have you ever been interrupted by intrusive thoughts about unfinished work? Maybe it’s a partially completed work project that keeps you up at night, or the plot of a half-read novel that keeps circling in your thoughts
There’s a reason why it’s so hard to stop thinking about unfinished and interrupted tasks. Psychologists call it the Zeigarnik effect, or the tendency to remember unfinished tasks better than completed ones.
What is the Zeigarnik effect?
When you start working on something but don’t finish it, thoughts about the unfinished work keep popping into your mind even when you’ve moved on to other things. Those thoughts urge you to go back and finish what you’ve already started.
That’s why you keep thinking about that page turner. Or why you want to finish playing a video game until you win. Unfinished work continues to exert its influence, even as we try to move on to other things.
Soap operas and serial dramas also take advantage of this effect. The episode may end, but the story remains unfinished. Cliffhangers leave viewers wanting to know more and, thanks to the Zeigarnik effect, they will remember to tune in next time to find out what happens.
You may have also experienced this effect when you were in school. Before an exam, you probably remember the information you were studying quite well. However, after an exam, students often have difficulty remembering everything they have studied. Since you no longer have immediate use for the information, you sometimes get the feeling that it has been erased from your memory.
How was it discovered?
The effect was first observed and described by a Russian psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik, a student of the influential theorist Kurt Lewin. While sitting in a busy restaurant in Vienna, she observed that waiters remembered unpaid orders best. However, once the bill was paid, the waiters had difficulty remembering the exact details of the orders.
In a series of experiments, participants were asked to perform simple tasks, such as placing beads on a string, putting puzzles together, or solving math problems. Half of the participants were interrupted in the middle of these tasks.
After an hour’s delay, Zeigarnik asked the participants to describe what they had been working on. He found that those who had their work interrupted were twice as likely to remember what they had been doing as those who had completed the tasks.
In another version of the experiment, he found that adult participants were able to recall unfinished tasks 90 percent more often than completed tasks. Zeigarnik’s initial studies were described in an article entitled“On Finished and Unfinished Tasks,” published in 1927.
Other research exploring the effect
During the 1960s, memory researcher John Baddeley continued to explore these results in an experiment. Participants were given a limited period of time to solve a set of anagrams. When they could not solve the anagram before time ran out, they were given the word answer.
When asked later to recall the anagram word, they showed better memory for the words they had not solved. This supports Zeigarnik’s finding that people have better memory for unfinished or interrupted information.
However, not all research has supported the effect. Some studies have not shown the same effect, and other researchers have found that there are a variety of factors that can influence the strength of the effect. For example, studies have shown that motivation can play an important role in how well people remember information.
How does the Zeigarnik effect work?
Short-term memory is limited in both capacity and duration. Normally, we can only retain a certain number of things in memory, and even then we have to keep rehearsing the information to retain it. This requires a great deal of mental effort. Not surprisingly, the more you try to retain in short-term memory, the harder you have to work to make it stick.
Waiters, for example, have to remember many details about the tables they wait on. Information about what people have ordered and what they are drinking has to remain in their memory until the customers have finished eating.
To cope with this data overload, people often resort to a number of mental tricks that enable them to better remember a large amount of information. The Zeigarnik effect is a case in point. We hold on to this short-term information by constantly recalling it. If we often think about unperformed tasks, we remember them better until we complete them.
But this effect does not only affect short-term memory. Unfinished tasks, such as goals we have yet to achieve, can continue to invade our thoughts for long periods of time.
The Zeigarnik effect reveals much about how memory works. Once information is perceived, it is usually stored in sensory memory for a very short time. When we pay attention to the information, it passes into short-term memory. Many of these short-term memories are forgotten fairly quickly, but through the process of active rehearsal, some of this information can pass into long-term memory.
Zeigarnik suggested that failure to complete a task creates an underlying cognitive tension. This results in increased mental effort and rehearsal to keep the task in the forefront of awareness. Once completed, the mind is able to let go of these efforts.
How the Zeigarnik effect is used
Beyond being an interesting observation about how the human brain works, the Zeigarnik effect can have implications for your everyday life. You can even use this psychological phenomenon to your advantage.
Common sense might tell you that finishing a task is the best way to approach a goal. Instead, the Zeigarnik effect suggests that being interrupted during a task is an effective strategy for improving your ability to recall information.
Get more out of your study sessions
- If you’re studying for an exam, break up your study sessions rather than trying to cram it all in the night before the exam. If you study information in chunks, you’re more likely to remember it until the day of the exam.
- If you’re struggling to memorize something important, momentary interruptions can work to your advantage. Instead of just repeating the information over and over, go over it a couple of times and then take a break. As you focus on other things, you’ll find yourself mentally returning to the information you were studying.
- Often, we put off tasks until the last minute, only completing them in a frantic rush at the last possible moment to meet a deadline. Unfortunately, this tendency can not only cause a great deal of stress, but can also result in poor performance.
- One way to overcome procrastination is to put the Zeigarnik effect into practice. Start by taking the first step, however small. Once you’ve started – but not finished – your work, you’ll find yourself thinking about the task until you finally finish it. You may not finish it all at once, but each small step you take brings you closer to your ultimate goal.
- Not only can this approach help motivate you to finish, but it can also lead to a sense of accomplishment once you finally finish a job and are able to apply your mental energies elsewhere.
Generate interest and attention
- Advertisers and marketers also use the Zeigarnik effect to encourage consumers to buy products. Filmmakers, for example, create movie trailers designed to attract attention by omitting critical details. They attract viewers’ attention, but leave them wanting more. To get all the details, people must go to the box office or buy the movie when it is released at home.
- Television shows also use this strategy. Episodes often end on a high action moment, leaving the fate of the characters or the outcome of the situation unresolved. To resolve the tension created by these cliffhanger endings, viewers have to remember to tune in for the next episode to find out what happens.
Promoting mental well-being
- As you can imagine, the Zeigarnik effect is not always beneficial. When you fail to complete tasks, they can prey on your mind, intruding on your thoughts and creating stress. These intrusive thoughts can cause feelings of anxiety and contribute to sleep disturbances.
- However, affect can also play a role in overcoming these difficulties. Repeated thoughts can motivate people to finish tasks they have started. Completing these tasks can lead to feelings of accomplishment, self-esteem, and self-confidence.