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What Is the Zeigarnik Effect and How Can It Help You?

Have you ever forgotten what you just did? Or a task you have not completed that is constantly at the back of your mind? Chances are you have and in doing so you experienced the Zeigarnik Effect.

The Zeigarnik Effect

Named after Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, the Zeigarnik Effect explains why unfinished or interrupted tasks stick in our minds while completed tasks are almost completely forgotten.

While studying at the University of Berlin in the 1920s, Zeigarnik was at a cafe with her professor, Kurt Lewin.

Lewin noticed that waiters could remember orders and bills without writing anything down. Once a bill was settled, however, their ability to recall details about the paid bill evaporated.

Intrigued by this observation, Zeigarnik decided to study the then-unknown phenomenon, publishing her findings in 1927.

She devised a series of tasks involving puzzle solving, maths and crafts — constructing cardboard boxes, making a clay figure and so on.

The 164 participants who took part, both adults and children, were given between 18 and 22 tasks to complete. They were interrupted at random for half the tasks but allowed to finish the other half without distraction.

In follow-up interviews, participants were asked to recall what tasks they had worked on, with surprising results.

Zeigarnik discovered that adult participants tended to remember the unfinished tasks 90% better than the completed ones.

The Zeigarnik Effect was even more pronounced in the children. They remembered unfinished tasks 110% better than completed ones.

Zeigarnik concluded that a task, once started, creates an internal tension which a person feels a need resolve, a ‘quasi-need’ in her terms.

Not only that, but this quasi-need to complete a task is dependent on completion to a person’s own satisfaction, whether or not the task is deemed ‘finished’ by another party.

Building on Her Work

On its own, Zeigarnik’s work is interesting but would be inconsequential if others could not replicate it. Subsequent studies by other researchers have had mixed results, although some do confirm her findings.

In 1963, Professor Alan Baddeley, renowned for his and Graham Hitch’s influential model of working memory, performed an experiment using anagrams.

Participants had to solve anagrams on a timer. If time ran out they received the answer. When asked to remember the solutions, they were almost twice as likely to remember the anagrams they could not solve, mirroring Zeigarnik’s findings.

American psychologist John Atkinson, a leader in establishing motivation as its own field in psychological research, also confirmed the Zeigarnik Effect in 1953.

Atkinson brought more nuance to the table through his observations, concluding that the Zeigarnik Effect relied on an individual’s personal motivation.

If someone was not motivated they were much less likely to find unfinished tasks memorable compared to a person who was eager to complete them.

How to Harness the Zeigarnik Effect

We know that the Zeigarnik Effect only occurs with unfinished tasks and that motivation is a key factor in getting it to occur, so putting it together is fairly easy.

Establish a motivational factor or two for the task you have to do. For example, you could treat yourself to a reward. Then all you have to do is take that first step in whatever task you have set yourself.

Provided your motivation is sufficient, the tension you experience from leaving the task uncompleted will lead to intrusive thoughts about the task until you finish it.

It is a little like mentally torturing yourself into accomplishing a goal. However, depending on the task, a little anxiety might be a small price to pay.

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