The Zeigarnik effect: the psychology of unfinished action

In this article you will learn what the psychological effect of Zeigarnik is and why it works. You will figure out how to use it for better memorization, including preparing for exams, as well as how to use it to defeat procrastination. When this effect does not work and how you can neutralize its negative impact - we will also consider in the article.

In order to learn the mechanisms of memorization, effective techniques and techniques, come to our online program “Mnemonics”.

Bluma Zeigarnik and her important discovery

The discovery of this interesting effect of unfinished action was made by the Soviet psychologist Bluma Vulfovna Zeigarnik while still a student. While talking in a cafe with her thesis supervisor, Kurt Lewin, she drew attention to the behavior of one waiter. He served customers without a pen and notepad, which other employees actively used.

Together with her mentor, she called the waiter over and asked him to remember what dishes the visitors at the next table ordered. He easily listed a considerable list, without missing a single item. Then Bluma and Kurt asked him about the order of the visitors who had already paid and left the cafe. And then the waiter could not remember a single dish, although he had previously given the order to the cook absolutely accurately.

The student was very interested in this case. While searching for an explanation for the cafe employee's phenomenal memory and its instantaneous “switching off,” she made an amazing discovery. It turns out that completed and unfinished tasks have different meanings for a person. She developed and studied this idea, which was later recognized by official psychology and named after her - the Bluma Zeigarnik effect.

Influence of psychological effect

A scientifically proven psychological phenomenon helps increase efficiency at work.
It is necessary to take into account both internal and external influencing factors:

  • the importance of completing a specific procedure, the level of emotionality increases the excitement of incompleteness;
  • the reward that a person will miss from unfulfilled work;
  • self-esteem.

The occurrence of the Zeigarnik effect also depends on the degree of its significance.
With low self-esteem, an employee stops remembering things. If he values ​​himself beyond measure, he takes on any responsibilities due to great motivation. It is human nature to remember victories for a long time and forget defeats. People often, although not everyone succeeds, cross out unpleasant events and situations. This does not apply to work; an unresolved, forgotten task remains hidden in the background and affects the mood.

Scientists have concluded that the brains of people with schizophrenia do not work the same way for everyone.

What is the psychological phenomenon of Zeigarnik?

Briefly speaking about the Zeigarnik effect, it comes down to explaining the influence of an unfinished action on a person’s state. Without completing a task, people cannot calm down and relax. An example would be an important conversation with a spouse that is interrupted by someone in the middle. Lack of agreement leads to tension and uncertainty in relationships. A person cannot relax and switch to other things; thoughts about the conversation constantly pop up in his memory.

Based on his observations, here is what Bluma Zeigarnik writes about this in the book “Patopsychology”: “When an action is not completed, the intention remains unfulfilled, a certain affective activity is created (in the terminology of K. Levin, a “dynamic system”), which manifests itself in a different form activity - in this case in reproduction."

Speaking briefly about how exactly the Zeigarnik effect unfolds, in psychology they denote the following sequence:

  1. Starting any task creates tension in a person’s memory.
  2. Tension tends to end, influencing behavior.
  3. The tension is released as soon as the end of the matter is realized.

By nature, a person is designed in such a way that he feels comfort and a sense of satisfaction only from solving a task and completing the work process. Such a direction as Gestalt psychology talks about this in more detail.

Instead of output

Processes that have not been completed are stored in memory and create energy tension. People feel this only psychologically; physically it does not cause any discomfort. This tension is also called the shock effect.

The action is similar to suddenly falling off a bicycle when you cannot see the root cause. If there is no injury or it is not serious, you can continue on your way. However, an injury or vehicle breakdown will interrupt the ride for an indefinite period of time.

Article updated 03/31/2020

Closed gestalt and its place in the Zeigarnik effect

The discovery of the Zeigarnik effect in psychology became one of the starting points in the formation of the basic principles of well-being in the direction of Gestalt (German: Gestalt - holistic image). They come down to completeness and integrity, which create the basic prerequisites for a sense of personal satisfaction.

The basis for this belief is the peculiarity of the psyche, which consists in the fact that it is capable of translating only completed cases into experience. That is, relaxation occurs only after a completed image of the task or situation is formed. The absence of its logical ending entails the flow of energy in the direction that worries a person. Prolonged leakage and tension cause neurosis and other health problems. This state is referred to among specialists as “open gestalt.”

What to remember

  • The Zeigarnik effect is the brain's desire to complete unfinished tasks.
  • It occurs due to cognitive stress, which constantly returns the task to the brain's working memory.
  • Divide the material you are studying into parts and take breaks during the study process - this will help you remember better.
  • To beat procrastination, take a small first step. This will trigger the Zeigarnik effect - your brain will strive to finish the job.
  • This method is not effective if you are paid for the work and not the result; and in cases where you have too many unfulfilled tasks.

Experimental study of the Zeigarnik effect

To confirm or refute the discovered phenomenon, Blum, together with his fellow student Maria Ovsyankina, organized a special experiment. During the test, the subjects were given various intellectual tasks. These included puzzles, arithmetic, clay modeling and building buildings from cardboard boxes.

During the experiment, the subjects were periodically interrupted, not allowing them to complete some task. They were told that the time to complete it had run out and were encouraged to move on to the next one. After completing the experiment, participants were asked to recall and describe the problems that needed to be solved. In 90% of cases, the tasks that were voiced were those that were not completed by the subjects. This confirmed Zeigarnik’s assumption that unfinished business receives a special status in our minds and cannot be completely forgotten until the moment of completion.

How does he work

While studying the manifestations of the effect, scientists introduced the concept of cognitive tension. As soon as you start performing a task, a certain tension is created in the brain. You can only get rid of it if you complete the task and receive your dose of dopamine as a reward.

If you haven't finished something, your brain will constantly remind you of it. Cognitive stress promotes the return of an unfinished task to short-term memory. It will remind you of it until you complete it.

How is the Zeigarnik effect used today?

This psychological phenomenon is successfully used by modern media and advertising agencies. It is on this that the desire to watch series to the end is based. Moreover, even in situations where the plot does not particularly correspond to a person’s personal interests, the desire to build a holistic image of what is happening in the mind pushes one to watch the next series.

By skillfully playing on the importance of unfinished business, marketers lead us to the transition on the Internet to the desired page offering a service or product. For example, they create a banner with an ad that breaks at the most interesting point. It is often difficult to resist reading a sentence to the end.

In personal life, this effect also finds its place in the development of relationships. For example, when, after meeting, interested lovers are forced to abruptly separate, they often cannot forget each other for a long time. The feelings that flared up in them found neither confirmation nor disappointment. They hung in the mind with a certain uncertainty that did not allow one to calm down and leave thoughts about the other person in the past.

When does it appear?

People who experience psychological problems as adults have suffered some kind of trauma or still hold grudges from childhood. They cannot let go and forgive the offender. Unpleasant memories sit in your head and do not allow you to move on - the gestalt is open. As soon as a person understands his internal state, emotional release and relief will come.

A person in love can also experience the effect. For example, once a guy and a girl loved each other, but circumstances played a cruel joke, and one of them had to leave or simply break off the relationship. The one who experienced strong feelings will remember the other even after 10-20 years. Their relationship did not end, but was interrupted, so the gestalt is not closed.

Zeigarnik decided to take into account additional factors that play an important role in the classic experiment: social, personal, motivational, and so on. For example, a tense atmosphere during problem solving has a beneficial effect on the memorability of the problem. Accordingly, if the atmosphere is relaxed, then the interrupted task will leave a less noticeable trace in the memory. Considering the characteristics of the cognitive function of the brain, you can use this effect to your advantage. The main thing is to know how to use it correctly.

Books about the Zeigarnik effect

More information about the manifestation of this psychological phenomenon in life, as well as about research around it, can be found in the relevant literature:

  • Bluma Zeigarnik "Patopsychology".
  • Sergey Stepanov “Living psychology. Lessons from famous experiments."
  • John Goth.
  • Rolf Dobelli “Territory of Delusions. What mistakes do smart people make?

Explanation of the phenomenon

Zeigranik herself explained the occurrence of this phenomenon due to motivating factors. That is, the personality is overcome by the need to complete what has been started. Moreover, motivation can differ significantly for everyone. For example, some people agreed to the experiment in order to test their capabilities and get to know themselves better. Part - to help science, at least somehow coming into contact with its development. And someone just wanted to have fun and decided to participate, simply relying on their passion.

There are a lot of reasons that can be given, but in any case, each participant had a motive according to which he completed the tasks and reached the end. At the moment of interruption of activity, it turned out that his intention, according to which he gave all his best, turned out to be unfulfilled. This creates tension, which is completely justified. So much effort has been put in and all in vain. It is then that such an intention remains in memory in order to find an opportunity to be realized in the future.

Kurt Lewin called such an intention a quasi need, that is, different from a true need, being, as it were, secondary. Its purpose is to relieve the resulting tension of incompleteness. Why will a person unconsciously reproduce similar situations in life until he manages to discharge himself. It was for this reason that the subjects voluntarily returned to the task at which they were interrupted if there was a short break between tasks.

Rosenzweig's study

Saul Rosenzweig conducted an interesting experiment. His results turned out to be slightly different from those obtained by Bluma. He made changes to the testing procedure, telling participants that the experiment was aimed at studying their mental abilities. This completely changed the situation. Since now the subjects have replaced tasks that they could not, or did not have time to cope with. They remembered only those that they managed to complete successfully. Nobody wanted to admit that they were stupid, excessively slow and incapable of complex intellectual work.

Nuances of the phenomenon

In 2006, scientists in Mississippi conducted an experiment similar to what Zeigarnik came up with. Only the task was a little different. Experimenters studied the effect of reward anticipation on job performance. It turned out that the effect loses its strength under additional conditions. The subjects were divided into two groups. The first was told that they would definitely pay for their work, but the second was not promised anything. After they were not allowed to finish the task, but were given a new one, during the break, 86% of the participants who did not expect money chose to return and finish what they started. While 58% of the subjects who were waiting for payment were satisfied with what they managed to do.

The phenomenon of incompleteness in love

Often we cannot forget about this or that person with whom we had a romantic or friendly relationship, justifying ourselves and selecting various psychological effects as justification. The Zeigarnik effect can explain a lot of suffering in failed relationships, especially if there was no obvious separation and division of property between partners.

Therefore, it is strongly recommended not to break up with ex-lovers over the phone or the Internet. The injured party will not be able to fully realize that everything is over, and this phenomenon of incompleteness will lurk in the person’s subconscious, not letting go of the image of the former lover.

The same applies to relationships that are destroyed due to a sudden distance between people. For example, if one of the halves leaves to work in another city and gradually becomes weaned from a loved one, there must be a fact of separation during a personal meeting. Otherwise, such a “silent” breakup can have a painful effect on the subconscious of the injured party.

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