Zeigarnik effect

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Named after Lithuanian-Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, in psychology the Zeigarnik effect occurs when an activity that has been interrupted may be more readily recalled. It postulates that people remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In Gestalt psychology, the Zeigarnik effect has been used to demonstrate the general presence of Gestalt phenomena: not just appearing as perceptual effects, but also present in cognition.[1]

The Zeigarnik effect should not be confused with the Ovsiankina effect. Maria Ovsiankina, a colleague of Zeigarnik, investigated the effect of task interruption on the tendency to resume the task at the next opportunity.[2]


Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik first studied the phenomenon after her professor, Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin and noticed that a waiter had better recollections of still unpaid orders. However, after the completion of the task – after everyone had paid – he was unable to remember any more details of the orders. Zeigarnik then designed a series of experiments to uncover the processes underlying this phenomenon. Her research report was published in 1927, in the journal Psychologische Forschung.[3]

The advantage of remembrance can be explained by looking at Lewin's field theory: a task that has already been started establishes a task-specific tension, which improves cognitive accessibility of the relevant contents.[4] The tension is relieved upon completion of the task, but persists if it is interrupted. Through continuous tension, the content is made more easily accessible, and can be easily remembered.[4]

The Zeigarnik effect suggests that students who suspend their study to perform unrelated activities (such as studying a different subject or playing a game), will remember material better than students who complete study sessions without a break (McKinney 1935; Zeigarnik 1927).[5][6]

Harden rule[edit]

Sportswriter Matt Moore has suggested that the Zeigarnik effect could explain the widespread criticism of the National Basketball Association in allowing free throws for a player "chucking it up whenever a guy comes near them".[7] There is a stoppage of play with each foul. When repeatedly done, it is felt to build up a cognitive bias against this move. The criticism necessitated a rule change penalizing this activity, known as the Harden Rule, named after its most prominent user, James Harden.[8][9]


The reliability of the effect has been a matter of some controversy.[10]

Several studies, performed later in other countries, attempting to replicate Zeigarnik's experiment, failed to find any significant differences in recall between "finished" and "unfinished" (interrupted) tasks (e.g. Van Bergen, (1968).[11]



Zeigarnik effect is being used in some SaaS (Software as a service systems) to onboard users faster and effectively.[citation needed]

Zeigarnik effect emphasizes an "Aha! moment" as an uncompleted task.[citation needed]

Usually, it is implemented as user interactions gamification. Examples include:

  • Progress trackers which inform users of how close they are to complete a task. For example, when users see a message like "Your profile is 64% complete", they are more likely to spend a few minutes on providing all missing details.
  • Checklists to provide a clear step-by-step on-boarding flow.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Koffka, Kurt (1935). Principles of Gestalt Psychology. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. p. 334ff. ISBN 978-0-415-86881-5. OCLC 2314654.
  2. ^ Ovsiankina, Maria (January 1928). "Die Wiederaufnahme unterbrochener Handlungen" [Resumption of Interrupted Tasks]. Psychologische Forschung (in German). 11 (3/4): 302–379. doi:10.1007/BF00410261. S2CID 147359058. Archived from the original on 2022-02-26.
  3. ^ Zeigarnik, Bluma (1938). "Das Behalten erledigter und unerledigter Handlungen" [On Finished and Unfinished Tasks] (PDF). Psychologische Forschung (in German). 9: 1–85. Archived (PDF) from the original on 24 December 2021. pp. 300-314 in W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A Sourcebook of Gestalt Psychology, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.
  4. ^ a b Lewin, Kurt (1935). A Dynamic Theory of Personality: Selected Papers. McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. p. 243ff. ISBN 978-0-07-037451-5. OCLC 760465262.
  5. ^ Zeigarnik, Bluma (1927). "Das Behalten erledigter und unerledigter Handlungen" [Remembering completed and uncompleted actions] (PDF) (in German). pp. 300–314. Archived (PDF) from the original on 24 December 2021.
  6. ^ McKinney, Fred (April 1935). "Studies in the Retention of Interrupted Learning Activities". Journal of Comparative Psychology. 19 (2): 265–296. CiteSeerX doi:10.1037/h0056005. Archived from the original on 5 May 2019.
  7. ^ Moore, Matt (4 October 2017). "How the NBA's newly imposed 'Harden Rule' will impact James Harden this season". CBSSports.com. Archived from the original on 6 February 2020. Retrieved 21 April 2020.
  8. ^ Boone, Kyle (September 22, 2017). "The NBA is finally cracking down on James Harden's foul-drawing antics". CBSSports.com. Archived from the original on October 5, 2017. Retrieved October 4, 2017.
  9. ^ "NBA implementing 'Zaza Pachulia,' 'James Harden' rules". NBCSports.com. September 21, 2017. Archived from the original on October 4, 2017. Retrieved October 4, 2017.
  10. ^ Einstein, Gilles O.; McDaniel, Mark A.; Williford, Carrie L.; Pagan, Jason L.; Dismukes, R. Key (2003). "Forgetting of intentions in demanding situations is rapid" (PDF). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. 9 (3): 147–162. CiteSeerX doi:10.1037/1076-898X.9.3.147. PMID 14570509. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-04. [...] there is controversy regarding the reliability of the Zeigarnik effect [...]
  11. ^ Colin M. MacLeod (6 April 2020). "Zeigarnik and von Restorff: The memory effects and the stories behind them". Memory and Cognition. doi:10.3758/S13421-020-01033-5. ISSN 0090-502X. PMID 32291585. Wikidata Q91935831.

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