Haunted by the Zeigarnik Effect

Bluma Zeigarnk sitting at her desk. (Looks like she's disappointed in you. Was it something you did? Knowing you, it's probably something you left undone.)

When I first heard about the Zeigarnik Effect, it was an accident. I was browsing the Internet looking for some silly fact or other when I saw the words, “Zeigarnik Effect.”  Hmmm. That looks interesting, I thought, but then I soon returned to my mindless browsing.

While I was wading through the wastelands of the World Wide Web, checking in on Facebook, and Googling myself, I began feeling  troubled and anxious. Something just wasn’t right. I wondered: What is the Zeigarnik Effect? Who was this Zeigarnik person? I must find out.

The suspense of not knowing the answers about this mysterious Zeigarnik nagged at me so much that I looked her up. Turns out Bluma Zeigarnik was a Russian experimental psychologist who was interested in helping people to increase effectiveness in their work. So she did a bit of experimenting with people and asked them about their anxieties and worries about finishing things.

Zeigarnik’s work suggests that people remember what is incomplete or unfinished better than something that is all wrapped up nice and neat.  By nature, it seems, humans yearn to finish things. That’s why hearing part of a familiar song will leave you wanting to remember the rest of lyrics, and why the cliff hanger device used in a TV series is so effective.

Here’s how you can get the pesky Zeirgarnik Effect to work for you.

  1. Start something and don’t finish it.  Go ahead, let your inner Zeigarnikian pester and heckle you .  Eventually you will complete the project, but not until you allow the incompletion of it mellow, ferment, froth, and bubble and fill you with dissatisfaction that turns into disgust that turns into desire to just get it over with. All the pent up frustration and desire will thrust and burst you forward into greater achievement and higher levels of accomplishment.
  1. Break up your workday with moments whereby you do things other than work. When you are studying or writing or working on something that you want to remember later, resist the urge to work on it until you are done. The Zeigarnik Effect predicts that you will remember more if you give your brain a little incompletely digested grist for its mill, cud for its gut.  So, study until you almost have it, then go out and go for a walk, do some yoga, watch another episode of Battlestar Galactica, reorganize your seed catalogues, make a Marmite sandwich. Oh, heck, just go outside and play. Your brain will love you for it.
  1. And when  you are trying to get someone to fall in love with you, make sure you leave a little information missing from time to time. As my dear Grandma, Elizabeth Kronenberger, said of spouses: “They don’t need to know everything.” I used to think that meant that it was okay to be deceitful, but now I realize it was simply her clever way of keeping relationships fresh and Grandpa interested.
  2. And then, at long last, when you grow tired of that special someone and it’s not them, it’s you, and you’re ready to move on to greener pastures and you want to do other things and people, and they’re just not getting that it’s time to move on, you can do this: You can start to sing an obnoxious song, one they know well, say for example:

And he will raise you up

On Eagles Wings

Bear you on the breath of Dawn

Make you to ….”

And then stop. Go no further. Soon the song will be implanted firmly in your former loved one’s unwitting head and the Zeigarnik Effect will begin to work its magic. His or her brains will be tormented by trying to remember and complete the rest of the obnoxious song.  Alas, he or she will not be able to get that damned song out of  his or her brains. Do this repeatedly, if not continually, until the brains of the object of your disaffection associates YOU with the obnoxious song.  Soon you will be free from this person forever, free to move on and plant your seed in the hills of those proverbial greener pastures.