The Interrupted Life: Or, The Zeigarnik Effect



This Sunday I wrote out my grocery list, which involves looking up the recipes we will make for the week, writing the ingredients down,  bookmarking them, and (theoretically) checking to see which ingredients we already have. I am often careless during this process, getting distracted, forgetting to write down ingredients, or not bothering to check  what we have (we have four containers of sesame oil for this reason.)

Yet after I brought my daughter to the hair salon and got to the supermarket, I realized that while I  had remembered my reusable bags, I had forgotten my list. I made the effort to recall all of it (it was a $260 order, so a lot of stuff) from memory.

When I got back home and found the list, I checked off each item I had bought. I had remembered every item. I attribute this to the fact that I wrote the list down. I did not type it–it was in my messy longhand, barely legible. But I did not miss one single item, even the items I did not usually purchase.

There’s something called the Zeigarnik Effect that may help explain this.

Basically, it has been found that we can remember something more effectively if it is still in progress than if it has been resolved. Interrupted tasks are a good example–wait staff can remember orders before they have been served but not after. It’s just good design–why waste time/effort on something that you don’t need to recall?

This makes me wonder, though, how the reverse works–whether events in our lives that remain unresolved or with which we still struggle remain the most vivid, for whatever reason. This may seem obvious, but I wonder how this all works on something far more important than a grocery list.

Disclaimer: The example in the image is not my grocery list. It is from one of many sites that publish funny grocery lists. Mine is too boring to post.

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