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Trainer’s Diary: The Zeigarnik Effect – Used for good or evil?

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Byron Kalies Byron Kalies reflects on why waiting staff can remember orders at the time but fail to recall them upon completion; can trainers use this knowledge to hone learning techniques?


I’ve recently been looking at the Zeigarnik effect. You may well have come across it in advertising or television scheduling, there are any number of forms. So what is it you ask.

I’ll tell you in a minute, but first here’s some background. It was named after Bluma Zeigarnik born in Russia, now Lithuania in 1900. The story goes that she was having a drink in a Viennese restaurant with Kurt Lewin (known to many of us for his work on change and force field analysis etc.) when she noticed something remarkable about the waiters. They could remember all the orders perfectly as they were going along, but once they’d completed them they’d be totally forgotten.

After a number of experiments she concluded that people retain information better when the task hasn’t been completed than when it has.

In television scheduling terms it’s the cliff hanger moment at the end of East Enders that stays with you, hooking you into the next episode in order to reach a conclusion. Advertisers use devices like the Gold Blend couple to keep the audience watching, and buying.

Sometimes on a training course I will ask people to think about an issue or learning point overnight. I’m never sure if this is a good idea or not. Applying the Zeigarnik effect it will keep people keen, but what about being manipulative? Wouldn’t it be better (and healthier – this incompletion will drain energy) to draw a line under things at the end of each day?

I know completions give you energy – scribbling out ‘to do’ items from a list triggers a rush of endorphins that energise you, but isn’t there anything else that would help aid this? Perhaps a rapid succession of quick wins.

I guess this depends on a variety of factors – how long the incompletion takes to resolve, how meaningful the incompletion is perceived as being (many of the attendees at my courses turn off as soon as they leave the room – whatever I ask them to do), and other things.

But I’ve one really great idea how to use this which I’ll tell you about next time.

One Response

  1. zeigarnik effect is not seen on telly
    Byron confuses the Zeigarnik effect with good old fashioned storytelling devices and rhetoric.

    The effect acts as an obstacle to learning, and implies that, no matter how clever you are to keep their interest, as soon as the course (task) is finished it just goes out of their mind. The big problem for trainers is how to counter this.

    It can also be noticed that many trainers learn the names of 15 complete strangers within a few minutes, and use them constantly throughout the course, but a few days later completely fail to recognise them. A classic Zeigarnik effect.

    Steve

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Annie Ward

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