What is the Zeigarnik Effect?

The Zeigarnik Effect is a psychological concept that explains why we tend to remember unfinished tasks more easily than tasks that have been completed. Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was first intrigued by this idea when Kurt Lewin, her professor, pointed out that a waiter could remember unpaid orders more easily than paid ones.

Once everyone had settled their bills, the waiter was unable to remember what they had ordered. It explained how memory works. It has been used to discuss why taking a break in a study session when trying to remember a complete series of facts is helpful.

Bluma designed a series of experiments, published in 1927, to explore and more fully understand why people remember incomplete tasks better than completed tasks.

The Zeigarnik Effect argues that there is a difference between finished and unfinished tasks. We have a tendency to remember uncompleted tasks. It’s the reason why TV shows leave us with “cliffhangers” so we are more likely to hold the intrusive thought to “watch next week.”

Should the show leave us with a satisfying ending, we’ll be left with a sense of accomplishment, and our ability to remember that another show is coming up with be reduced.

Once a job is finished, all stress is gone and the results are finalized. We forget about it quickly. An important concept of the Zeigarnik Effect is that we can recall unfinished activities more easily.

The Zeigarnik Effect in Human Relationships

John and Julie Gottman discuss the Zeigarnik Effect as applied to couples therapy. It’s a fundamental truth about human memory: we can’t forget something until we truly process it and extract meaning from it. This same rule applies to couples – if they don’t process a regrettable incident, they can’t move on.

However, once they discuss it and understand their mistakes, the incident can be resolved and their relationship can be nourished by the lessons they have learned.

The Zeigarnik Effect provides a useful framework for understanding, both how simple tasks are processed as well as mental health phenomena. We’ll talk about several here.

Resentment Have you ever replayed an interaction in your mind, and resented what someone said to you? Have you rehearsed what you would have said if you had thought of it, or had the chance? This is an example of the Zeigarnik Effect.

Rumination Rumination involves repetitive thinking or dwelling on negative feelings and distress and their causes and consequences. that active rehearsal or repetitious thinking about information enables our ability to retain it.

Regrettable Incidents People make painful mistakes that hurt others. Whether these incidents are processed and resolved or whether they remain lingering will determine whether or not they will cause the hurt partner to ruminate or let it go.

An example of an “Undelivered Plate”

Janet frustrated her husband Bill, by repeatedly bringing up a time when he had let her down. Bill couldn’t understand why she couldn’t let it go, as he had apologized to her when it happened, two years ago.

Janet, herself, was puzzled why this situation was still something that bothered her so much, and like a bad song that was stuck in her head, she couldn’t forget about what happened. She also couldn’t forgive Bill for it.

Yes, he did apologize, but he did so in a perfunctory way, she thought. “He still has no idea why I’m so upset about it, because every time I bring it up, he rolls his eyes and says, ‘I apologized. Why can’t you let it go?!'”

Couples often come to our weekend couples therapy intensives with these types of issues. Many of them believe that there are so many of them, that a weekend of help simply won’t be enough time to cover them.

We know, however, that many of these issues are “undelivered plates” that have never gotten resolved. A number of our core couples therapy interventions are designed to create a time and setting for these issues to be completely digested so that they can be forgotten.

Gottman interventions such as the Gottman Rappoport intervention and the Dreams Within Conflict are used to explore the relevance and deeper meaning of these regrettable incidents.

Janet couldn’t “will herself” to forget about her hurt. Bill didn’t know what else to say.

What we have learned in over 40 years of research is that Bill needs to understand more fully why this issue is so important and hurtful to Janet. He may think he does. He may also think that simply apologizing is enough. But he doesn’t realize that Janet can’t let go of her painful memory until she’s had a chance to completely digest them with Bill.

In the course of this conversation, Janet will get the opportunity to better understand herself, as she talks about the issue, and how it might relate to other elements of her earlier life. She may “connect the dots” about how this issue is enveloped by other issues.

Once Janet is able to talk to a now attentive Bill, and he has the tools to help her explore this issue in greater depth, many other issues are recontextualized.

Once the job is done, the stress is eased and the results are achieved. Our recollection of the task is erased. The Zeigarnik Effect suggests that we have a better recollection of unfinished tasks.