Psychology Of Tip-Of-The-Tongue Research Paper

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The ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ (hereafter, TOT) phenomenon is an everyday, near-universal experience characterized by the inability to retrieve a word known to the speaker. Researchers have long been interested in this phenomenon, both in terms of understanding why it occurs and when it is more likely to occur, and because TOT provides a window into memory retrieval. In this research paper the main findings stemming from these different lines of research are summarized.

At a youth conference in London in 1998, the British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, when asked to justify the increasing costs of the Millenium Dome in Greenwich, said in front of thousands of attendees, ‘The money came from the … you know … what do they call it …’ and finally blurted out in desperation ‘the raffles.’ In response to laughter from the audience, Prescott tried to show he knew something about the word he could not produce: ‘I don’t do it myself.’ At this point the conference chairperson whispered discreetly ‘the lottery,’ but it was too late to cover up the retrieval failure which was reported in the next day’s Times (Times, January, 1998, from Schacter 2001).

Like John Prescott, seemingly all speakers occasion- ally experience the temporary inability of retrieving a word: a TOT. In a survey including 51 languages, Schwartz (1999) reports not only that all informants across languages knew what a TOT was, but also that all the languages considered had a specific expression for it. Furthermore, in 45 of these languages, this expression includes the word ‘tongue,’ which may be related to our feeling of immanent retrieval of the word during a TOT.

This feeling was well described by William James (1890, pp. 251–252):

Suppose we try to recall a forgotten name. The state of our consciousness is peculiar. There is a gap therein: but no mere gap. It is a gap that is intensely active. A sort of wraith of the name is in it, beckoning us in a given direction, making us at moments tingle with the sense of closeness, and then letting us sink back without the longed-for term. If wrong names are proposed to us, this singularly define gap acts immediately so as to negate them. They do not fit into its mold.

This description captures some of the basic facts about TOT. The longed-for word is known and on the verge of coming out. Furthermore, the word is not completely unavailable: its ‘mold’ is there.

1. Methodologies Used To Investigate TOT

Psychological studies investigating TOTs are based on introspection. Using either experimental methods to induce TOTs or naturalistic observations, researchers have capitalized on speakers’ ability to identify their TOTs and their ability to reflect on their cognitive state during TOTs.

1.1 Experimental Induction of TOTs

Experimental studies started in 1966, with the work of Brown and McNeill (1966). They presented speakers with definitions of rare words such as ‘a place where bees are raised for their honey’ and then asked them to provide the name. When speakers could not say the name, they were first asked to indicate whether or not they were in a TOT state (unable to say the word but sure they knew it, and feeling that the word was on the verge of coming back). If in a TOT state, they were asked to provide information about the unavailable word (other words that came to mind, the initial letter of the word, etc.). Finally, speakers were provided with the target name (e.g., apiary) and were asked whether the word they were attempting to retrieve was the same as the experimenter’s target. Cases in which speakers did not recognize the experimenter’s target as their target were defined as negative TOT states and used as a baseline for guessing, which could be compared with the information reported for positive TOT states (i.e., cases in which the experimenter’s target matched the speaker’s target). This experimental methodology (and its variants) to induce TOT has since been used in a number of studies to investigate, for example, lexical retrieval during speaking.

1.2 Diary Studies

A second methodology that has been used is the recording of TOTs as they spontaneously occur during daily activities. For example, in a study by Burke et al. (1991), speakers of different age groups were asked both general questions about their retrieval failures (e.g., to estimate how often they experience TOTs), as well as specific questions concerning TOTs as they occurred over a four-week period. These specific questions (as for experimentally induced TOTs) included reporting partial information, but also strategies used to resolve TOT states. Such a methodology has provided important information regarding the incidence of TOTs for different verbal materials and for different populations (i.e., young and elderly speakers).

2. Incidence Of TOTs

TOT incidence is influenced by a number of factors; some of the most important are reviewed below (see Brown 1991 for a comprehensive review).

2.1 Speaker-Related Factors

In their diary study, Burke et al. (1991) found that TOT states are more common for older (1.65 TOTs per week) than younger (0.98 TOTs per week) speakers. Other studies have also found a higher incidence for older speakers.

Dramatic differences in incidence rates are also related to brain damage. Anomia is defined as a language specific disturbance arising after brain damage whose main symptom is the inability of retrieving known words. In some anomic patients, these retrieval failures have the same features of TOTs occurring for nonlanguage-impaired speakers, but they are far more common. For example, patient MS (Vigliocco et al. 1999), failed to retrieve the target name for a picture 32 percent of the time (for the same pictures, 10 nonlanguage-impaired speakers performed 100 percent correct). On these occasions, MS could still provide partial information about the name, indicating that he was indeed in a TOT state.

2.2 Word-Related Factors

Certain words are more susceptible to TOTs than others. In their naturalistic study Burke et al. (1991) found that 62 percent of the reported TOTs involved proper names, 12 percent involved object names, and 23 percent involved abstract words. In her catalog of TOTs, Browman (cited in Brown 1991) found that 50 percent of the words inducing TOTs were proper names, 25 percent were concrete and abstract nouns, 14 percent were adjectives and 9 percent were verbs. The predominance of retrieval failures for proper names is also well established in other studies (see Brown 1991 and Schacter 2001). Why? One reason may be that proper names, relative to common names, are not so well integrated with related concepts: they denote individuals but they do not provide any further information about those individuals. This possibility is supported by experiments that suggest a higher incidence of TOTs for proper names which are nondescriptive (e.g., John Baker), than for proper names that are descriptive of some attribute of a character (e.g., John Baker who is a baker) (Schacter 2001). Another possible reason is that proper names cannot be replaced easily by another word, while this is often an option for common names. For instance, if I want to introduce Flavio Monti, I have no option but to say his name; if instead I want to talk about a sofa, if I am experiencing retrieval difficulties, I can use a synonym (couch).

Burke et al. (1991) further reported that the higher incidence of TOT for proper names was magnified by age differences. That is, although there was an overall increase in TOTs from younger to older adults, such an increase was particularly dramatic for proper names. Burke et al. (1991) discuss this result in the framework of a model of the TOT phenomenon in which the difference between proper names and common names is thought of as a difference in the convergence of activation from conceptual to lexical representations. For proper names, a single conceptual representation (denoting the individual) would activate the corresponding lexical representation; for common names multiple conceptual features would converge on a lexical representation. In this frame- work, the difference between younger and older adults is further accounted for by assuming an age-related weakening of the conceptual to lexical connections.

Differences in frequency and recency also contribute to words’ differential susceptibility to TOTs. Low frequency words tend to induce TOTs more often than high frequency words. Rastle and Burke (1996) investigated whether differences in recency of use of a word may account for the different incidence of TOTs for proper names and within this class, for the different performance of younger and older adults. In their study, recency was manipulated by priming target words in an experiment inducing TOTs. They found that while recent use of a word, indeed, decreased the incidence of TOTs, it did not differentially affect proper names and common names and did not differentially affect younger and older adults, suggesting that recency has a global effect on the retrieval process.

3. Information Available For Report During A TOT State

Numerous studies have reported that speakers in a TOT state are able to report partial information about the word, which supports the interpretation of TOT as a memory retrieval failure rather than a memory encoding or storage problem. In experimental studies, speakers’ guesses when in a TOT state are compared to baseline guesses. Two types of baselines are usually used; (a) the speaker’s rating of being in a ‘don’t know’ (as opposed to a TOT) state; (b) negative (as defined above) TOTs. It has been shown that speakers in TOT states can report both lexicosyntactic and phonological information about the words above baseline.

Regarding syntactic information, researchers have shown that Italian speakers can report above chance whether a noun is masculine or feminine (i.e., a syntactic property that does not have conceptual connotates for nouns referring to objects and abstract entities); English language-impaired (e.g., patient MS) and unimpaired speakers can report whether a noun is countable (i.e., pluralizable, such as opinion) or mass (i.e., nonpluralizable, such as knowledge) (see Vigliocco et al. 1999) when such information is not semantically transparent. Regarding phonological information, many studies from the seminal work by Brown and McNeill (1966) have shown that speakers can report above chance information such as the number of syllables, the main stress, and the first phoneme or letter in the word.

Often, in both diary and experimental studies, words semantically and phonologically similar to the target are reported by the speakers. This fact has led some researchers to propose that TOTs are blockages caused by the intrusion of these unwanted words; however, this hypothesis has not received much experimental support (Meyer and Bock 1992).

4. A Psycholinguistic Perspective On TOT

TOT has been used as a tool to test hypotheses regarding lexical retrieval in production. Theories of speech production assume that lexical retrieval is achieved in two main steps. During a first step an abstract lexical representation that specifies the meaning and the syntactic properties of the intended word is retrieved; during a second step the phonological make-up of the word is retrieved. Within this framework, TOT states can be accounted for in terms of an inability to retrieve the phonological word form, despite successful retrieval of the abstract lexical representation. The fact that speakers in a TOT state can report information about the syntactic properties of a word is compatible with the specification of this information at the level of abstract representations; while the availability of phonological information may be accounted for in terms of partial activation of word-forms.

5. Metacognition, Feeling Of Knowing, And TOT

TOT is related to the ‘feeling of knowing’ (FOK), which is the ability to predict the likelihood of later recognition of a word presently unavailable. In both cases, speakers ‘know that they know,’ that is, they have knowledge about their memory state. Although related, note that the two differ because while TOTs occur spontaneously, FOK judgments are usually elicited. Furthermore, speakers in TOT states are confident they will eventually recall the word; FOK, instead, assesses recognition likelihood for a word. In TOT and FOK there is a discrepancy between the subjective conviction of knowing the word and the actual inability to produce it. This discrepancy has been taken by some authors to suggest a distinction between the ability to monitor the content of memory and the ability to retrieve from memory. Alternatively, it has been suggested that FOK and TOT arise as a consequence of the amount of accessible information pertaining to the unavailable word (see Koriat 1993 for an overview).


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  2. Brown R, McNeill D 1966 The ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 5: 325–37
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  10. Vigliocco G, Vinson D P, Martin R C, Garrett M F 1999 Is ‘count’ and ‘mass’ information available when the noun is not? An investigation of tip of the tongue states and anomia. Journal of Memory and Language 40: 534–58
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