Why do people remember unfinished things better

Zeigarnik effect

The one from the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik (in different transcription Bljuma Wulfowna Seigarnik) described Zeigarnik effect describes that unfinished business is better stored in the memory of the person than done. The Russian psychologist Bljuma Zeigarnik had observed the phenomenon with a waiter in a café, because she had noticed that the waiter could remember the orders of the various guests in his head, but after the food and drinks had been delivered, he was able to meet a few minutes later no longer remember them. Apparently he only remembered orders that he had not yet completed. Zeigarnik finally investigated the phenomenon in an experiment in which she gave test subjects various tasks, e.g. B. to draw or tinker something. The probands were allowed to finish some tasks, while others were interrupted during the task. In the subsequent survey, the subjects were able to remember the tasks that they had not completed much better. Zeigarnik concluded that the brain provides a certain amount of attention for upcoming tasks, which it sheds as soon as the task is completed and no longer requires any further action. Even if the effect was subsequently often not replicable and is therefore controversial, the basic principle remains at least plausible and can often be observed in everyday life, not least with waiters in bars.

A basis for this effect is the assumption of Kurt Lewin, that intentions tense systems represent, whereby the tension remains until the corresponding intention is done. From the point of view of memory economics, this means that unfinished actions tie up mental resources and lead people into a compulsive attitude that they absolutely want to complete an action, i.e. That is, books have to be read to the end, films have to be watched and conversations have to be brought to an end. Directors and screenwriters use the Zeigarnik effect to nest actions in such a way that the tension is maintained, knowing that uncompleted events are captured in the human brain, so a weapon that is meaningful on the wall at the beginning of the film depends, too, will be fired at some point in the movie. But also in Film series an attempt is made to maintain interest in the continuation through a situation that occurred at the end of an episode. It is therefore no wonder that a television show from yesterday evening keeps coming back to my mind during the day. Even if this effect could not be proven in this form in all studies, it forms a good explanatory principle for this everyday phenomenon due to its comprehensibility.

By the way, has Ernest Hemingway tries to take advantage of this effect by always interrupting his work at exactly one point, although he could have continued, in order to find his way back to it more quickly the next day, because with interrupted work after a break you are more motivated to continue working immediately and also know what now is to be done.


“It says that unfinished tasks are better remembered than completed ones. According to legend, it began with the observation that the waiter in a Berlin restaurant could process complicated orders without written aids, but after completing them he could no longer remember any details ”(Franke & Kühlmann, 1990, p. 180).

“Unfinished tasks and activities have their after-effects in the post-phase. Unfinished actions stay in the memory better and longer than completed ones and are therefore more easily remembered, if not even spontaneously ”(Gottschaldt, Sander, Lersch & Thomae, 1965, p. 666).

“In the event of an unfinished business, there remains a need to complete the started H., which is satisfied when the H. is completed. Zeigarnik (1927) examines the assumption that a quasi-need has an effect until the completion of the H. and the relaxation of the system (Lewin 1926) in the treatment of unfinished H. in relation to the retention of completed H. "(Rombach, 1972, p 186).

“Zeigarnik - effect, named after the Lewin student B. Zeigarnik, who in 1927 published a study“ On keeping things done and unfinished ”. After that, unfinished business is better remembered than done. The cause for this is need-like tensions that emerge in the "dynamic overall field" depending on the situation - e.g. in which subject is, how, why the action remained unfinished "(Arnold, Eyenck & Meili, 1972, p .795).

"Zeigarnik - effect (more rarely: Ovsiankina - effect), by B. Zeigarnik (1927) and also by Ovsiankina (1928) analyzed and described phenomenon and cap: Interrupted actions are a tendency to resume and to complete" (Städtler, 2003, p. 1246).

Research on the Zeigarnik effect

It is also due to the Zeigarnik effect when some people are on the weekend Trouble sleeping because they worry about unfinished business. Some employees feel stressed from work even on days off, i. That is, they ponder unfinished business. In a study (Syrek et al., 2017), employed people were asked to fill out an online questionnaire about their workload over a period of twelve weeks. On Friday afternoons, information on the time pressure experienced and unfinished tasks at the end of the week was recorded, and at the beginning of the work week, the subjects were asked to provide data on their sleep quality and the nature of their work-related thoughts, a distinction being made between two types of thinking: Worried brooding was when a subject felt tense at the weekend because they had thought about their work. Problem-oriented thoughts on the other hand, if you thought you had found solutions to work-related problems on the weekend in your free time. Troubled brooding is a state in which negative, repetitive thoughts about work arise without seeking solutions, while problem-solving brooding is more like creative thinking about problems, detached from work. It was found that those who have more unfinished business are more affected by sleep disorders, with a positive correlation between worrying brooding and sleep disorders being found.


Arnold, W., Eyenck, J. & Meili, R. (1972). Zeigarnik effect. Lexicon of Psychology. Freiburg im Breisgau: Verlag Herder KG.
Franke, J. & Kühlmann, T.M. (1990). Zeigarnik effect. Psychology for economists. Landskron / Lech: Verlag modern Industrie AG & Co.
Gottschaldt, K., Lersch, Ph., Sander, F. & Thomae, J. (1965). Zeigarnik effect. Manual of Psychology in 12 volumes. General Psychology. II motivation. Göttingen: Publishing house for psychology.
Rombach, H. (1972). Zeigarnik effect. Lexicon of Psychology Volume 2. Freiburg im Breisgau: Verlag Herder KG.
Städtler, T. (2003). Zeigarnik effect. Lexicon of Psychology. Stuttgart: Alfred Körner Verlag.
Syrek, C. J., Weigelt, O., Peifer, C. & Antoni, C. H. (2017). Zeigarnik’s sleepless nights: How unfinished tasks at the end of the week impair employee sleep on the weekend through rumination. Journal of Occpuational Health Psychology. 22, 225-238.

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