Television and movies are full of unfinished stories that leave us with a sense of suspense. Chapters that end the cliffhangers to encourage us to keep track of what will happen, parallel stories that are developing in fits and starts, second, third and fourth parts of a film, etc.

Something similar happens with the projects we leave unfinished. In general, the feeling of not having seen something that was started finished leaves us with an unpleasant feeling . Why? To understand this we can resort to a phenomenon called the Zeigarnik effect .

What is the Zeigarnik effect?

In the early 20th century, a Soviet researcher named Bluma Zeigarnik was working with psychologist Kurt Lewin when the latter drew her attention to something very curious she had observed: waiters seemed to remember better the orders for tables that had not yet been served or paid for than those that had already been placed.

In other words, the memory of the waiters seemed to give greater priority to evoking information about unfinished orders, regardless of whether they had been initiated before or after those that had already been delivered and paid for. Memories about completed orders were more easily lost .

Bluma Zeigarnik was dedicated to experimenting with whether memories of unfinished processes are better stored in memory than those of other projects. The result of this line of research undertaken in the 1920s is what is known today as the Zeigarnik effect .

Experimenting with memory

The study that made the Zeigarnik effect famous was conducted in 1927. In this experiment, a series of volunteers had to successively perform a series of 20 exercises, such as math problems, and some manual tasks. But Bluma Zeigarnik was not interested in the performance of the participants or their success in undertaking these small tests. He simply focused on the effect that the interruption of these tasks had on the participants’ brains .

To this end, he stopped the participants from solving the tests at a certain point. Later, found that these people remembered better data about the tests that had been left half way through , regardless of the type of exercise they required to solve.

The Zeigarnik effect was reinforced by the results of this experiment. Thus, the Zeigarnik Effect is now considered to be a tendency to remember information about unfinished tasks better. Furthermore, Bluma Zeigarnik’s studies were in line with Kurt Lewin’s field theory and influenced the Gestalt theory.

Why is the Zeigarnik effect relevant?

When cognitive psychology emerged in the late 1950s, the interest of this new generation of researchers turned to the study of memory, and they took the Zeigarnik effect very much into account. The conclusions drawn by Bluma Zeigarnik from this experiment were extended to any learning process. For example, it was hypothesized that an effective study method should include some pauses, to make the mental processes involved in memory store information well.

But the Zeigarnik effect was not only used in education, but in all those processes in which someone has to “learn” something, in the broadest sense of the word. For example, in the world of advertising served to inspire certain techniques based on the suspense associated with a brand or product : advertising pieces were created based on a story that is presented in pieces, as if in instalments, to make potential clients memorize a brand well and transform the interest they feel in knowing how the story is resolved into interest in the product being offered.

The Zeigarnik Effect and Works of Fiction

Advertisements are very short and therefore have little room to create deep and interesting stories, but this is not the case with fiction works we find in books or on screens. The Zeigarnik effect has also served as a starting point for achieving something that many fiction producers want: to build audience loyalty and create a group of fervent followers of the story being told .

It is basically a matter of making it easier for people to be willing to devote a significant portion of their attention and memory to everything related to what is being told. The Zeigarnik effect is a good handle to achieve this, since it indicates that the information about the stories that have not yet been fully discovered will remain very much alive in the memory of the public, making it easy to think about it in any context and generating beneficial side effects: discussion forums in which there is speculation about what will happen, theories made by fans, etc.

There is a lack of evidence to demonstrate the Zeigarnik effect

Despite the relevance that the Zeigarnik effect has had beyond academic environments, the truth is that it is not sufficiently proven that it exists as part of the normal functioning of memory . This is so, firstly, because the methodology used in psychological research during the 1920s did not comply with the guarantees that would be expected in this field today, and secondly, because attempts to repeat Bluma Zeigarnik’s experiment (or similar ones) have produced disparate results that do not point in a clear direction.

However, it is possible that the Zeigarnik effect exists beyond the mechanics of storing memories and has more to do with human motivation and the way it interacts with memory . In fact, everything we memorize or try to remember has a value attributed to it depending on the interest that the information we try to incorporate into our memory has for us. If something interests us more, we will think about it more times, and that in turn is a way of reinforcing memories by “reviewing” mentally what we have memorized before.

In short, in order to consider whether or not the Zeigarnik effect exists, it is necessary to take into account many more factors than the memory itself. It is a conclusion that either allows us to put the matter to rest, but, in the end, the simplest explanations are also the most boring.