Zeigarnik Effect

Zeigarnik recall

Bluma Zeigarnik (1901 – 1988) was a Soviet psychologist and psychiatrist who discovered the Zeigarnik [zy-gar-nikeffect, which states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. She first studied the phenomenon after her professor, Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin, noticed that a waiter had better recollections of still unpaid orders. However, after the completion of the task – after everyone had paid – he was unable to remember any more details of the orders.

The advantage of remembrance can be explained by looking at Lewin’s field theory (a framework which examines patterns of interaction between the individual and the total field, or environment): a task that has already been started establishes a task-specific tension, which improves cognitive accessibility of the relevant contents. Task completion alleviates the tension. In case of task interruption the reduction of tension is impeded. Through continuous tension the content is easier accessible and it can be easily remembered.

The Zeigarnik effect suggests that students who suspend their study, during which they do unrelated activities (such as studying unrelated subjects or playing games), will remember material better than students who complete study sessions without a break. It also has implications for romantic entanglements.

Psychologist and relationship expert John Gottman’s ‘What Makes Love Last?’ applied the Zeigarnik effect to relationships, noting that ‘Between lovers, arguments that end with confessions, amends, and deeper understanding of one another tend to be soon forgotten, although their legacy is a stronger, more enduring relationship’; but when a rejected bid for support and understanding leads to ‘a regrettable incident that goes unaddressed, thanks to the Zeigarnik effect, the hurt remains accessible in our active memory, available to be rehashed again and again. Like a stone in one’s shoe, the recollection becomes a constant irritant that leads to an increase in negative attitudes about the partner.’

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