Why the same words keep getting stuck on the tip of your tongue

Not being able to think of a word that you know you know can be so frustrating. What's extra annoying about these tip-of-the-tongue states is that often we'll keep experiencing them for the same word. That's despite the fact that the relief we experience on finally discovering an elusive word often leads us to feel that we'll surely never forget it again.

The reason we continue struggling with the same words isn't just because they are unusual or awkward. No, according to Amy Warriner and Karin Humphreys, when we're in a tip-of-the-tongue state, we're actually learning the wrong way of retrieving the word, thus making it less likely that we'll successfully recall it in the future.

Thirty students attempted to retrieve words based on definitions given to them by the researchers. Here's an example: What do you call an instrument for performing calculations by sliding beads along rods or grooves? Answer: abacus. If the students reported experiencing a tip-of-the-tongue state, then they were either given 10 seconds before being told the word, or 30 seconds.

When, two days' later, the students were tested with the same definitions again, they were more likely to have a repeat tip-of-the-tongue state for a given word, if they'd previously experienced 30 seconds of having the word on the tip of their tongue, than if they'd previously only been in that state for 10 seconds.

The researchers said this finding was consistent with the idea that when the tip-of-the-tongue participants were previously made to wait 30 seconds, they were effectively spending more time learning that erroneous state - thus reinforcing the incorrect pattern of activation that was causing their tip-of-the-tongue sensation.

"Metaphorically speaking, this is akin to spinning one's tyres in the snow, resulting in nothing more than the creation of a deeper rut," the researchers explained.

The Digest asked Karin Humphreys what implications her results have for stopping tip-of-the-tongue-states from perpetually reoccurring. "If you can find out what the word is as soon as possible [by looking it up, or asking someone], that's great. If someone tells you the correct word, you should actually say it to yourself. It doesn't even need to be out loud, but you should at least say it to yourself. So by laying down another procedural memory, you can help to ameliorate the effects of the error. However, even with this, it doesn't get rid of the effect entirely. One other possibility is if you just can't figure it out, stop trying, you are just digging yourself in deeper."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchWarriner, A.B., Humphreys, K. (2008). Learning to fail: Reoccurring tip-of-the-tongue states. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61(4), 535-542. DOI: 10.1080/17470210701728867
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