The Zeigarnik Effect

Have you ever noticed that when you start something but don’t finish it then it leaves you feeling uncomfortable?

Not finishing a job creates a mental tension which niggles away at you and the only way to get rid of the feeling is to finish the job in hand.

Failing to complete a task can prey on your mind, intruding on your thoughts and creating stress.

The Zeigarnik Effect describes how once we start something our brain remains alert until we finish it. This means that actually starting on something is important because it keeps ticking away in our minds until the job is done.

The effect was first observed and described by Lithuanian-born psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. While sitting in a busy restaurant in Vienna, she noted that the waiters had better memories of unpaid orders. Once the bill was paid, however, the waiters had difficulty remembering the exact details of the orders.

To get beyond the procrastination of putting stuff off then it’s important to actually just make a start even if it’s just for a few moments. The brain’s desire to see things through should then be enough because you just won’t rest. Your thoughts will keep on urging you to go back and finish what you’ve started.

TV soaps and serialised dramas are pretty adept at using the Zeigarnik Effect because they leave things hanging and unresolved at an agonising cliff-hanger stage. These are done quite deliberately so that we remember to go back for more and tune in to see what happens next.

How many of our lessons follow this? Probably not many. We always seem to have lessons that are self-contained and are all done and dusted within a 45 minute or 1 hour time frame. These can be quickly flushed from memories because they have been and gone. Why can’t we have more cliff-hanger lessons? This would introduce cognitive tension and potentially help children remember more.

In her research Zeigarnik found, “unfinished tasks are remembered approximately twice as well as completed ones.”

The Zeigarnik effect suggests that being interrupted during a task is an effective strategy for improving our ability to remember information.

This is why when we are studying for an exam, we advise that students break up their study sessions rather than try to cram everything into the night before. By studying information in increments, students will be more likely to remember it until test day.

And for busy teachers who have piles of things to do? Just make a start and let your brain bugs do the rest. If you start the jigsaw then you’ve got to finish the jigsaw. You just won’t rest until you have put the last piece in.

One thought on “The Zeigarnik Effect

  • October 3, 2019 at 8:10 pm

    This makes much sense why people with ADHD are so anxcious. Because we often don’t finish our projects 🙃 It was a nice read, thanks for sharing.


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