? This article published in the Journal of Marketing a couple of weeks ago investigates these very questions. Read on.

What killed the cat?

Curiosity is the mental equivalent of hunger; the spark that gets us going to obtain new information and learn things. It is, clearly, not the only thing that is needed for us to go and explore the world – we also need the motivation, the drive, the means to do it. But probably above all, we need the perception of a gap that we need to close, and a gap that is ‘closeable’:

Consistent with this account, people are most interested in knowing the words that they feel are at the tip of their tongue, and contestants in trivia challenges are more eager to find out the capitals of more U.S. states if they already know most of the state capitals than if they know only a few (Loewenstein 1994).

Why would such a trait, seemingly good and important for our development, kill the proverbial cat? Because it passes quickly but is typically very intense, to the extend that “…curiosity has been used as an impulsivity induction method in experimental research comparing the effectiveness of alternative self-control techniques”. Dare I say that this is also the reason why we can’t resist having a look at our phones when they vibrate – we just need to know who’s calling or who’s messaging us. Once our curiosity has been satisfied though, we are no longer interested and the emotion quickly fades away. Oddly enough, studies have shown that when we satisfy our curiosity the results are typically disappointing:

“For example, Felcher, Petrison, and Wang (1993) interviewed 30 people about their attitudes toward mail and found that although the daily mail delivery is looked forward to with anxious anticipation and impatience, most respondents reported almost always being disappointed by the actual mail they received. Likewise, the pleasure people obtain from a glimpse of the person they have been trailing on the sidewalk, or the satisfaction my colleague derives from learning who is calling him, is typically meager in comparison with the intensity of the curiosity that preceded these acts.”
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity” Dorothy Parker

Or is there? I love what Dorothy Parker is saying and I wish it was true. Unfortunately, there is little evidence for this. Curiosity is mostly situational, simply because it arises when there is a bridgeable gap in our knowledge; it’s a path rather than a general predisposition to life, and as we get walking on the path we get more and more involved, but it doesn’t mean that when we are standing in the beginning of the path we would be compelled to take it. Curiosity, as we discussed, is a fleeing emotion. You want to learn the things that you almost know and you want to see the things you almost see. And in the domain of visual perception, a ‘cure for curiosity’ is engrained in our own bodies.

Our brains are prediction-generating machines. We don’t see things and then react to them. What we do is exactly the opposite – long (well, not long in a cosmic sense) before we realize we’ve seen something our brains have already made a prediction and decided how to act. Their goal is to keep you alive and well and they can’t wait for the full situation to unfold before making a call. They need to act fast, and acting fast is what they do. Numerous studies have shown that what we actually do is infer information, i.e. we fill in the blanks, and we do this unconsciously.

Knowing that curiosity is an intense but fleeing emotion, that it piques when we are close to satisfying it, and that if they lack information our brains infer it, what is the best way to deploy a peekaboo ploy?

Curiosity peaks when two thirds of the product have been revealed

Try this out for yourself. If you are given the photos on the right, which one would make you most likely to date this person? Which one makes you think the person is most attractive?

Half of the image probably reveals a bit too little while 5/6 is likely too obvious. 2/3 (well, 4/6 in this example) is the sweet spot in which our willingness to date the person piques, and by a huge margin – given these options, 70% of the people would go on a date with the person from the 4/6 photo while less than 40% prefer the 5/6 or the 6/6 photos. The authors of the study obtained the same results when testing with cars instead of faces so the results are pretty robust.

How does this work in business settings? Imagine that you are shopping for new shoes for a second. What you have on e-tailer websites is, more often than not, a selection of photos for each item that show it from different angles. Now, there could be just a couple of photos or a more substaintial amount, like five or six. What do you think: which set of photos would generate the highest interest and preference? Yep, the one containing 4 photos of the product (in any combination). What you get is a very neat inverted U-shape, in which curiosity spikes at 4 images and then goes down again as the number of images increases (y-axis shows the average result).

The concealment effect does work – especially when you don’t need it that much

The Matthew effect is something we have all personally experienced. Its name comes from the Gospel of Matthew, where it is said “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” In essence, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer in time. The same principle, oddly enough, applies to the concealment effect. What we said about the fact that revealing 2/3 of the image spikes our interest is still true but with one crucial caveat: it applies for things we find attractive.

Have a look at the results. On the y-axis you have the % of people who prefer each face (the study employed photos of faces, obviously). Starting from almost identical ground (at 1/6), faces we infer might be attractive quickly gain our interest. In contrast, our interest in faces we sense are not attractive wanes. To cut the long story short, the concealment effect does work – when you don’t actually need it that much.

So what?

What follows from all this?

  • On one hand, yes, you can increase the interest in your product if you conceal part of it. It arouses people’s curiosity, they pay more attention and are more likely to prefer it.
  • How much do you show – ideally, about two thirds of the product; this is the sweet spot between showing too little and being too obvious.
  • Be careful though – you need to be very certain that you’ve got an attractive design to show (well, to conceal in this case). The peekaboo ploy works only if people think what’s being revealed is attractive.

My best wishes for a great day ahead and remember – everything communicates.

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