Document Type

Contribution to Book

Publication Date

January 1991

Journal or Book Title

Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society



Place of Publication



An important feature of human memory is the ability to retrieve previously unsolved problems, particularly when circumstances are more favorable to their solution. Zeigarnik (1927) has been widely cited for the finding that interrupted tasks are better remembered than completed ones; however, frequent replications and non-replications have been explained in terms of social psychological variables (Prentice, 1944). The present study examines differences in memory for tasks based on completion status by appealing to cognitive variables such as the nature of interruption, time spent during processing, and set size. In one experiment using word problems, subjects were interrupted on half of the problems after a short interval of active problem solving, and completed tasks were in fact better remembered than interrupted ones. However, less processing time was necessarily spent on problems that were interrupted. A second experiment held time constant, allowing subjects to abandon tasks they could not complete. In this experiment, the opposite result occurred, replicating Zeigarnik and showing better access to unsolved problems in free recall. However, enhanced memorability in this study may have resulted from a subject-generated impasse in problem solving rather than "interruption" per se. This successful replication also included set size differences in favor of incomplete problems. Under these conditions, the status of completion can serve as a useful index to past problem situations. These experiments are successful in identifying cognitive variables that explain when one can suspend effort on a failed problem, and recall it at a later time.