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What the Zeigarnik effect does
Hi — if you’re reading this, this is a newsletter that writes about things through the lens of complexity, philosophy and other meta lenses.
But this post’s a bit different, a little more personal.
Last month, Growing Meta turned 1. It was a recurrent letter for 26 weeks, until I started hoarding drafts, and that resulted in cognitive bloating that actually slowed time for me.
Writing the first draft always charged me with the dopamine I crave. I enjoy starting things and shaping them up — much less so on revising what I’ve already written and applying some linguistic make-up. In fact, if you read my earlier posts, you’d see how laden they were with spelling and grammar mistakes.
The mental strain required in quality assurance is not simple. To apply cognitive restraint is to tame a complex system — a surge of neurons eagerly seeking the next dopamine rush. Yet the result of not publishing my work was an accumulated rack of unfinished tasks.
Starting things without formally finishing them has actually been a research domain for a long time — even before the internet arrived and hijacked our attention spans.
When you start something without giving it closure, your mind feels pain. It remembers the things you didn’t finish, and forgets the things you actually accomplished. This phenomenon has been given a name: The Zeigarnik effect. It was formulated by Russian psychologist Zeigarnik, who noticed that waiters in a restaurant would remember all about an order as long as the client didn’t pay. Once they do, they don’t recall much about it.
Just like reading stories, you’d remember all about it until you have your closure. Are there any stories that didn’t give you a satisfying closure? Do you still remember their details?
So, after conducting formal research, Zeigarnik coined this term and highlighted the emotional distress it creates.
I’ve always tried to minimize Zeigarnik effects on my mental state.
Back in 2017, I looked at some of my sketches and paintings of trees (my favorite drawing object). I would typically stop when I had to do the leaves and branches, because my brain wants to do it perfectly, but my heart cannot bare the patience involved.
I ended up with dozens of incomplete drafts.
A friend - who’s also a psychological counselor - urged me to find my closure by any means. Not only did closing things imperfectly made me creative, but it also improved my art skills a little.
Until very soon, I wish you manageable Zeigarnik effects, and many satisfying closures.
James, I.A. and Kendell, K. (1997). Unfinished processing in the emotional disorders: The Zeigarnik Effect. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 25(4): 329-337.