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Zeigarnik Effect – Using your brain against you!

The Zeigarnik Effect is a simple quirk that can exploit our brain’s resources. Marketing gurus use this effect against us, with powerful results. However, some people use the Zeigarnik effect to improve their short-term memory without even thinking about it. How?

Let’s start with a little fable.

Long ago, three knights sought a position as a member of the king’s royal guard. The lord of the region was tasked with choosing the best knight for the king’s guard, but could not determine which of the three knights would be suitable . The lord had heard equally good things of all the knights. As the lord preferred to avoid relying on humors, the lord decided a test was in order to see which knight was truly the most honorable of them all. A small tournament could be held, but how could it be fair with three individuals? Clearly, one might injure themselves during the first round and be less capable in the second. That’s when he stumbled upon his idea. He knew of the perfect way to decide which man was most honorable of all. All he had to do was instruct the knights to —


More on that story later.

The Zeigarnik Effect seems annoying to most of us. If you were at all interested in the little story I shared, it is probably nagging you. “What was the plan?! What was the simple trick the lord was going to use?”

The Zeigarnik Effect works when we leave an issue unresolved, and our cognitive resources are stuck trying to reduce the dissonance by figuring out the conclusion.

Okay, clearly it can be distracting right? How exactly does this produce powerful results in marketing?

When we’re mentally distracted by the Zeigarnik effect, we have less cognitive resources to evaluate information that we’re receiving. In marketing, if I set up a nonsense story and slip my product in while you are trying to “resolve the narrative” you are less likely to question the information I provide about my product. With enough exposure, I try to make folks form a particular association about my product. With good use of the Zeigarnik effect, you might not question how I’m portraying my product – even if you question the narrative around it!

What about improving short-term memory?

The story I heard back in my college days was about soviet psychologist, Bulma Zeigarnik. Ms. Zeigarnik studied under Kurt Lewin who noticed something strange at a restaurant. Lewin observed their waiter never writing anything down, but the waiter never got an order wrong. At first, Lewin thought this was telling of a good memory, but the waiter was unable to recall the contents of the order after the bill had been paid.

How was the waiter able to recall all of the orders without error to the cook, but fail to remember them after the bill was paid? Zeigarnik began to study this effect afterwards and she came to the following conclusion —


More on that later.

The lord found the perfect way to decide which man was most honorable of all, without the need for any combat. He gathered the three men to his chambers and asked for a volunteer. “The people demand combat, to the death, to see which of you is worthy of the royal guard. Following tradition, we will only allow two combatants to fight at a time. Before going further, you must realize this means one of you will only fight a single time, and the others will fight twice. So tell me which one of you will only fight a single time?”

The first knight said, “Sire, I’ve fought in many battles, and am not as young as the other two men. It would be doing the people a disservice to have them watch me fight more than one battle.”

The second knight said, “I’ve taken too many lives in my time. If I must fight to the death, I’d prefer to only take the life of one man,” said the second knight.

The third knight stepped forward and said, “Sire, in honor of your lordship, and the king we all serve, I will gladly volunteer to go first.”

No tournament was held, no blood was shed. The third knight made it clear he would serve faithfully, and was chosen to be in the royal guard.


Perhaps you feel a bit of relief knowing how the story ends. However, I accidentally produced a Zeigarnik effect while trying to explain the Zeigarnik effect. Let’s get on with it!

Zeigarnik was able to show that having this unresolved tension improves recall of the content in question – thus the waiter could recall orders when he needed to pass on the information to the cook. Once this bit of tension is resolved, recall for that information drops dramatically.

As an interesting aside, some claim that if you are studying information, then interrupt yourself with other unrelated tasks, it can help improve your recall. However, once the tension is resolved, recall can drop. Perhaps this is another reason why “cramming” for a test is largely ineffective for long-term learning. Once the test is taken, the tension is resolved and the information is discarded.

In closing, the Zeigarnik effect is a powerful tool for memory that can be exploited by advertising. While we can’t really control how the Ziegarnik effect influences us, we can strive to be more aware of when it might be occurring.


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