We place a greater value on products we perceive to be whole in shape

Completeness Effect (2014)

We place a greater value on products perceived as whole in shape

We often estimate how much we should consume of a product based on aspects of its physical shape. If a product looks incomplete, we’re likely to incorrectly see it as having less value and so consume more of it. (e.g. Wansink, 2006).

Sevilla & Kahn (2014) The Completeness Heuristic: Product Shape Completeness Influences Size Perceptions, Preference, and Consumption. Journal of Marketing Research.

Could I take your attention for just a moment?


Now, picture in your mind two sandwiches. These sandwiches are pretty much identical to one another, but the only difference between them is that while one sandwich is left whole, the other one is sliced diagonally in half. Remember that besides the fact that it’s been sliced, the second sandwich is of the same size, quality and quantity as the first. Now, if you were asked to choose one of the two sandwiches, would you have a strong preference for either one?

Unless for some reason you strongly preferred sliced sandwiches, you’d rationally not mind choosing between the two. But in a study, people were placed in an identical scenario as you, and asked the same question. Fascinatingly, researchers found that people were significantly more likely to choose the “complete” (unsliced) version of the sandwich (Sevilla & Kahn, 2014).

But why? Well, when questioned further about their preference, it was found that they felt that the unsliced sandwich ‘had more quantity’ than the sliced one. More generally, research has shown that we humans desire completeness (Hull, 1932; Nunes and Dreze, 2006), and especially asethetic designs that suggest unity (Veryzer and Hutchinson, 1998). We also feel that incomplete experiences feel ‘unresolved’ (Bieke et al, 2007).

This has led the researchers to conclude that “incompletely” shaped products are assumed to be of lesser quantity than completely shaped ones. We’re also much more likely to purchase complete products over those seen as incomplete. Perceiving that incomplete items are smaller can also influence people to consume more of them. In another study, healthcare professionals were served sandwiches during a lunchtime buffet. Some were given incomplete, sliced sandwiches and others were offered whole ones. Those served sliced sandwiches were more likely to eat more than those served whole sandwiches!

Key Takeaways

  1. If you’re trying to reduce consumption of a given product, such as unhealthy food, make sure the items are complete in shape. This will influence people to believe they’re consuming more, making them believe they are satiated, faster.
  2. On the other hand, if you’re trying to increase consumption of a product, incomplete sizes will often leave customers coming back for more. For example, in one of their follow-up studies, the authors found that people who were given chocolate pieces that were incomplete in shape (irregular) consumed significantly more chocolate than participants given complete shaped (whole) chocolates.
  3. This bias will be of particular interest to dieters who think that eating half of a piece of food is a better choice than eating the whole. It suggests that the “eat only half rule” can backfire and serve as a dangerous incentive to let one’s guard down and go on a mindless binge (Sevilla & Kahn, 2014).
  4. Completeness can also be influenced by expectations about the typical shape of an item within the given product category. For example, for a bagel, a hole in the middle is considered complete.
  5. Despite being the focus for this Brain Gem, researchers suggest that these findings go far beyond food; they found the same results for shampoo, for instance.
  6. Aim for completeness in your product design. Customers prefer this, and will buy more of it next to a product that looks incomplete. An example of an incomplete product would be a shampoo bottle with a hole in the middle for easy holding. Be aware of the implications of such a design.
  7. Check out the Zeigarnik Effect Brain Gem to understand why incompleteness also applies to tasks we undertake.