The Zeigarnik effect in psychology


The Zeigarnik effect states that we have a tendency to remember unfinished tasks. It is named after the psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik who, in the late 1920s, discovered that waiters had a tendency to remember un-served orders.

She also observed that as soon as the orders were served, the waiters seemed to completely forget about them.

The task that you haven’t finished will continue generating intrusive thoughts in your mind until you finish that task. Once you ‘get it over with’ the Zeigarnik effect for that task will disappear. 

When you start something and leave it unfinished, you experience a sort of dissonance. Your mind keeps on reminding you of that unfinished business until you deal with it in some way or finish it off, thereby attaining some degree of stability.

Stress, multitasking, and the Zeigarnik effect

Stress is often the result of over-stimulation that loads your mind with too many thoughts than it can handle at the same time. When you multi-task, you engage your mind with a number of different activities and this increases the load on the processing power of your mind causing stress.

Zeigarnik effect can also lead to stress because if you have too many unfinished tasks in your mental to-do list, you tend to get overwhelmed by them and you find it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand. 

The best way to prevent this kind of stress is to turn your ‘mental’ to-do list into ‘physical’, by jotting it down on paper or on your phone or some other device.

What this does is free your cognitive bandwidth from the intrusive thoughts produced by the Zeigarnik effect so that you can devote more mental processing power to the task at hand. 

When you write something down in your to-do list, your mind gets convinced that the task would get done sooner or later and so it no longer feels the need to bombard you with intrusive thoughts regarding that task.

Reward expectancy governs your actions

All Zeigarnik effect can do is keep reminding you of your unfinished tasks. But it can’t really force you to finish them. Thinking about doing some task and actually rolling up your sleeves to do it are two different things, though the former always precedes the latter. There is another factor involved- reward expectancy.

Suppose you have two unfinished tasks lingering on your mind- reading a book and watching a movie. Now Zeigarnik effect will remind you of both these tasks from time to time. But what task you actually complete will depend on what task you consider more rewarding.

For most of us, watching a movie is much more rewarding and pleasurable than reading a book. So we’re likely to procrastinate on the latter.

Getting rid of ear-worms

One very common instance of the Zeigarnik effect in action is the phenomenon of earworms- songs that get stuck in your head. You listen to a song, form its incomplete memory and then find yourself playing the portion that you remember again and again in your head.

zeigarnik effect
The last thing he’d want is Beethoven’s 9th symphony getting stuck in his head. If you don’t get what I’m talking about, I suggest you watch A Clockwork Orange.

This happens because your memory of that song is still incomplete. You only remember portions of it or don’t fully understand its lyrics or tune. So the mind keeps on playing the song, again and again, hoping to complete it with each new attempt. But that can’t happen since your memory of the song is incomplete.

When your mind keeps playing the song, again and again, it’s actually Zeigarnik effect asking you to hear the song again so that your mind may be put out of its delirium. 

If you hear the song again a number of times from start to finish, it will be well-established in your memory in a coherent way. Then you’ll have gotten rid of your ear-worm.