What Is the Zeigarnik Effect? Definition and Examples

Waiter serving food to friends in restaurant

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Have you ever found yourself thinking about a partially finished project for school or work when you were trying to focus on other things? Or perhaps you wondered what would happen next in your favorite TV show or film series. If you have, you’ve experienced the Zeigarnik effect, the tendency to remember unfinished tasks better than finished tasks. 

Key Takeaways: Zeigarnik Effect

  • The Zeigarnik effect states that people tend to remember unfinished or incomplete tasks better than completed tasks.
  • The effect was first observed by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, who noticed that waiters in a café could recall the orders they had not yet delivered better than those they had distributed.
  • Much research supports the Zeigarnik effect, but it can also be undermined by things like the timing of task interruption, one’s motivation to engage in a task, and how difficult one believes a task is.
  • Knowledge of the Zeigarnik effect can help overcome procrastination, improve study habits, and promote mental health.

Origins of the Zeigarnik Effect

One day, while sitting in a busy Viennese restaurant in the 1920s, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik noticed that the waiters could successfully remember the details of the orders for the tables that had yet to receive and pay for their food. As soon as the food was delivered and the check was closed, however, the waiters’ memories of the orders seemed to disappear from their minds.

Zeigarnik conducted a series of experiments to study this phenomenon. She asked participants to complete a series of 18 to 22 simple tasks, including things like making a clay figure, constructing a puzzle, or completing a math problem. Half of the tasks were interrupted before the participant could complete them. Meanwhile, the participant was able to work on the others until they were done. Afterwards, the participant was asked to tell the experimenter about the tasks they worked on. Zeigarnik wanted to know which tasks participants would recall first. An initial group of participants recalled interrupted tasks 90% better than the tasks they completed, and a second group of participants recalled interrupted tasks twice as well as completed tasks.

In a variation on the experiment, Zeigarnik found that adults once again experienced a 90% memory advantage for interrupted tasks. Furthermore, children remembered unfinished tasks over twice as often as they did completed tasks.

Support for the Zeigarnik Effect

Further research has supported Zeigarnik’s initial findings. For example, in a study conducted in the 1960s, John Baddeley, a memory researcher, asked participants to solve a series of anagrams within a specific amount of time. They were then given the answers to the anagrams they were unable to finish. Later, participants were better able to recall the words for the anagrams they failed to complete over those they successfully finished.

Similarly, in a 1982 study, Kenneth McGraw and Jirina Fiala interrupted participants before they could complete a spatial reasoning task. Yet, even after the experiment was over, 86% of participants who were given no incentive for their participation decided to stay and continue working on the task until they could finish it.

Evidence Against the Ziegarnik Effect

Other studies have failed to replicate the Zeigarnik effect, and evidence demonstrates that there are a number of factors that impact the effect. This is something Zeigarnik accounted for in the discussion of her original research. She suggested that things like the timing of an interruption, the motivation to successfully complete a task, how fatigued an individual is, and how difficult they believe a task is, will all impact one’s recall of an unfinished task. For example, if one isn’t especially motivated to complete a task, they will be less likely to recall it regardless of whether or not they completed it.

In McGraw and Fiala’s study, reward expectancy was shown to undermine the Zeigarnik Effect. While most of the participants who were not promised a reward for participating in the experiment returned to the task after being interrupted, a much lower number of participants who were promised a reward did the same.

Implications for Everyday Life

Knowledge of the Zeigarnik effect can be put into use in everyday life.

Overcoming Procrastination

The effect is especially well suited for helping overcome procrastination. We often put off big tasks that seem overwhelming. However, the Zeigarnik effect suggests that the key to overcoming procrastination is to just get started. The first step could be something small and seemingly insubstantial. In fact, it’s probably best if it’s something fairly easy. The key, though, is that the task has been started, but not completed. This will take up psychological energy that will lead the task to intrude on our thoughts. It’s an uncomfortable feeling that will drive us to complete the task, at which point we can let go and no longer keep the task at the forefront of our minds.

Improving Study Habits

The Zeigarnik effect can also be useful for students who are studying for an exam. The effect tells us that breaking up study sessions can actually improve recall. So instead of cramming for an exam all in one sitting, breaks should be scheduled in which the student focuses on something else. This will cause intrusive thoughts about the information that must be remembered that will enable the student to rehearse and consolidate it, leading to better recall when they take the exam.

Impact on Mental Health

The Zeigarnik effect also points to reasons people may experience mental health problems. For example, if an individual leaves important tasks incomplete, the intrusive thoughts that result can lead to stress, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and mental and emotional depletion.

On the other hand, the Zeigarnik effect can improve mental health by providing the motivation needed to finish tasks. And completing a task can give an individual a sense of accomplishment and promote self-esteem and self-confidence. Completing stressful tasks, in particular, can lead to a feeling of closure that can improve psychological well-being.

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