zeigarnik effectiveness

September 18, 2005

Lately there's been some online talk about the Zeigarnik effect, dealing with the special attention the unconscious mind devotes to unfinshed tasks. First noted with the observation the waiters and waitresses can remember huge orders which are then promplty forgotten once delivered to the table, it is suggested that the effect can be exploited to various ends, from lerning to marketing.

I'm realizing that this tension of unfinished tasks is a pretty large force in my life. I just want things done to release that tension. (In fact, I think it's similar to the logic behind "Getting Things Done" time and stress management; you try to remove the stress of things undone by making a list that your subconscious can learn to trust.) In general, I want my mind free to move on to the next task.

One funny sample of what I'm taking about comes from the explanation after a surprise marriage proposal in Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity":
"I'm just curious about how one goes from making tapes for one person to marriage proposals to another in two days. Fair enough?"
"Fair enough."
"I'm just sick of thinking about it all the time."
"All what?"
"This stuff. Love and marriage. I want to think about something else."
"I've changed my mind. That's the most romantic thing I've ever heard. I do. I will."
"Shut up. I'm only trying to explain."
"Sorry. Carry on."
That's exactly how I think, way too often. It may even explain why I eat too fast! I don't find food interesting, so I think I have a small drive to just get it done with, to make it easier to focus on the people I'm with, or maybe just moving on in general. Maybe it even influences how I play chess! I'm always eager to make equal exchanges of pieces. One obvious explanation is I prefer a simpler board because I'm such a bad chess player. On the other hand, if you view each piece as having an unfinished agenda...well maybe that's stretching things, but I think trying to reduce the number of open items in my life is a big factor.

(Heh, I even remember this one guy ("Editor Dink" of ThinkAttack, when we worked at Event Zero) saying whenever he was copying and pasting, he was always in a hurry to finish with the pasting, he hated the in between state of carrying it in the clipboard. At the time I laughed a bit but now I see it's just his personal response to this kind of tension...