Category Archives: Zeigarnik effect

"Climb Every (effing) Mountain"


Did you know that the actor who starred in the movie version of The Sound of Music, Christopher Plummer, found it so insufferably mawkish and goody-two-shoes, that he referred to it as “The Sound of Mucus”? Fact. The “mountain” depicted in this picture is really just a hill on our daily woodland walk; but, even though I do 50 minutes of aerobic training at home each morning before tackling this “ascent,” it always leaves me dizzy and gasping for air. [Humiliation in addition to a brief bout of pain & suffering.] So, why do I do it? That’s an Existential question, for another post. How do I do it? I apply the Premack Principle.

This is one of those robust, game-changing, life-enhancing concepts I learned about in grad school [back in the day], that has been completely watered down, in modern textbooks. Here is Ray Corsini’s definition, in The Dictionary of Psychology (2002 edition): “David Premack’s contention that given two behaviors with differing likelihoods of occurring, the behavior more likely to occur may be used to reinforce the less likely behavior.” [Yawn]

Here’s how we learned it: “Faced with two tasks, one of which is short & simple, and the other of which is long & complex, an individual is more likely to choose to do the short, simple task.” Our example for teaching this to our Intro Psych students @ USNA was to ask them, “During which two weeks in the academic year are Midshipmen’s belt buckles the shiniest?” Answer: “During the Pre-exam Reading Periods of 1st & 2nd semester.” Why? Because, faced with the tasks of Brasso-ing one’s belt buckle or studying for an Electrical Engineering exam, one will choose the simple but gratifying task of banishing tarnish from a belt buckle (and any other other metal surface) first. (Then, polishing one’s shoes…)

So, here’s the power of this principle. In order to increase the likelihood of tackling a long & complex task, you should “Premack” it into short(er), simple(r) little steps. If a grown-up says to a kid, “Pick up your room,” (and it’s not a scene from a Disney movie), the likely result will be…not a picked up room, I’m tellin’ ya. If the grown-up says, “First, gather up all the used towels in your room,” it will be (more likely to be) done.

When faced with that most onerous and complex of tasks, “Finish your doctoral dissertation,” my classmates & I resorted to all manner of short & simple tasks, such as finishing the NYTimes crossword puzzle, or at least filling in all the S’s for the plural clues. This was mid-70s, mind you, when a search of the relevant literature meant hunting down journal articles by pawing through tomes of indices, and then reading the articles on microfische…oh, it exhausts me even to tell you. So, I would Premack it: “I’ll sit in the library, scribbling on my little index cards, until I have filled 10 of them, and then I’ll rest from my labors (for the day). I’ll come back tomorrow and do 10 more.”

That’s how I get up the hill each day. I Premack it: by keeping my eyes steadfastly fixed on each day-glow-orange-painted tree root, like the rungs of a ladder, just a short distance apart; and avoiding looking up the hill, to see how many, many more “rungs” are left ahead of me. [Also, to distract me from the agony of so many expended Therbligs, in my head I “sing” a song of non-lexical vocables, such as “Nana Window” or the “Ying Tong” song.]

So, do ya see, this could be a strategy to keep from being consumed by the Zeigarnik effect. “I’ll think of 3 new places to look for those missing forage balls. I’ll look, and then I’ll rest from my labors.” (That is, I’ll move on to something completely different, also on my list of self-assigned tasks.) Between the push-me-pull-you of Premack & Zeigarnik, I get a surprising number of things done each day, especially considering that I am a cognitive Kangaroo. Not everything, mind you. But there’s always tomorrow…

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Task, Interrupted


Remember the line from George Harrison’s 1966 song, “I Want to Tell You,” (off of Revolver), “I feel hung up but I don’t know why”? Well, a psychologist living in Russia at the time, Blyuma Wulfovna Zeigarnik, did. (…know why George Harrison felt hung up.) When she was a graduate student in Berlin in the 20s, her dissertation adviser, Kurt Lewin (father of Field Psychology, as in “If I don’t get my way, I’m going to leave the field, possibly taking my football with me”) noticed that a waiter who had not yet received payment for a patron’s order remembered it more accurately, than the orders for which he had been paid. “BFD,” I hear you remark. “Why remember a fait accompli?”

Not the point. Why is it, that we do remember (obsess about, have nightmares about, dump cortisol about) even trivial bits of unfinished business?

Here’s an example from last week, that is still intruding on our domestic tranquility, humiliating me for my failure to solve the mystery, and making me fear for my sanity (a bit). A few months ago I read about forage balls for overweight or fast-eating cats. Originally designed for pigs, to simulate rooting about for food in the wild, these plastic globes with adjustable slots must be batted about by the forager, for each ort of food to be released. Zanizbar is fed in a bathroom, which sounds like a bowling alley as he biffs his ball from wall to wall. Napster, however, is fed in a former-bedroom-now-box-room, full of nooks & crannies (as they say in English muffin ads). It’s like an Easter egg hunt each morning, trying to find where he’s hidden his ball. First an orange one “disappeared.” After expending more Therbligs trying to find it than the task deserved, I gave up and substituted a pink ball (that we had bought for Ruth, before realizing that she was too old, blind, and thin, to be required to forage for her supper).

Then the pink ball went missing…along with my skepticism regarding the fairies, who hide objects, just to create chaos. The room, though cluttered, is finite. The door is only shut during feedings, however. Perhaps the balls had made their way to another upstairs room? Believe me, both Chris & I have searched. Maybe they rolled downstairs? Let me check behind the piano, again. We eagerly await the holiday return of our daughters, so we can put them on the case.

Having gone out and spent another $8 on a blue forage ball has not, as hoped, loosened the grip of our compulsion to hunt for the Two That Got Away. We are in thrall to the Zeigarnik Effect.

Serialized books & movies, cliffhanger season-enders on TV, crossword puzzles & that Japanese number game I can’t even pronounce, much less get into, all rely on this powerful need for closure. Oddly enough, “difficulty sustaining attention in…or finishing…tasks” is listed as the hallmark symptom of Kangaroo Brain (as I fondly refer to my ADD); but clearly, there is a missing qualifier here: “assigned (tasks).”

For the interrupted tasks that we assign ourselves, there is no “forget-about-it.” Just ask Lili, at the window, as she awaits the next sighting of those interloping Goldens, whom a locked front door prevented her from interdicting this morning.

You’ll have to excuse me, now. I’ve just thought of another place to look…

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Filed under magical thinking, Zeigarnik effect