If you have started to work on something but were unable to finish it, thoughts of the unfinished work continue to come into your mind, even when you have moved on to other things. These thoughts urge you to go back and finish what you have already begun. This is why you keep thinking about the page-turner, or why you want to keep playing a video game until you complete it. So, even when we try to move on to other things, unfinished work continues to exert an influence.
You've likely also experienced this effect while in school. For instance, while you've likely had a fairly good recall for the information you were studying before an exam, after an exam, most of us tend to have difficulty remembering all of the things that they studied. When you no longer have immediate use for something, the information tends to flush out of your memory.
This effect was first discovered and observed by a Russian Psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik. He was a student of influential theorist Kurt Lewin. While sitting in a busy restaurant in Vienna, she had noted that the waiters had better memories of unpaid orders. But, she came to realize that once the bill was paid, the waiters had difficulty remembering the exact details of the orders.
So, in a series of experiments, participants were asked to complete simple tasks which included placing beads on a string, putting puzzles together, or solving math problems. Halfway through the tasks, the participants were interrupted. After an hour, Zeigarnik asked the participants to describe what they had been working on. She then discovered that those who had their work interrupted were twice as likely to remember what they had been doing in comparison to those who had actually completed the tasks.
In another version of the experiment, she found that adult participants were able to remember unfinished tasks 90% more often than they did the finished tasks. Her initial studies were described in a paper titled 'On Finished and Unfinished Tasks' which was published in 1927.
In order to further explore the effect, during the 1960s, memory researcher John Baddeley explored these findings in an experiment. Participants were given a limited period of time to solve a set of anagrams. If they were unable to solve the anagram before the time was up, they were given the word answer. Later, when the participants were asked to recall the word in the anagrams, they had demonstrated a better memory for the words they did not solve. This supports Zeigarnik's finding that people have a better memory in unfinished projects or interrupted information.
However, not all research has found support for the effect. Some of the studies have failed to show the same effect, while other researchers have found that there are a variety of factors that may influence the strength of the effect. For instance, studies have shown that motivation can have a big impact on how well people remember information. But, how does it work? Short-term memory is limited both in its capacity and duration. Typically, we can only manage to retain a number of things in memory. And, even then we need to keep rehearsing the information so as to put a hold on it. This requires quite a bit of mental effort, and, not surprisingly, the more that you try to keep in your short-term memory, the harder you need to work to get it to stay there.
Take waiters as an example, they have to remember a lot of details about the tables they are serving. This includes information about what people ordered as well as what they are drinking. This all needs to be retained in their memory until the customers have finished their meals. So, to deal with this overload of data, most people tend to rely on mental tricks as this allows them to remember better a great deal of information. One example of this is the Zeigarnik effect in which we hold on to this information in the short-term by constantly pulling it back into awareness. So, by reminding ourselves of uncompleted tasks often, we are better able to remember them until they are complete.
This effect does not just impact memory in the short-term. Any unfinished tasks such as goals that we must still reach can continue to intrude into our thoughts over extended periods of time. The Zeigarnik effect reveals a great deal about how memories work. Once the information is perceived it is often stored in sensory memory, but only for a brief period of time. So, when we pay attention to information, it moves into short-term memory. But, many memories that make it to short-term are forgotten fairly quickly. Nevertheless, through the process of active rehearsal, some of this information is able to move into long-term memory.
To explain why this occurs, Zeigarnik suggested that failing to complete a task creates underlying cognitive tension. This will result in greater mental effort and rehearsal in order to keep the task at the forefront of awareness. Once completed, the mind is then able to let go of these efforts.
The Psychology of Forgetting and Why Memory Fails
The Zeigarnik effect is more than just an intriguing observation about how the human brain works. It can actually have implications in your day-to-day life and can even use this psychological phenomenon to your advantage. While common sense might tell you that finishing a task is the best way to approach a goal, the Zeigarnik effect suggests being interrupted during a task as a strong and effective strategy for improving your ability to remember information.
How to Overcome Procrastination
Often, we put off tasks until the last moment, to complete them in a frenzied rush in order to meet a deadline. But this tenancy leads to a great deal of stress and can result in poor performance. One way to overcome procrastination is to put the Zeigarnik effect to work. Start off by taking the first step no matter how small and once you've begun, but not finished, you will find yourself thinking of the task until it is complete. While you might not finish it all at once, each small step you take brings you closer to your end goal. This approach will help keep you motivated to finish and can also lead to a sense of accomplishment once you have finished a job, thus enabling you to apply your mental energies elsewhere.
So to stop procrastinating, generate interest and attention. In fact, even advertisers and marketers utilize the Zeigarnik effect to encourage consumers to purchase products. Filmmakers, for instance, create movie trailers that are designed to attract attention by leaving out critical details. This helps draw the viewers' attention, but it leaves people wanting more. So in order to obtain the details, people must see the movie. But it doesn't just stop at movies. Television programs also make use of this strategy and episodes often end during a moment of high action, leaving a number of things unresolved. So, in order to resolve the tension created by the cliffhanger, viewers must tune into the next episode to find out what happens.
Of course, the Zeigarnik effect is not necessarily always beneficial. When you fail to complete tasks, they can prey on your mind and intrude on your thoughts, thus creating stress. These invasive thoughts can cause you to feel anxious and contribute to sleep disturbances. The effect can also play a role in overcoming such difficulties. In this case, repeated thoughts can motivate people to finish the tasks they have started. And as a result, can lead to feelings of accomplishment, self-esteem, and self-confidence.