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Friday, April 04, 2008

Giving Up Can Help Tip-of-the-Tongue States

All of us have had those tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) states where we just can't recall a friend's name or some fact just when we need it. I discuss this phenomenon on pages 198 to 206 of my book. I explain how to deal with this problem by staying calm and trying to recall all the cues associated with what you are trying to remember.

But what if you did not use many cues when you first formed the memory? In those cases, the remedy should perhaps be different. Two psychologists at McMaster University in Ontario recently published a study showing that trying hard to retrieve a TOT memory may be counterproductive. They studied 30 volunteers who were shown definitions to words they did not know. Some definitions were easy, some were hard, and some were fakes. When tested for recall, subjects were instructed to press a button any time they encountered a TOT state. When subjects entered a TOT state they were told to keep trying and they would be told the answer in 10 or 30 seconds if they don't get it.

Subjects were re-tested two days later by being asked to generate the word that fit each definition. Researchers found that subjects had a high probability of stumbling again on the same words they had trouble with the first time. TOTs were almost twice as likely to happen again on words that initially caused a TOT and had been followed by a long delay than on those that had been followed by a short delay. One conclusion is that failing the first time is actually an implicit learning condition wherein subjects are learning to fail again. The longer they kept trying, as in the 30-second group, the more time they had to learn to fail.

These subjects had not been instructed to make visual images of words and their definitions during initial learning. Had that been done, there might have been fewer TOTs the second time and those that did occur could probably have been resolved by thinking of the cues.

So, the next time you have a TOT for somebody's name or some fact, first think of all the cues you can. If cues don't come to mind, you probably should quickly move on mentally to something else and periodically come back to the item that caused your TOT state. When the answer finally does come to you, make as many associations as you can that can serve as cues the next time.

Soucre: Warriner, A. B., and Humphreys, K. R. 2008. Learning to fail: recurring tip-of-the-tongue states. Quaterly J. Exp. Psychol. 61: 535-542.