Bluma Zeigarnik

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Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik (Russian: Блю́ма Ву́льфовна Зейга́рник; 9 November 1901 – 24 February 1988) was a Soviet psychologist and psychiatrist, a member of the Berlin School of experimental psychology and Vygotsky Circle. She discovered the Zeigarnik effect and contributed to the establishment of experimental psychopathology as a separate discipline in the Soviet Union in the after-World War II period.

Life and career[edit]

Born into a Lithuanian Jewish family in Prienai, Suwałki Governorate, Zeigarnik matriculated from the Berlin University in 1927. She described the Zeigarnik effect in a diploma prepared under the supervision of Kurt Lewin. In the 1930s, she worked with Lev Vygotsky at the All-Union Institute of Experimental Medicine (AUIEM, aka VIEM). During World War II, she assisted Alexander Luria in repairing head injuries. She was a co-founder of the Moscow State University Department of Psychology and the All-Russian Seminars in Psychopathology. She died in Moscow at the age of 86.

The Zeigarnik effect[edit]

In psychology, the Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks (this effect should not be confused with the Ovsiankina effect[1]). 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.[2]

Zeigarnik worked under professor, Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin. She first studied the phenomenon after noticing 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 dynamic facts underlying this phenomenon. Her research report was published in 1927.[3]

The reliability of the effect has been a matter of some controversy.[4] Several studies attempting to replicate Zeigarnik's experiment, done later in other countries, failed to find significant differences in recall between finished and unfinished (interrupted) tasks (e.g. Van Bergen, 1968). It seems that the effect depends on additional factors, most above all on the importance of the interrupted task for the person.

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.[5] This tension that has formerly been established is being relieved upon completion of the task. In case of task interruption the reduction of tension is being impeded. Through continuous tension the content is easier accessible and it can be easily remembered.[6]

The Zeigarnik effect suggests that students who suspend their study, during which they do unrelated activities (such as studying unrelated subjects or playing games), will remember material better than students who complete study sessions without a break (McKinney 1935; Zeigarnik, 1927).

Selected Publications[edit]

  • 1927: Das Behalten erledigter und unerledigter Handlungen. Psychologische Forschung 9, 1-85.
  • 1965: The pathology of thinking. New York: Consultants Bureau Enterprises.
  • 1972: Experimental Abnormal Psychology. New York: Plenum Press.
  • 1984: Kurt Lewin and Soviet psychology. Journal of Social Issues 40, 193.



  1. ^ Maria Ovsiankina was a colleague of Bluma Zeigarnik who investigated the effect of task interruption on the tendency to resume the task at the next opportunity; cf. Ovsiankina 1928: Die Wiederaufnahme unterbrochener Handlungen. In: Psychologische Forschung 11(3/4), 302-379.
  2. ^ cf. Kurt Koffka, Principles of Gestalt Psychology, 1935, pp 334ff.
  3. ^ Zeigarnik 1927: Das Behalten erledigter und unerledigter Handlungen. Psychologische Forschung 9, 1-85.
  4. ^ Einstein, GO ; McDaniel, MA ; Williford, CL ; Pagan, JL ; Dismukes, RK. "Forgetting of Intentions in Demanding Situations Is Rapid" (PDF). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Retrieved 7 Nov 2013. there is controversy regarding the reliability of the Zeigarnik effect 
  5. ^ Kurt Lewin, A Dynamic Theory of Personality, 1935, pp 243ff
  6. ^ Lewin 1935, op.cit

External links[edit]