The Why #21: Why don’t waiters just write down my order?

3 min readJun 10, 2021

By Dan Monheit, 11.6.21

Question submitted by Katrina, East Gardens

We’ve all experienced the collective anxiety that occurs when your waiter takes mental note of the table’s order like they’re on the podium at the World Memory Championships (yep, real thing).

Just like that, your enjoyment of the evening now rests on their ability to remember Aunt Pam’s finicky, and frankly unnecessary, modification to the stir fry, or whether it was uncle Gerry or uncle Gary who wanted the satay sauce on the side (‘not allergic, just a preference’).

I hear you Katrina. Why show off? Surely it’d be in everyone’s best interest to just roll with the ol’ pen and pad…

But what if we’re wrong? What if waiters aren’t trying to impress us at all?

If you’ve ever found yourself distracted in an intimate moment because you left your washing in the machine, read on. Or don’t. This bias works either way.

Zeigarnik Effect

The Zeigarnik Effect describes how we remember incomplete, interrupted or unresolved tasks more easily than those we’ve finished. Starting a task that we’re interested in brings an overwhelming desire to complete it. This desire stays with us until we do so.

In 1927, Bluma Zeigarnik, a Lithuanian psychologist (and heuristic namesake), ran an experiment to test how easily children could recall the details of taskwork. Two separate groups were left to work on a series of puzzles and basic maths problems. One group was interrupted midway through, while the other was allowed to complete what they were working on. After an hour away from their activities, the children were asked if they remembered what they’d done.

While 12% of the ‘completed’ group could recall the tasks, this figure jumped to 80% for the ‘interrupted’ group. Evidently, the incomplete tasks were still ticking away in the minds of group two.

When we start and then complete a task, we’re rewarded with a dopamine hit and an accompanying sense of satisfaction. When instead a task goes unfinished, we’re left motivated and invested in keeping it top of mind, in the hope of completing it and cashing in our reward.

And that’s where our hospitality friends come in. As it turns out, Bluma also observed that wait staff could remember complex and nuanced food orders while they were outstanding, but as soon as the plates were cleared and the bill was paid, the orders vanished from memory. Storing the orders of customers in working memory makes it easier to provide good customer service, as well as keep tabs on who still needs to pay.

Brands can juice the Zeigarnik Effect by skipping the whole story. Instead, consider providing just enough to hook your audience, safe in the knowledge that you’ll come back and close the loop down the track. Think cryptic headlines, incomplete catchphrases or ending it all with a

Behaviourally Yours,

Dan Monheit

PS If you missed the last edition, you can still check out why it’s 11:11 every time you look at your watch here.

Bad Decisions Podcast
Learn more about the Zeigarnik Effect on episode 19 of the Bad Decisions podcast.

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Check out Dan’s write up in Adnews on Adland’s solution for a successful COVID-19 vaccine campaign




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