Why do our brains recall the things we haven't done more than those we have accomplished? It seems our brains have a tendency constantly to remind us of what we could have done.

According to the "Zeigarnik Effect," you are much more likely to recall uncompleted tasks than one you completed. In a 1927 study, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik asked subjects to complete a set of tasks. During some of the tasks, the subjects were interrupted before they could finish. When asked later about the tasks, they recalled the tasks during which they were interrupted at a much higher rate than those they were able to complete.  

It turns out that the brain has a powerful need to finish what it starts. When it can't complete something, it gets stuck on it. Intrusive thoughts about what we could not finish may pop into our heads as a way to remind the cognitive system that something still needs to be completed. This can include getting closure to issues (James and Kendell, 1997).

The Zeigarnik Effect may also explain why we regret things we didn't do even more than we regret things we did. In other words, we remember "regrettable omissions" more than we remember "regrettable commissions(Savitsky, Medvec, and Gilovich, 1997). This may also explain why when we grieve, we focus more on the things we didn't say to or didn't do with someone we've lost more than we what we did experience with them.  

This can also explain why television cliffhangers gut us hooked—our brain really does need those stories to be completed. This can explain, in part, why fans of the series Lost were upset when some of the show's critical questions went unanswered by its finale. We tend not to like the ambiguous—the brain wants things to come to a complete end. 

So: Go out there and create your ending to something—whether it's getting closure through a symbolic event, writing out your own ending, or getting a task done.

James, I.A. and Kendell, K. (1997).  Unfinished processing in the emotional disorders: The Zeigarnik Effect. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 25(4): 329-337.

Savitsky,  Medvec, and Gilovich (1997).  Remembering and regretting: The Zeigarnik Effect and the cognitive availability of regrettable actions and inactions.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(3):248-257.

Zeigarnik, B.V. (1927). Über das Behalten von erledigten und unerledigten Handlungen (The retention of completed and uncompleted activities)Psychologische Forschung, 9: 1-85.


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