Why You Should Care About the Ziegarnik Effect

Open LoopIn psychology, the Ziegarnik Effect is the discomfort of unfinished business that makes us keep that item unticked on our mental “do-list”… open loops.

The Ziegarnik effect is at work with waiters for the short time they memorise items in an order they’re servicing. And with us when we’re listening to a lecturer digress, leaving us unsettled (and therefore attentive) until he come back to finish what he was originally talking about. And let’s not forget TV cliff-hangers.

In 2009, Kyle Cameron initiated Project1152 – a simple project collecting snapshots of what people were doing at 11:52 on a certain day. Three years later, it’s still on my mind that I haven’t seen these pictures and after returning to twitter after some time away, one of the first thinks I did was ask him for the link.

We don’t experience the Ziegarnik effect all of the time. Sometimes the mind seems to want to hang onto something and other times it’s willing to let it go.

Lots of waiters don’t remember things – that’s what notebooks are for! Lots of lecturers inadvertently create “hooks that tug gently at matching memories” (to borrow Kyle’s terminology from a recent twitter discussion we had), leaving you to waft away in your own thoughts and not care too much that the lecturer has left an open loop or two.

So why did I remember Kyle’s project when I have no doubt forgotten much unfinished business from 2009?

It’s because I had an emotional investment in it… I took a photo at 11:52 that day but missed the deadline to send it to Kyle. Where I was at the time was meaningful to me and it set in my mind because I went out of my way to take that photo.

The Ziegarnik in Your Life

So if the Ziegarnik effect is so haphazard and contextual, how can we use it to empower our everyday life?

First, realise that the Ziegarnik effect is a functional process that doesn’t need your conscious input. Kind of like how the process of digestion doesn’t need your conscious input to know what to digest and what to let go unabsorbed.

When something’s not quite right, the Ziegarnik effect, just like digestion, lets you know about it in its own sweet way.

Too much spaghetti, not enough ends

Confused thoughts and mental clutter. You don’t know what’s important and what’s an illusion. The mounds of spaghetti are actually just a few strands all coiled up on each other. But you can’t see that for sure until you find the ends.

The ends are in the Ziegarnik.

  • Do you flit from one glittery thing to another? I did… until I learnt that being organised and having discipline doesn’t take away from my creativity one little bit.
  • Are you scared of closing down your options? Having choices is great, but only if you make them – otherwise they are as binding as handcuffs.
  • Who will you be letting down? It’s natural to want approval – but worrying about someone’s reaction is one of the most potent reasons for inactivity and “blind-panic” mental confusion.

Identify your ends and you’ll see the open loops and know where to focus your energy. Also read: Self Empowerment Loves When You Manage Your Focus

Causal conditions

I might have gone the rest of my life without seeing Kyle’s photos had I not returned to twitter and the environment that brought this particular Ziegarnik out of hibernation.

It’s the same with people we’ve not treated nicely, old relationships we haven’t got over, good deeds we chose not to do. Most days, we don’t think about them. But sometimes, if the conditions are right… WHAM! It hits you. The open loop rears its head and reminds you that there is a part of you in pain.

You can’t revisit that time and you can’t undo what happened… sometimes you’d rather die than admit it still hurts.

But this loop and the conditions it operates under need to close so that the pain can stop. It’s a hidden stress and hidden stress in your body can cause mayhem. It’s claimed that up to 90% of visits to the doctor have stress as their underlying cause.

This time, my loop wasn’t life-threatening and was easily closed by messaging Kyle. But you may need something more (and next time, so might I). Things like:

Dependency and addictions on porn, drugs, alcohol, spending, food and countless others can all have their roots in the unaddressed Ziegarniks in your life.

Unaddressed Ziegarniks can manifest in depression, repetitive thinking, being clingy, nagging, anger…

Unlike a digestive disorder, you can’t buy an antacid over-the-counter for this. Personal Empowerment needs you to actively find ways to close these loops… because if you don’t, they’ll keep showing up in one form or another, reminding you that you have unfinished business.

Empowering your life means coming to life and this means embracing the good and turning the bad into memories you can work with.

Think about a problem you are facing – can you recognise the Ziegarnik? What one thing can you do to start closing the loop?

8 Responses to “Why You Should Care About the Ziegarnik Effect”

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  1. Keith says:

    Hi Reeta,

    Fascinating post. Unfinished business (open loops) is definitely something that for me is the cause of a lot of pain. It is easy to just keep going, and to distract ourselves from it, but as you said, Bam, it hits you. And it will keep doing it until the loop has been closed.

    We are masters at developing ingenious avoidance tactics, even when we don’t know exactly what it is we are avoiding. So identifying those open loops and finding a way to close them will not only give us a release from the pain, but also some peace and wisdom.

    I know there is more I could say on this but I will have to read again and reflect.

    Keith recently posted..Self-Sabotaging Fears, Kevin Spacey and Cold Shower Therapy – Part 1My Profile

  2. Vishnu says:

    Interesting article – had no idea this loop existed or regularly shows up in our life. I guess that’s why powerfully emotional moments in our life stick with us forever. Is one of the ways to change the loop re-framing the incidents or events in our lives to be able to bring those events to a closure and move on?

    Sounds like 1152 project was memorable! and pretty fun that it made an impact on you and many other participants possibly?

    • Reeta Luthra says:

      Re-framing is one way and I get the impression you know there are ways of inducing this through NLP techniques etc. In my experience, the timing has to be spot-on for this to work.

      When you look at something painful that happened in the past that no longer hurts (eg your brother stealing your favourite toy), you’ll notice that when you think about it, there are no “spikes” in the emotion associated with the image (assuming if there is indeed any emotion). The image itself will be black and white, small, blurry… you’ll have your own way of seeing this image which may be different from mine.

      Now if you think about something painful in your past that STILL hurts, you’ll notice the visual is totally different. It’ll be in colour, big, vibrant, lots of spiky emotions which you’ll feel in your body. (again, your way could be different from mine but it will be totally different from the previous image)

      Whatever technique you use to do the reframe, you’ll find that the end “technical” result is that the emotion drains out of the picture, leaving you able to look at it without hurt.

      Now it’s one thing to reframe an incident, it’s a totally different thing to learn what you need to from that incident. So don’t reframe too quickly because if you don’t learn the reason for the open loop, the loop does not actually close.

      Apologies for how long this is getting, but one more thing – the learning does not have to happen consciously. the “lesson” can go in subconsciously without you knowing what it was. Be alert to the signs which could be that you feel amicable towards the person who upset you (long-term, not just for a couple of days), you acknowledge your part in the matter, you feel like you’ve climbed up a notch in your personal journey…

  3. Ahh so that’s what I have … Ziegarnik :)
    From the sounds of things, this rides on the back of the dreaded ‘P’ word – procrastination or has close ties in how it can be debilitating.

    I loosely follow the ‘Getting things done’ strategy which is all about getting stuff out of your head and stored somewhere that you know is safe and accessible. It tends to work for me to then focus on higher priority areas and free my thinking. Maybe this might help others who recognise that Ziegarnik is alive in their life?

    Really informative article, Reeta.
    Martin Cooney recently posted..Healing Yourself: Do You Have What It Takes To Fix a Problem?My Profile

    • Reeta Luthra says:

      Mind chatter (also sometimes behind that dreaded P word) is always a reliable indicator of an open loop so getting that out of your head and onto a list can be a relief.

      That’s a great tip Martin… especially for those who love and are motivated by lists and ticking things off with a nice fat red pen.

      Thanks very much for visiting and taking the time to comment.
      Reeta Luthra recently posted..Kill Your Mind Chatter TodayMy Profile