The Zeigarnik Effect

You drift off to sleep after a really long day, with assignments and presentations all following one after the other, and your term papers due in three weeks. You are in the middle of this really important task and you remember that you have to set a reminder for your friend’s birthday for tomorrow. You almost pick up your phone and decide to do so at the very moment but essentially end up going off track once you are online. Then, you fall off to sleep, only to have a dream; that disrupts your sleep because it reminds you that you have to set a reminder that is it your friend’s birthday tomorrow, or better just wish your friend now since it is post mid-night already.

This phenomenon happens not just with important dates and occasions but even with other tasks that one might want to do. The psychological tendency to remember an incomplete task rather than a completed one is essentially what the Zeigarnik Effect is. This effect was first highlighted by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik in her 1927 doctoral thesis. In Zeigarnik's original experiment, participants were given approximately 20 tasks to perform. These tasks ranged on a continuum of mental problems (arithmetic and puzzles) to manual skills (constructing cardboard boxes and creating clay figures). In the course of half of these tasks, participants were interrupted "when they looked most engrossed in their work” and were forced to put it aside. Zeigarnik found that unfinished tasks were 90% more likely to be recalled than finished ones.

Bluma Zeigarnik accounted for the effect in terms of the participant’s motivational factors. She suggested that when a participant sets out to perform the operations required by one of the tasks, the participant develops a “quasi-need” for completion of the task. The development of a quasi-need is like the occurrence of a tension activation that instigates a fight or flight response, where completing the task means resolving the tension or discharging the quasi-need. Thus, claims Zeigarnik, the memorial advantage enjoyed by interrupted tasks must be due to the continuation of that quasi-need, which motivates retrieval of unsatisfied tasks. Seifert & Patalano (1991) re-examined the Zeigarnik Effect and found evidences supporting the original study by Zeigarnik in 1927.

The Zeigarnik effect comes into play at many points in day to day functioning. Now the effect, like all other things that are subject to evolution, is operating as the Zeigarnik hook (which essentially means that it’s difficult to let go of things that are incomplete). Ever started playing a new game series, wherein after reaching a certain level; you are motivated to have “just one more go” to complete that level? This one more turn is almost always in the service of completing some structure, upgrade, technology, or conquest in that level of the game. Sometimes, in this quest, you request others to help you with clues, lives, and what not on your social media networks (now those endless candy-crush and detective games notifications make sense). The driving force in such situations is always stemming from the need to complete that level.

Are you an avid reader? Someone who completes a new thriller or adventure novel in a day or two? Here too, the Zeigarnik hook may be at work. From the edge of the seat writing done by Dan Brown in his books and J.K Rowling in the Harry Potter series that made people eagerly wait for the next page, next chapter and even the next book in the series, all of them had the “Zeigarnik Hook” that compelled the reader to continue reading in order to find resolution. If there isn’t already a ‘…to be continued’ flashing at the end of the page, there may be ‘what next’ propping in your mind after reading a book in a series.

Or are you someone who binges on an entire TV series in a go? The TV series 24 that had the clock ticking, or the entire season of Dexter, Game of Thrones, all of these shows have Zeigarnik hooks that act as pegs for activating people’s memory systems so that they stayed glued right up to the end. This is also called the cliff hanger, with endings such that the viewers mind runs wild. Sometimes, a good cliff hanger can cause more than just a ripple and even can be the source of enough suspense and new plot possibilities to revive a fading series.

That is how Zeigarnik Effect and its derivatives play with you, but the Zeigarnik Effect can also be used to the advantage of an individual. All of you may have an item that is forever lingering on your to-do list; it can be anything but it sure exists. Perhaps there never seems to be enough time to spare to make it worth starting right now, (like learning to play the guitar or looking up for colleges at the high school level) so it just keeps getting pushed down the to-do list. It can even be a report that’s to be written or a new book that is to be read. If you have such a task in mind, it’s essential to set the ball rolling, once it starts rolling, the Zeigarnik Effect will ensure that it reaches near completion. This is one of the most effective ways to battle procrastination. Get started somewhere to reach the final destination.

The Zeigarnik Effect is an interesting phenomenon that essentially shows us why humans are so driven, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously; to complete a task once they have begun doing it (sometimes, no matter what the task or outcome). So when you want to really get something done, or even want to stop thinking about something, get up and get going.

Priya Baid