The Zeigarnik Effect: The Tendency to Remember Unfinished Tasks Better Than Completed Ones
Sat, April 10, 2021

The Zeigarnik Effect: The Tendency to Remember Unfinished Tasks Better Than Completed Ones

Most of us have our own to-do lists for our daily tasks. This is a great way to be reminded of the things that you need to do and the things you have achieved / Photo by: Rawpixel.com via Shutterstock

 

Most of us have our own to-do lists for our daily tasks. This is a great way to be reminded of the things that you need to do and the things you have achieved. While it’s rewarding to see most of your tasks crossed out of the list, people often do not focus on them. Instead, they pay more attention to the things they have yet to do, leaving them feeling extremely upset and uncomfortable. This is called the Zeigarnik effect, a psychological phenomenon describing a tendency to remember interrupted or incomplete tasks or events more easily than tasks that have been completed. 

Since the Zeigarnik effect was first noticed in the early 1900s, several studies have been conducted about it. The phenomenon was based on the idea that it is human nature to finish what we started. However, when we don’t finish anything, we experience dissonance. It was named after its founder, Russian psychiatrist and psychologist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik. According to ThoughtCo, one of the largest and most comprehensive learning, information, and education sites online, Zeigarnik was sitting in a busy Viennese restaurant in the 1920s when he noticed how waiters were managing the orders. 

Zeigarnik noticed that while the waiters would successfully remember the details of the orders for the tables that had yet to receive and pay for their food, their memories of those orders seemed to disappear from their minds when the food was delivered and the check was closed. Intrigued, she decided to study the phenomenon via a series of experiments in her lab. In her psychological research, Zeigarnik gave 138 children simple tasks to do, like puzzles and arithmetic. She interrupted one-half mid-task and allowed the other half to complete the tasks.

After one hour, the psychologist found out that a whopping 90% of the kids remembered the interrupted tasks. Only 12% recalled the completed tasks, while 8% remembered the same number of each. She also conducted the same experiment with adults and discovered that the participants experienced a 90% memory advantage for interrupted tasks. After the findings were released, other researchers also studied the phenomenon. Several models have been proposed to explain the effect and its impacts on people. 

How The Zeigarnik Effect Works

Perry Buffington, PhD, a psychologist, described the phenomenon by stating that people tend to remember negative experiences and feelings longer than positive ones. This is also related to how people tend to feel a greater level of impact from negative messages than positive ones. The research shows that people tend to forget or not remember the completed tasks because their motivation to perform them is fully satisfied. This explains why there’s a strong investment of interest among us when it comes to unfinished projects; we still haven’t satisfied ourselves.

British psychologist John Baddeley, who would later develop the Working Memory Model with Graham Hitch, also conducted the same research. The participants were asked to solve a set of anagrams, each within a set time frame. Those anagrams that they wouldn’t be able to solve would be solved later on. After the test, he asked them to recall the word solutions. Baddeley discovered that participants were more likely to remember the anagrams that they had not solved than those that they had completed.

According to VeryWell Mind, a trusted and compassionate online resource for mental health, the Zeigarnik effect is one of the ways our brains deal with data overload. Our minds rely on several mental tricks to allow them to remember a great deal of information. People unconsciously think of uncompleted tasks so they can remember them until they are finished. 

The phenomenon happens to us everyday. The stress of daily hassles and frustrations often stem from incomplete tasks, which we continuously remember every minute, every hour. According to GoodTherapy, an online resource for professionals and individuals looking for mental health referrals and information, some factors that can have a significant impact on the strength of the Zeigarnik effect include the time of interruption, reward expectancy, motivation, and achievability of the required task.

 
Experts believe that the Zeigarnik effect can help people stop procrastinating. Thinking of unfinished tasks constantly can prompt them to do those tasks immediately / Photo by: Yulia Grigoryeva via Shutterstock

 

Impacts of the Zeigarnik Effect

Experts believe that the Zeigarnik effect can help people stop procrastinating. Thinking of unfinished tasks constantly can prompt them to do those tasks immediately. It can also be useful for students who are studying for an exam. It motivates us to finish tasks immediately. Completing a task can give an individual a sense of accomplishment and promote self-esteem and self-confidence. Also, the Zeigarnik effect can promote mental well-being when used personally since it motivates us to develop healthier habits, set goals, and resolve issues that are being postponed. 

"Completing tasks successfully can provide a sense of accomplishment while increasing one’s self-esteem and confidence. Additionally, a person who can find closure for stressful events or tasks will likely experience a long-term positive impact on their psychological well-being,” Hadassah Lipszyc, a CBT psychologist from The Blue Tree Clinic, said.

However, people who often experience this phenomenon can be affected negatively. Intrusive thoughts of unfinished tasks can lead to stress, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and mental and emotional depletion. "Incomplete tasks and procrastinating often leads to frequent and unhelpful thought patterns. These thoughts can impact on sleep, trigger anxiety symptoms and further impact on a person’s mental and emotional resources," Lipszyc added.