Cognitive Bias: Zeigarnik Effect – Remembering Interrupted Tasks

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Imagine you’re working on a puzzle.

You know that a bunch of researchers are watching to see how you complete this puzzle.

Half way through, you’re interrupted. The researcher asks you to do something else.

Later that day, the researcher asks you about the puzzle. More specifically, they ask you to remember details about the puzzle.

How well do you think you’ll do?

What if your results were compared with someone who got to finish the puzzle? Who do you think would do better on a test about the puzzle?

Interruptions are Good for the Memory

Turns out, you’re likely to remember more about the puzzle than someone who completed it.


The answer, it seems, is because your brain is primed to hold onto unfinished information. It’s only after a mental task is completely that we can put it to rest. We no longer have to think about it.

This putting the task to rest could explain why experiments have demonstrated higher memory retention for things that still need to be finished.

Zeigarnik Effect: Why Waiters Remember More About People Who Haven’t Paid

Bluma Zeigarnik’s professor had commented on waiters remembering more about an order if the bill hadn’t been paid, than if it had.

You might be thinking: “Of course they remember more! They still want you to give them money,” but hold on.

They’re not saying that the waiters are more attentive to open tabs. This is a matter of being able to remember specifics about it.

Intuitively, it makes sense that the length of time that has passed will be a greater indicator of how well a person can remember an event.

The observation of how well waiters remembered particular tickets seemed to suggest that incomplete tasks could potentially be remembered better then completed tasks, even after the same amount of time.

To put it to the test, Bluma Zeigarnik devised an experiment.

The Experiment

The set-up of the experiment was fairly simple:

  1. Give participants a task (such as completing a puzzle).
  2. Interrupt half of them during said task.
  3. Let the other half complete the task.
  4. After time has passed, ask both groups of participants to recall details from the task.
  5. Measure the level of detail each was able to retain.

What she found was the participants who were interrupted were able to retain facts about the task 90% better than those who weren’t.

Beware of Manipulators Using this Effect Against You

Oddly, when I was researching the Zeigernik Effect, I came across a webpage I won’t give link credit to.

This webpage suggested that one ought to use this effect to disrupt discourse.

They urged readers to start one topic, then move to a different topic before the first one was finished. Then move to a third topic before the second was finished. And to continue doing this until the other speaker was holding too many things in their working memory to keep track of. The website suggested this as a technique for “winning” the first argument by never finishing it.

This is obviously something done by people who are either unable or unwilling to get to the bottom of the first issue.

Watch out for people doing this to you and call them out on it. It obstructs reason.

In an age like this, everyone of us should be demanding accountability to logic and the facts. Don’t let people get away with confounding the issue. Hold them to it. Don’t let them move on to a second issue until the first is resolved.

They might not be obstructing the issue on purpose, but they are circumventing reason.

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Author: A. Primate

Mammal. Organizes itself into complex social hierarchies. Very particular about objects - even those that can't be eaten or used for shelter. Seemingly aware of itself as separate from the environment.

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