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The Zeigarnik Effect

I came across a fascinating concept the other day that caught my attention: the Zeigarnik Effect.


What is it?

In a few words, when we complete a task, our brain hits the delete button and we don’t think about it too much anymore.  Does studying hard for an exam and not being able to recall much about the subject once the exam is over ring a bell?  If, on the other hand, a task is left unfinished, we tend to retain it in our memory.  Failing to complete a task basically creates a subtle cognitive tension in our mind, which can only be released once the tasks have been completed.


Some examples

Waiters remember the orders that have not been paid for and tend to swiftly forget the ones dealt with. ATM machines ask us to retrieve our card before giving us our money, as we could easily forget our card once the task of getting our money was completed.  Writers and filmmakers use this effect to their advantage, often ending book chapters or episodes with an unfinished storyline to keep us thinking about it and wanting to read or watch more.


The Zeigarnik Effect and relationships

The Zeigarnik Effect also impacts our romantic relationships, but in quite a negative way.  Because we tend to remember better what is not resolved, we are more likely to remember a fight with our partner that did not get repaired. This means that intrusive thoughts about the incident and the way it left us feeling will keep coming back to us again and again, as they will be stored in our memory, waiting to get resolved - and this could go on for years!  Indeed, we find it hard to forget something until we have truly processed it, i.e. when we have been able to feel understood and make sense of it ourselves. 


Memories change with time

The problem with this is that memories do not stay the same, they start to get distorted with time. You felt deeply hurt by a particular comment your partner made, and every time you access that memory, it aligns more and more with that feeling.  It’s a bit like walking with a piece of gravel in your shoe.  If you don’t stop and take it out, it will keep bothering you.


Never too late …

But the good news is that it is never too late to process a fight. Never too late to talk about the experience you both had, the impact you had on each other. And only when you have understood each other fully can you forgive and finally move on. 

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