The Zeigarnik Effect and Human Conversation

Published on January 21st, 2019

First, the “Zeigarnik” in the Zeigarnik Effect is pronounced zeeg-err-neck. I intentionally repeated this 3 times and I recommend saying it out loud and committing the spelling to long term memory because you are going to want to bust this out the next time you identify this experience.

Second, the phenomenon was named after Bluma Zeigarnik (obviously), who was studying how uncompleted tasks affected our short and long term memory. As an example, waiters can become skilled at keeping all the details of their open orders in short term memory. However, as soon as the bill is paid, they can be equally skilled at quickly and completely emptying out those details as if they were freeing up their mental RAM for the next set of customers. In short, the tension of having an incomplete loop prompts people to keep the information top of mind until there is a sense of completion. Only then will people confidently discard these details.

So… what does this have to do with conversation?

“I Can Tell You Are Not Listening!”

I know it’s important to be present with people. I know what it feels like to be talking someone that is absorbed in their phone while I’m trying to tell them something that matters to me. It sucks. And yet, there are times when my mind may be elsewhere. It is likely that I am desperately trying not to lose any facts in my short term memory so that I don’t drop the ball and fail at keeping one or more of my commitments. However, while part of my brain is strategizing how to get shit done, I’m minimally present in these moments with the people in my surroundings.

If I was brutally honest, I wish I didn’t even try to feign like I’m paying attention, but I do. I try to exert willpower to do both activities simultaneously, but I end up going through the motions and nodding my head like some kind of robot.

The reality is this results in lost opportunities in the present and future. In the present, at best I had a lackluster experience, and at worst I may deeply offend someone that deserves much more than a vacant stare. In the future, I will have already lost the details of this interaction and potentially do more damage by not remembering what it is we talked about. In short, it’s a double whammy.

The antidote for this is the ability to create intentions. In the moment, being present: pausing all the other thoughts and obligations and interacting wholly with that person. For the future, not dumping out everything that just happened from short term memory and into the abyss. Instead, capture and remember key details that may be important later. At a minimum, the simple act of remembering these details will show the other person that you were paying attention; that you cared about them enough to invest the time to remember them. That’s powerful, particularly in an age of short attention spans and too many distractions. Social media need not be the open loop keeping us from being social with the person right in front of us.

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CTO of Contact Mapping. Author of Winning the Lottery Within. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.