When A Word Is On The Tip Of Our Tongue, We Are More Likely To Take Risks

GettyImages-960038018.jpgBy Matthew Warren

“What’s the name of that actor again? The one who was on that show? Oh, it’s right on the tip of my tongue..!”

That “tip-of-the-tongue” state — where we feel that we’re just on the verge of recalling a word or name — is probably familiar to us all. And it’s been the subject of much research by psycholinguists, who think it happens when we’re able to retrieve a concept or meaning, but not translate that into the letters and sounds of a word.

Now a new study in Memory & Cognition has found that when people experience tip-of-the-tongue states, they also become more likely to take risks — suggesting that the phenomenon can exert a surprising influence on completely unrelated behaviour.

Researchers already knew that tip-of-the-tongue states were associated with a “positivity bias”. When people are unable to recall a word or name, but feel like they are on the verge of getting it, they are more likely to believe that that word is positive, for instance, or that the name belongs to an ethical person.

This might seem paradoxical, given that the phenomenon is often accompanied by a sense of frustration — but researchers have suggested that there is also a positive element to the experience. Compared to a complete inability to recall a word, having it on the tip of your tongue might give a sense of excitement, or an encouraging feeling that you have relevant knowledge, even if you can’t quite bring it to mind. So, the logic goes, people may mistakenly infer from these feelings that the word itself has positive qualities.

But does this bias also influence other decisions that are unrelated to the word? To investigate this possibility, Anne Cleary and colleagues at Colorado State University conducted a series of studies on how the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon related to people’s risk-taking decisions: specifically, whether or not they chose to gamble.

First, the team asked 19 students to answer 80 general knowledge questions, such as “What is the name of Dorothy’s dog in The Wizard of Oz?”. If they couldn’t answer, the participants indicated whether they were experiencing a tip-of-the-tongue state. Then after each question, they rated on a scale of 0 to 10 whether they felt inclined to gamble on the result of a coin-toss.

On average, participants failed to answer around 44 of the questions; of these, they experienced the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon for about 8 (if you are experiencing it right now, let me help — the answer is Toto). And when they experienced the phenomenon, they rated their willingness to gamble as significantly higher than when they had no inkling of the answer.

The authors replicated this finding in a second study of 180 participants, in which some people had a 10-second delay between indicating whether they had experienced the phenomenon and rating their willingness to gamble. These participants also showed a greater inclination to gamble after tip-of-the-tongue states, but the effect wasn’t as strong compared to those without the delay, suggesting that the bias was wearing off.

Finally, the team again repeated the study, this time asking participants to make an actual, rather than hypothetical, decision to gamble on a coin toss. The participants started with 100 points, winning 10 more after correctly guessing the outcome of the toss, and losing 10 when they were wrong. Again, participants were more willing to gamble after tip-of-the-tongue states compared to other instances where they couldn’t answer the question.

The study shows that fleeting positive feelings associated with tip-of-the-tongue states can spill over to affect other decisions. Interestingly, participants showed an even greater inclination to gamble when they were able to actually give answers to the questions. This suggests that tip-of-the-tongue experiences are best seen as “a partial form of retrieval success”, say the authors, “experienced as more positive than no success at all, but less positive than full-blown retrieval success.”

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the results hold when looking at behaviour with real risks and benefits. The final experiment was meant to provide some real-world validity to the study, but still relied on participants betting on abstract points rather than actually gambling for money. It would also be interesting to know whether the “afterglow” from tip-of-the-tongue states influences other kinds of decisions beyond risk-taking. Still, it seems clear that transient positive-seeming experiences can affect our behaviour in ways that we might not realise.

The tip-of-the-tongue state bias permeates unrelated concurrent decisions and behavior

Matthew Warren (@MattbWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

2 thoughts on “When A Word Is On The Tip Of Our Tongue, We Are More Likely To Take Risks”

  1. I find this most interesting! I am familiar with a case of fronto-temporal dementia where the person lost the ability to articulate her thoughts but clearly had some access to conceptual knowledge. She would occasionally produce a full and intelligible sentence, but often could not, which she found very frustrating. I had the sense she could almost find the words, and often came up with synonyms or sound-alike alternatives. AND during this period, she was making consistently bad decisions involving risk. I drove her to an appointment once in an unfamiliar-to-me area, and she assured me that I could run the red light we had stopped for–“oh everybody does”–just as a car went through the intersection on the crossing road at speed. I was shocked at the time, but came to understand that she just had no judgment anymore. She was also prey to those grifters who love to scam elderly targets into buying worthless stuff for thousands. After reading this article, I have to wonder if this phenomenon the researchers identify can be traced to a similar part of the brain as was initially affected in hers.

  2. The TOT positive feelings may be the result of an associated (and likely unconscious) sense of familiarity when we reach that state. Familiarity is a more powerful driver than we grasp. It’s active in the common repetition of negative situations; at some unconscious level, the mind seeks the familiar over the logical. Abused spouses return to the abuser over and over. Why that happens is a puzzle.

    Retrieval success is a positive reinforcement that ensures future success, a reward to the essentially unconscious, autonomous retrieval mechanism.

    In conjunction with the latter, I have a more extensive hypothesis that may be of value in analyzing brain phenomena. I’ve uploaded the preprint comment on ResearchGate: bit.ly/2tnFyhv

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