Sunday, May 18, 2014

Diana Nyad, Archimedes & the Zeigarnik Effect

Bluma Zeigarnik had it going on.

You remember Bluma, don’t you?  Bluma Zeigarnik?!  The famous Russian psychologist!  Jeez!

OK.  I never heard of her either.  Turns out though, she identified an interesting human behavior that might, according to Psyblog, help us avoid procrastination. 

But first of all, it’s kind of an oxymoron, isn’t it, “avoid procrastination”?  Put off the stalling?  Interrupt the deferment?   

All right.  I get it.  Stop the stopping.  Get down to it.  Start the thing.

Now I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but avoiding procrastination could present a troubling conundrum. 

You see, my day is built around postponement and delay.  I mean, how can I enjoy the fruits of retirement if I have to get things done in order, on time, chop chop?  What’s the point?

And here’s another riddle:  Having done my own analysis of the dynamics of unsupervised human behavior, I can assure you that without procrastination, some important things wouldn’t get done at all!

For example, I get a lot of laundry done when I’m resisting the keyboard.  Many a pedicure is completed when there’s still a smidge of time between now and a deadline.  Just this morning, I colored my gray roots, and, in an oddly parallel activity, dead-headed the geraniums – all while the cursor blinked on the screen.

I’m just saying, if I have to start avoiding procrastination, it might throw my universe into an unhealthy spin.

But OK.  Let’s see what this is all about.

Ms. Zeigarnik noticed an odd thing while sitting in a restaurant in Vienna.  The waiters seemed only to remember orders which were in the process of being fulfilled.  When completed, the orders evaporated from their memory.

Speaks to the level of entertainment available to 1927 Rooskies.  Limited, we could say.

Zeigarnik, starved for any diversion, ran like Archimedes out of the tub back to her lab to test out her theory about what was going on.  She set up an experiment in which participants were directed to complete twenty simple tasks, like solving puzzles and stringing beads.  

Except some of the time, crafty ole Bluma interrupted them half way through the task! 

Afterwards she asked them which activities they remembered doing.  Participants were twice as likely to remember the tasks during which they’d been interrupted than those they completed. 

And that’s her big news:  We don’t remember the things we’ve done, and cannot forget those we haven’t?

Bluma!  You have to do better than that!  It’s underwhelming.  This is how you justify your claim to fame, the “Zeigarnik Effect”? 


I don’t get it, but almost sixty years later Kenneth McGraw and colleagues carried out another test of the Zeigarnik effect (McGraw et al., 1982).  In this iteration, participants had to do only one really tricky puzzle; they were interrupted and told the study was over before any of them could solve the puzzle. 

Here’s the kicker:  Despite being told the study was done, nearly 90% carried on working on the puzzle anyway. 

I’ll be honest; at this point in the blog post I began to wonder if the Zeigarnik Effect was a cruel joke.  Unwitting lab rat (yours truly) is hoodwinked into reading research on miniscule components of human behavior, while fiendish lab geeks (Zeigarnik, McGraw et al) track my eye movements and galvanic skin responses.  Results to be categorized and filed away under “Gotcha!”

But no.  It’s all going to add up to something.  They promised. 

Following some yammering on about Charles Dickens’ serialization of “Oliver Twist,” and the popular TV series “Lost,” how we’re tantalized by cliffhangers, and tune in next week because the mystery is ticking away in the backs of our minds, the big finale of the research is delivered:  Once we start something, it stays with us until we finish it.

Did you feel the earth move?  No?  Me either.

Oh, wait. it is:  The trick to avoiding procrastination – drumroll – is to start.   Gosh, thanks.


I read an interview with Diana Nyad back when she was training for the Olympics.  She described a grueling daily workout routine that comprised many hours in the pool from early to late each day.  The interviewer asked her what the hardest part of her workout was. 

“Jumping in the pool,” she replied.

Ta da!