The Zeigarnik effect recently came to my rescue when my family and I were moving into a new house. After several weeks of packing nearly identical boxes, we realised we packed several important items and needed to find them prior to the moving company arriving. Surprisingly, we were able to identify all the boxes with relative ease and find the items without a detailed inventory. Bluma Zeigarnik was a Russian psychologist who first identified the tendency to remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed or uninterrupted ones in the late 1920′s. Zeigarnik made her discovery after her doctoral supervisor, Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin, noticed that waiters and waitresses at a local café remembered orders only as long as the order was in the process of being served. The custom at the café was that orders were not written down but rather waiters and waitresses kept them in their head and added additional items to them as they were ordered until the bill was paid. The researchers’ subsequent experimental work showed the phenomenon has widespread validity, and it became known as the Zeigarnik effect. The Zeigarnik effect has applications in advertising, teaching, software design and media production (e.g., long-running soap operas, cliffhanging dramas).
David Lavallee recently moved to Scotland to become Professor and Head of the School of Sport at the University of Stirling. He is an Associate Fellow and Chartered Psychologist of the British Psychological Society, and founding editor of Sport & Exercise Psychology Review.