The Zeigarnik Effect

Named after a Russian psychologist, the Zeigarnik effect suggests that incomplete or interrupted tasks are better remembered. The phenomenon was inspired by Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin’s observation of waiters who had better recollections of orders that were unpaid. However, the waiters were unable to remember the details of the orders after they were paid. Zeigarnik took interest in the phenomenon and undertook a study to analyze the processes behind. His findings “On Finished and Unfinished Tasks” were published in a journal in 1927. In the experiment, participants were given a series of tasks like puzzles, or flat-pack box to complete. During the task, half of the participants were interrupted subtly by the supervisor, while half of the participants performed the tasks without any interruption. After the experiment was over, Zeigarnik interviewed the participants about the details of the tasks. The findings confirmed the observations of Lewin’s. Participants who were interrupted during the task were better able to recall the details as compared to those who were not interrupted.

The benefits of interruption can be explained by Lewin’s field theory, which states that a task that has already been started creates a task-specific tension; this tension, in turn, improves cognitive accessibility of content that is relevant. This tension, however, is relieved when the task is completed. In this way, when a task is interrupted, mind is unable to relieve the task-specific tension. This constant tension makes the content more readily accessible and easily remembered. This phenomenon has an application with students who are studying. It has been found that students who perform unrelated or irrelevant activities (studying different subject or playing sports) during studies, remember the content better than students who continue studying one subject without any interruption.