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| 3 minutes read

Considering the Zeigarnik effect on the relocation experience

The Zeigarnik effect is that tendency of "remembering something just long enough to finish a task, and then completely forgetting" it once the task is completed. It rests on the idea that we seek closure on things, that the brain needs to reach a conclusion before (or so) it can move on. The idea proposes that "our brain focuses on tasks that are unfinished, called open loops," with the goal of closing those loops. Not having the completion leaves us in a state of mental tension. Until the loop is closed, and closure is obtained, the mind keeps coming back to the task(s), compelling us to finish them up.

Wondering where you might have seen this at play? It is likely the reason that you have to get to the end of the chapter before you can put the book down. The author may also be utilizing the “Zeigarnik Hook” in the plot to keep you wanting to get to the resolution. It is also why you binge watch a show on Netflix as each episode leaves you hanging on for what will happen next.

With the Zeigarnik effect, an interrupted or incomplete task leads to a strong motivation to complete the action, providing an extra argument for the success of an already started action. The effect often comes with the rise of emotions like uncertainty, discomfort and confusion. For further info and a great video on the effect, check this out. The key is to avoid the panic and worry that comes with procrastination of something that has yet to be started. Just jumping into it will allow the effect to kick in and get things moving from there on, like an itch that compels you to scratch it.

Where did it come from? Bluma Zeigarnik was a Lithuanian psychologist who observed the effect back in 1927 while studying at the University of Berlin. The original observation came when watching the amazing memory capability of a waiter serving a large party without writing any of the orders down. The waiter remembered absolutely everything perfectly, but five minutes after the dinner was over and they had left, she had forgotten something at the table and went back in to retrieve it only to discover that the waiter did not recall her. Shocked because he seemed to have such an amazing memory, she asked him how he could have forgotten her when she was just there? He said that he remembers the orders until they are delivered to the table, but then immediately forgets them and moves on.

How does the Zeigarnik effect apply to global assignment management? Great question that I was hoping you would ask! Whether you are the expat (or family member) heading off on an international assignment or the mobility manager responsible for making sure both the company and the employee are taken care of, there are an extreme number of tasks to handle. Without a plan, the entire idea could be completely overwhelming, but with a plan and just getting started, the Zeigarnik effect kicks in to keep the process moving along.  

Understanding the phenomenon is a great way to better understand the expat experience and can help in providing responsive high-quality service in support of the assignment process. If we know that an expat is going to be spinning on an open loop until it is closed, firstly, we can better name the issue and not hold it against their human nature. Then, we might consider adding in steps to make available good information on where things are at in the process or provide a good understanding of the entire process beyond the current moment. Additionally, allowing the expat choices and control along the way, and for sure providing a list of tasks and prompts to support moving forward on the tasks will help to use the effect for the positive. And, then when one really large open loop is creating major anxiety, address that one immediately and energetically to close the loop asap so that psychic tension can be eliminated!

Consider this information presented by

"The Zeigarnik effect can play an important role in a person’s mental health. Incomplete tasks, particularly those with negative consequences, often lead to frequent and stressful intrusive thoughts. These thoughts can reduce sleep, promote anxiety, and further deplete a person’s mental and emotional resources, possibly even contributing to maladaptive behaviors.

Conversely, the Zeigarnik effect can promote mental well-being by motivating an individual to complete tasks, develop better habits, and resolve lingering issues. The successful completion of assigned tasks can provide a sense of accomplishment while boosting self-confidence and self-esteem."

Just knowing that people have a tendency toward rumination and can get caught on a vicious cycle of focus when open items have not gone well or not been closed, can help us to better address the situation to support. There is a trust opportunity built into the assignment process where ultimately, we hope to avoid or minimize the volatility and spiraling, and replace with empathy, quality tools and a high level of support.

Had you heard of this effect before and used it as a lens for looking at the assignment management process?

Often, we remember something just long enough to finish a task, and then we completely forget it. When it comes to love, we have trouble letting go of a romantic relationship if we feel like we didn’t get closure. This need for completion is called the Zeigarnik Effect. Our brain focuses on tasks that are unfinished, called open loops. Once the loop is closed, our brain relaxes about it. This clever video explains how we can use the Zeigarnik Effect as a motivator, because simply starting a task can encourage us to finish it.


mental phenomenon, assignment management, open loops, closed loops, rumination, vicious cycle, mental wellbeing, crisis management, managing expectations, expatriates, bluma zeigarnik, memory, focus, zeigarnik effect