What Is the Tip-of-the-Tongue Phenomenon?

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Have you ever been asked a question that you know the answer to, but found yourself struggling to think of the correct word?

"Oh, I know this," you might say. "I know that it starts with a B."

While it may be tempting to spend some time struggling to find the answer, research by psychologist Karin Humphreys and Amy Beth Warriner suggests that the more time you spend trying to remember a word on the tip of your tongue actually makes it more likely that you'll struggle with the word again in the future.

"Your spinning your tires in the snow," Humphreys explained in a ScieneCentral interview. "Your digging yourself in deeper."

Humphreys own interest in the topic came from personal experience struggling to remember certain words that seemed to continually pose a challenge.

"This can be incredibly frustrating -- you know you know the word, but you just can't quite get it," she explained in the McMaster Daily News release. "And once you have it, it is such a relief that you can't imagine ever forgetting it again. But then you do. So we began thinking about the mechanisms that might underlie this phenomenon. We realized that it might not be a case of everyone having certain words that are difficult for them to remember, but that by getting into a tip-of-the-tongue state on a particular word once, they actually learn to go into that incorrect state when they try to retrieve the same word again."

In the study, researchers showed 30 participants questions that they either knew, didn't know or had the answers at the tip of their tongues. For those tip of the tongue answers, participants were then randomly assigned to groups that had either 10 or 30 seconds to come up with response. The procedure was then repeated two days later.

"The longer they stayed in that tip-of-the-tongue state on the first day, the more likely they were to get into a tip-of-the-tongue state on that word on the second day," explains Humphreys. The extra time that people spend trying to dredge up the word is what the researchers describe as "incorrect practice" time. Instead of learning the correct word, people are learning the mistake itself.

The study has important applications for students and educators. During your next study session, focus on looking up the correct answers rather than trying to recall the information. For teachers, the study indicates that it is more beneficial to provide students with the right answer rather than letting them struggle to recall it on their own.

How can you prevent future problems following a tip-of-the-tongue event? Unpublished research by Warriner, an undergraduate student at McMaster University, suggests that the best way to break the cycle is to repeat the word to yourself, either silently or out loud.

According to Humphreys, this step creates another procedural memory that helps minimize the negative effect of the prior incorrect practice.

Related Reading:

Reference:
Warriner, A.B. & Humphreys, K.R. (2008). Learning to fail: Reoccurring tip-of-the-tongue states. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61(4), 535-542.

Christmas, J. (2008). What's that word? Researcher studies tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. McMaster Daily News.

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