First observed by Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, the Zeigarnik Effect is the feeling of unease or discomfort that arises from incompleteness, which may come from unfinished tasks, unanswered questions or cliff-hangers in our favourite novels and TV series. Incompleteness instils a degree of mental tension that will only be relieved by completion of the respective task or storyline.
This article will show you how the effect plays out in many domains of our life, but first some background.
Zeigarnik observed the effect in operation for the first time in restaurant waiters, who appeared to only remember current orders. Current orders were seemingly remembered with ease, and then completely erased from memory once they had been delivered. This highlights a basic theory of memory – that we only remember things in the short-term if we attend to them – but the tension we experience while tasks remain incomplete was something that had not been studied before.
Zeigarnik set about to study the phenomenon more experimentally in the laboratory, before publishing her results in “On Finished and Unfinished Tasks” (1927). She administered participants various tasks and puzzles. Some were interrupted during the tasks, others were left alone. Astonishingly, what Zeigarnik found was that those who were interrupted were twice as likely to complete the task and then remember it after the experiment than those who weren’t interrupted.
Now this contradicts pretty much everything your teachers, parents and study tip blogs you’ve read have ever said about concentration and the effectiveness of uninterrupted study.
So just how does the Zeigarnik Effect govern how we live?
Procrastination and Productivity
Well, with regards to getting things done, procrastination and productivity, we are much more likely actually complete the task if we make a start in the first place. No matter how small that start is, it means the task is incomplete, and the only thing that will relieve the tension that incompleteness produces is completing it. For example, writing the title or the introduction of an essay makes you more likely to keep writing – I’m sure this is something we’ve all experienced. Once you have started something, you will procrastinate much less than you did before you started. I experienced the same thing writing this article!
Our tip then is to force yourself to make a start, no matter how big or small, on any daunting task or assignment you may have, and the rest will fall into place much more easily.
T.V., Books and Marketing Schemes
The effect is also abused by authors, T.V. and film producers and marketing schemes. In fact, we used it at the start of this article – did you spot it? T.V. shows and novels leave the storyline on a cliff-hanger at the end of chapters, books, episodes or series to give you a feeling of incompleteness and make you return to fill in the gaps. Marketing schemes suggest there is more to find out than you know already know, making you more likely to follow up on the add and turn into a customer.
It is important to note that that the effect is not the same as curiosity in these cases. We are not merely interested, but actually discomforted at the incompleteness left by the cliff-hangers. Think of that feeling you get when Love Island finishes on a knife edge and all you get is a sneak peak of the next day’s episode.
As such, the T.V. shows we get hooked to, the novels we can’t help but read and the products we buy are all affected by the Zeigarnik Effect.
A similar situation plays out in relationships, or rather, the end of relationships. One party breaks up with the other for some inconspicuous reason, or there is controversy over whether something actually happened with another person and the relationship ends. What often happens next is that the other party requires “closure”. Again, think how many times you’ve heard that word in four series of Love Island – sorry if you’re not a fan.
A sense of closure – in other words, finding out the exact reason for the break up – is a result of the Zeigarnik Effect, a missing piece of information that gives us emotional tension.
The Zeigarnik Effect can, though, have a very positive impact on mental health. Feelings of incompleteness and a habit of procrastination can lead to distracting and unhelpful patterns of thought, which can be emotionally draining, disrupt sleep and lead to anxiety. Insomnia is a prime example. But the Zeigarnik Effect can be used therapeutically to motivate people to develop healthier habits – in fact, you could go as far as to say that it forces healthier habits – whilst boosting self-esteem from a sense of completion. It is used in CBT, but I can’t help but think it is not being used to its full potential. It doesn’t necessarily require a therapist. More exposure and maybe a bit of impetus from society and we could see the effect being used on a personal level by many people suffering from mental health issues.
In summary, the Zeigarnik Effect is a feeling of unease that arises from incompleteness in our lives. It affects what we remember, watch, read and buy in our day-to-day lives. It also plays out in relationships and can have a beneficial impact on mental health!
By the way, there are more articles to come in our “ruling principles” series, which looks at how various psychological principles govern how we live often without us even knowing. Come back next week for the next article in the series!
See what we did there?