It must be Thanksgiving or some such holiday, because I have shown up at my brother’s house to find Mother and Father waiting. Mother stands in the front hall bearing her old smile of greeting, overlaid now with a touch of anxiety because, I realize, she doesn’t remember my name. “Lewis is here!” I call out, as if such announcements were our custom. I don’t want to embarrass her. “Lewis is here!”
Sometime in the twenties in Berlin, a certain Dr. Kurt Lewin noticed that the waiters were very good at remembering the particulars of his restaurant bill—until the bill was paid. Soon settled, soon forgotten. Lewin wondered if he hadn’t stumbled upon a fact of mental life, that the finished task drops into oblivion more easily than the unfinished.
In 1927, a colleague of Lewin’s, Bluma Zeigarnik, designed a study that appeared to show that Lewin had observed a specific example of the general case, now called the Zeigarnik effect. “Unfinished tasks are remembered approximately twice as well as completed ones,” she concluded. That was her finding with adults; with children, the effect was stronger: not only did they remember tasks they’d been forced to leave unfinished but “not infrequently they would beg to continue the interrupted tasks even two or three days after the experiment was over.” Read More