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What Is the Zeigarnik Effect? Definition and Examples

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Oct 13, 2021


Key Takeaways

  • The Zeigarnik effect refers to the tendency for interrupted tasks, in some circumstances, to be recalled better than completed tasks.
  • Name after the Russain psychologist Bluma (Wolfovna) Zeigarnik (1901-88), who first reported it in the journal Psychologische Forschung in 1927.

Origins of the Zeigarnik Effect

The Zeigarnik Effect is the tendency for tasks which have been interrupted and uncompleted to be better remembered than tasks which have been completed.

Bluma Zeigarnik (1927) first saw this effect in waiters, who seemed to remember orders only so long as the order was in the process of being served, and promptly forgot the order as soon as it was finished.

This small observation of waiters came to become the starting point of a series of experiments by Zeigarnik (Denmark, 2009).

At the time when Zeigarnik studied the Zeigarnik effect, she was supervised by the notable Gestalt theorist Kurt Lewin and was frequently exposed to the writings of Gestalt psychologists such as Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka, and Max Wertheimer (MacLeod, 2020).

In short, Gestalt psychology is a school of psychology that emerged in the early 20th century which emphasizes that the whole of human behavior is not deducible from the analysis of parts of that behavior in isolation.

Zeigarnik was strongly influenced by the field theory of her supervisor Kurt Lewin in her studies of the Zeigarnik Effect. Lewin postulated a theory of psychological tensions where tensions were forms of energetics (Marrow, 1969).

These “psychic tensions' provided people with the mental energy to prepare for and bring about behavior, and this behavior released the tension. Zeigarnik attributed the same principle as the cause of the Zeigarnik effect, and her dissertation ultimately connected Lewin’s psychic field theory to observations of behavior in waiters.


Zeigarnik’s Initial Experiments

In her series of experiments on the Zeigarnik effect, Zeigarnik (1927) asked participants to complete a series of anywhere between 15 and 22 tasks. Some involved tactile tasks (such as stringing beads), while others involved applying mental abilities to, for example, solve a puzzle.

Zeigarrnik allowed half of the participants to complete their tasks and interrupted the other half of these participants partway through, asking the participants to move onto something else.

She removed the tasks from the subject's view and, after an hour delay, asked the participants to recall the activities they had been involved in. For example, in her first experiment, Zeigarnik gave 32 adults 22 tasks, such as thread winding, paper folding, multiplication, drawing, and counting backward.

The tasks were intended to take from 3-5 minutes, and were interrupted when the patient “was most engrossed” in the task. Zeigarnik’s initial studies confirmed her initial hypothesis Zeigaarnik conducted four such experiments.

In the first experiment, which she considered to be her main experiment, she tested participants individually and the number of unfinished tasks (designated I) that participants recalled were significantly higher than the number of tasks that participants completed (designated C).

In fact, participants were twice as likely to remember incomplete tasks than complete ones (Zeigarnik, 1927; Denmark, 2009). She replicated this experiment with 15 individual adults and in group situations with 47 adults and 45 adolescent children.

Zeigarnik, in subsequent experiments, examined the recall ratio for tasks interrupted at different times and found that tasks which were interrupted at the middle or toward the end were more likely to be recalled than those interrupted near the beginning of work on them. A

s the participants grew nearer and nearer to completing each task they were interrupted in, they became increasingly more likely to remember these incomplete tasks over completed ones.

According to Zeigarnik’s hypothesis, participants were more likely to remember incomplete tasks because they spurred “psychic tension.” Once someone completed the task, this relieves psychic tension, and thus they can release it from their memory, and the person no longer uses significant cognitive effort to remember the task (Zeigarnik, 1927).

Zeigarnik also found that people who expressed high levels of ambition were more likely to remember incomplete tasks (that is to say, a high I/C ratio) than those who have average levels of ambition (a low I/C ratio).

If participants believed that an incomplete task represented a failure, they were also more likely to remember incomplete tasks than those who had not.

Zeigarnik carried out two further small experiments (with 12 adults) to challenge alternative interpretations to her theory, for example, interrupting tasks but then allowing participants to immediately resume completing half of them.

Again, she observed that participants were ultimately the most likely to recall tasks that she never allowed to be completed. In her second of these small experiments, she told six participants that six of the interrupted tasks would be resumed and that another six would not be, though no tasks were ever resumed.

Once again, Zeigarnik found that, regardless of whether or not she said the tasks would be resumed, all of the tasks that were interrupted were more likely to be remembered by participants than those which the participant was able to complete (MacLeod, 2020).


Replicability

Psychologists generally agree that the Zeigarnik effect is sensitive to a number of factors that are difficult to control in a laboratory experiment.

For example, the Zeigarnik effect is less likely to appear if a participant is ego-involved in the task, the effect is more likely to appear if the interruption of the tasks does not seem to be an intentional part of the experiment, and the effect is more likely to appear if the participant has not come to the conclusion that the task is impossible or beyond their ability (Denmark, 2009).

There are two features of Zeigarnik’s methodology that have been little discussed but which may have influential implications. In her studies, Zeigarnik only recorded responses produced before participants hesitated, as she considered only that portion of recall to be related to her tension hypothesis. Zeigarnik also observed that uncompleted tasks tended to be recalled first (MacLeod, 2020).

This idiosyncratic methodology may be one reason why some researchers, beginning with the work of Schlote (1930) have been unsupportive of the Zeigarnik effect.

A series of psychologists have criticized the replicability of the Zeigarnik effect, Hovland (1951) for example stating that “few investigators could unequivocally reproduce Zeigarnik’s findings,” and arguing that findings differed dramatically depending on participant personality.

A review by Butterfield (1964) concluded that the Zeigarnik effect is far from being the invariable result in ITP [interrupted task paradigm].

Frequently, more complete than uncompleted tasks are recalled,” and many psychologists since then (such as Atkinson (1953) have claimed that there is no “universal pattern” as to whether or not and which sort of participants recalled more incomplete than complete tasks (MacLeod, 2020).

Despite conflicting accounts as to the validity of the Zeigarnik effect, the phenomenon nonetheless remains an extensively researched topic, with studies aimed at measuring the effect with those with intellectual disabilities and in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as studies analyzing the relationship with memory and ego-states (Heinz, 1997; House and McIntosh, 2000; Mantyla and Sgaramella, 1997).


Implications for Everyday Life

Productivity and Learning

Many psychologists and pedagogists have examined the implications of the Zeigarnik effect on learning. Generally, educators believe that if a learning task is interrupted and resumed later, then the information learned during that task is more likely to be remembered.

An educator may recommend, for example, that one studies a subject in small intervals, and taking breaks midway through memorizing a concept may lead to better recall.

Others may suggest, for example, that in order to avoid procrastination, one can take the very first step toward completing a task as soon as possible before resuming it later.

Applications have ranged as far as general advice on exam preparation to designs of outdoor classroom experiences. For example, Hiramatsu, et. al. (2014) recount the development of a learning system for outdoor school trips in Japanese elementary and secondary schools.

The researchers developed a mobile application which gave students quizzes on field trips on topics which they were not aware that they would be quizzed on beforehand, but which they had studied in school.

Those who answered the quizzes showed more interest and recall of the objects shown in those quizzes than those not shown in the quizzes.

Those who had been given an incomplete preparatory lecture were more likely to recall and answer quiz questions correctly than those who were not.

Marketing

Advertisers have long used the Zeigarnik effect as a method of catching the attention and memory of viewers. For example, in one study of the potential for the Zeigarnik effect in advertising, Heimbach (1972) carries out a series of trials.

In one such trial, the researchers prepared 30-minute television programs with four test and five filler commercials each existing in program breaks. Some commercials were shown in their entirety, while others were interrupted.

Immediately after finishing the television program, the researchers asked participants to identify the type of product, the brand name of the product, and a detailed description of the contents of each of the nine commercials shown to them.

All in all, despite the researcher’s hypothesis, there was little support for the application of the Zeigarnik effect to broadcast advertising.

However, a more thoroughly controlled experiment conducted later by Heimbach showed that indeed, interrupted commercials were more likely to be remembered than those which were not (Heimbach, 1972).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2021, Oct 13). What Is the Zeigarnik Effect? Definition and Examples. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/zeigarnik-effect.html

References

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