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Latticework of Mental Models: Zeigarnik Effect

“What is not started today is never finished tomorrow.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The most interesting and exciting thing about psychology is that you don’t need expensive lab instruments to experimentally test the validity of theories. The world is your lab and its inhabitants i.e., people, including yourself, are the test subjects (read guinea pigs).

So here is a simple experiment that you can try during your next visit to any restaurant.

You’d often find waiters who don’t need to write down your order. They seem to have this remarkable ability to accurately remember the order for each table. Even if there are half a dozen orders with every order consisting of many different dishes (including special request like – less sugar, no mushrooms in the Pizza etc.) these waiters rarely goof up.

Well, it’s a part of their job and with years of practice, they develop a super-sharp memory. But do they really have a great memory?

Try this – After you are done with your meals and have paid the bills (and a good tip), wait for ten minutes after you have left your table and then go back to the waiter who was waiting on you. Ask him to repeat your order. You’d expect him to rattle off your order without any difficulty. But don’t be surprised if he gives you the look – “I am sorry, who are you?”

It would seem, not just your order but your whole existence has evaporated from waiter’s memory. What happened to his super memory?

In the 1920s, a Soviet psychiatrist Bluma Zeigarnik first observed this phenomenon. She 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.

Bluma Zeigarnik

Zeigarnik theorized that when we are holding things in short-term memory, we have to rehearse them otherwise they disappear, like a light going out. This requires cognitive effort and the more things we are rehearsing the more the effort. The waiter’s trick is thus to keep spinning the plates of the open orders whilst letting those which are completed fall.

This behavioural quirk was later named as Zeigarnik Effect which states that people remember incomplete or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.

To prove her hypothesis, Bluma designed few experiments where she gave her subjects 20 tasks to complete. The tasks ranged from manual tasks like clay modelling and mental tasks like maths problems. For one group of participants, she interrupted the tasks in between. Subsequent free recall tests showed that the group that was interrupted remembered the details of the tasks better than the one that was allowed to complete the task.

If you notice, Zeigarnik Effect is pretty much everywhere. It is especially used in media and advertising. One of the oldest tricks in the TV business for keeping viewers tuned into a serial week after week is the cliff-hanger. TV serials often end their episodes where the story is about to take a sudden turn, also known as cliff-hangers. You tune in next week for the resolution because the mystery is ticking away at the back of your mind.

The great English novelist Charles Dickens used exactly the same technique. His cliff-hangers created such a great anticipation in people’s minds that his American readers would wait at New York docks for the latest instalment to arrive by ship from Britain.

So what’s the reason behind human brain’s tendency to let the unfinished business dominate its attention?

Human brain is an extremely complex machine. It weighs just 2 percent body weight but consumes 25 percent of the total energy required by human body. For efficient operations, it’s designed to save energy. For the brain, processing and storing new information becomes a challenge whenever it encounters something new which it can’t understand based on its past experience. To resolve this, the brain tries to make sense of the new information by filling the gaps on its own and form a coherent story or familiar pattern which it can then store in memory. Look at the image below.

A triangle is perceived in the picture, though there are no triangles in it. Your mind is constructing the triangles on its own.

So when a task, especially an important one, is interrupted in between, before attending to the interruption, the brain tends to want to complete the task and the only way to do that is to put in extra effort to save the details of that task so that it can be retrieved efficiently when the current period of interruption ends.

Zeigarnik Effect depends on additional factors, most above all on the importance of the interrupted task for the person.

It happens over a longer period as we worry about those things in which we have not achieve closure. Thus I might keep thinking about a problem at work over a whole weekend as it keeps coming back to haunt me.

Do you know what ruins the weekend? Leaving office on Friday evening with a tray full of unfinished tasks on your desk.

Cal Newport, In his book Deep Work, writes –

…if you simply stop whatever you are doing at 5 p.m. and declare, “I’m done with work until tomorrow,” you’ll likely struggle to keep your mind clear of professional issues, as the many obligations left unresolved in your mind will, as in Bluma Zeigarnik’s experiments, keep battling for your attention throughout the evening (a battle that they’ll often win),

So let’s look at some ideas to effectively deal with Zeigarnik Effect.

Overcoming Zeigarnik Effect

Psychologists discovered that there were quite a few people who seemed to be immune to the Zeigarnik Effect. These people were capable of keeping a completely clear head even if they had dozens of projects on the go.

Roy Baumeister and his research team at Florida State University did an experiment to find out what made some people immune to Zeigarnik Effect. They took students who were a few months away from their final examinations and split them into three groups. Group 1 had to focus on a party during the semester. Group 2 had to concentrate on the exam. Group 3 had to focus on the exam and also create a detailed study plan. As theorized by Zeigarnik Effect, group 1 had relaxed about the upcoming exam, while students in group 2 could think of nothing else. However, group 3 results were the most astonishing. They also had to focus on the upcoming exam but their minds were clear and free from anxiety.

Shane Parrish, talking about cure for Zeigarnik Effect, writes –

If you have 150 things going on in your head at once, the Zeigarnik Effect leaves you leaping from task to task, and it won’t be sedated by vague good intentions.

If you’ve got a memo that has to be read before a meeting Thursday morning, the unconscious wants to know exactly what needs to be done next, and under what circumstances. But once you make that plan— once you put the meeting memo in the tickler file for Wednesday, once you specify the very next action to be taken on the project— you can relax. You don’t have to finish the job right away. You’ve still got 150 things on the to-do list, but for the moment the monkey is still, and the water is calm.

If you want to enjoy your weekend, free of work related worries, Cal Newport has some useful advice for you. He suggests that when you reach the end of your working day, you should use a strict shutdown ritual. He writes in his book –

…this ritual should ensure that every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed that either (1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or (2) it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited when the time is right. The process should be an algorithm: a series of steps you always conduct, one after another. When you’re done, have a set phrase you say that indicates completion (to end my own ritual, I say, “Shutdown Complete”). This final step sounds cheesy, but it provides a simple cue to your mind that it’s safe to release work related thoughts for the rest of the day.

This cure for Zeigarnik Effect, creating a plan, sounds paradoxical to another bias called planning fallacy. To resolve this paradox, Rolf Dobelli, author of The Art of Thinking Clearly, offers some advice –

…Allen’s recommendation [detailed planning] seems to fly in the face of the planning fallacy: the more detailed our planning, the more we tend to overlook factors from the periphery that will derail our projects. But here is the rub: if you want peace of mind, go for Allen’s [detailed planning] approach. If you want the most accurate estimate on cost, benefit, and duration of a project, forget your detailed plan and look up similar projects. If you want both, do both.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why journaling is a very effective tool to reduce stress and bring clarity to one’s thinking process. When you put down your unclear thoughts on paper, the cognitive load on your brain (caused by the spinning of those half-baked ideas) decreases and you can then generate fresh ideas which sometimes paradoxically end up creating links between your earlier unclear thoughts and help you bring more sanity to your thought process.

Exploiting Zeigarnik Effect

One of the greatest advantages of knowing about cognitive biases and human behavioural quirks is to be able to use their force to your advantage. It’s like jujitsu, where you aim is not to counter the force of the enemy but to intelligently redirect and exploit it for your own benefit.

That brings us to a corollary of Zeigarnik Effect – when people manage to start something they’re more inclined to finish it. That means Zeigarnik Effect can act as an antidote to procrastination. Procrastination is fuelled when we’re faced with a large task that we’re trying to avoid starting. It might be because we don’t know how to start or even where to start.

What the Zeigarnik Effect teaches is that the cure for procrastination is to start somewhere…anywhere. However, the condition is that it has to be something important enough. If it’s important enough for you to prioritize it, once you get started, the Zeigarnik Effect will take over.

Here is another insight about Zeigarnik Effect that can increase our productivity. Since uncompleted tasks bring mental discomfort, the key to productivity is working in focused periods of time, while avoiding multi-tasking and disruptions. Getting a task done means peace of mind, while uncomfortable thoughts mean that you will experience anxiety when leaving a task unfinished to focus on something else.

Since multi-tasking is simply diverting your attention from one task to another (basically making the new task an interruption), your brain won’t allow you to fully focus on the new task because you have left the previous one uncompleted.

You can also use Zeigarnik Effect to become a great communicator. World’s best communicators are master story tellers. They hold their audience’s attention by telling riveting tales. But the real lasting impression is created by first engaging them with a story and then leaving them with a cliff-hanger.

Zeigarnik Effect in Investing

Have you been putting off reading annual report for a long time? Just the thought of going through a typical 100-page annual report is so overwhelming that we don’t get started at all.

Well, let lady Zeigarnik be your friend. Just pick up that annual report that you have been procrastinating for so long and start reading it. Read only one page and then Zeigarnik Effect will create a subconscious drive to complete the activity.

Same goes with reading books or starting that saving plan. Start small.

Zeigarnik may be difficult to pronounce but easy to understand and immensely useful if you can exploit it.

Conclusion

Bluma Zeigarnik mistakenly believed that it was necessary to complete tasks to erase them from memory. But it’s not. A good plan of action suffices.

Outstanding tasks are a problem only until we have a clear idea of how we will deal with them.

So next time you find yourself tossing in your bed, unable to sleep, consider using a low-tech device like a notepad. Jot down outstanding tasks and a tentative plan as to how you’ll deal with them. This should take away the subconscious anxiety and silence the cacophony of inner voices in your head.

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About the Author

Anshul Khare worked for 12+ years as a Software Architect. He is an avid learner and enjoys reading about human behaviour and multidisciplinary thinking. You can connect with Anshul on Twitter.

Comments

  1. devendra says:

    very help for me

  2. Sharad Choudhary says:

    Gr8 read. Its really fantastic to know that the functioning of the mind can be analyzed so brillinatly and can be manipulated as per need

  3. Siva Prasad says:

    Felt like complex psychology explained in simple terms with excellent solutions.

  4. Balaji Parthasarathy says:

    Awesome Anshul..
    Thanks for wonderful post. I am going to ask my daughter to read this article. Very informative.

    Thanks,
    Balaji

  5. Hello Anshul,

    Great piece of content 🙂 really loved reading this excellent post!

    Thanks for wonderful post. I am definitely going to suggest my friend to read this article.

    Thanks,
    Rajan

  6. T.M.Varghese says:

    Very interesting and useful.

  7. Prateek Saini says:

    Thank you Vishal for an excellent article.
    Very interesting and informative,

  8. Wonderful post! Lady Zeigarnik indeed had a profound impact on me over the weekend, making me so much more productive! 🙂
    Loved how it can be applied to what initially look intimidating – reading an annual report, book, etc.
    I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about Buffett’s 25-5 rule from this post while reading the “Exploiting Zeigarnik Effect” section. Fascinating!!

  9. Nirav Davda says:

    Excellent article ..Anshul .This would help for 2 major aspects….Procastination and anxiety regarding incomplete tasks

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