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Thursday, July 07 2022
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An elusive memory problem more likely to happen in groups - 5 min read

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Luc Rousseau, Laurentian University

What is the baby lion’s name in Disney’s The Lion King? If you feel sure that you know it, and it is on the verge of coming back to you but you can’t quite remember it right now, then you’re experiencing a tip-of-the-tongue feeling.

Tip-of-the-tongue feelings can also occur when people try to remember things together. For instance, a group of friends may simultaneously have the name of a movie’s main actress on the tip of their tongues.

Surprisingly, social aspects of tip-of-the-tongue feelings have been largely neglected by researchers. I recently led a study that found that tip-of-the-tongue feelings are more likely to occur when people remember together rather than alone.

I am sure I know it, but …

On the surface, a tip-of-the-tongue feeling reflects a memory failure — a breakdown happening when searching for a word. But beneath the surface, if you are quite sure you know it, that is because the word is just waiting there … somewhere in your mind. Some researchers say a tip-of-the-tongue reflects a good memory, not a bad one.

Research has shown that when struggling with a word on the tip of their tongue, people are quite good at pinpointing the word’s first letter, at spotting the number of syllables in it or at coming up with sound-alike words.

Clues informing a guess

According to a leading theory, at the heart of a tip-of-the-tongue feeling is an informed guess, an inference you make about the likelihood of the sought-for word being available in your memory. And to inform your guess, you rely on clues, just as crime scene investigators do.

The youthful song of the baby lion in Disney’s The Lion King was I Just Can’t Wait to be King.

Among relevant clues are information related to the elusive word, for instance (in the baby lion’s case): His best friend and future mate is named Nala; his youthful song was I Just Can’t Wait to be King. The more clues fuel your guess that the word is available in your memory, the closer you feel it is on the verge of coming back to you, giving rise to a tip-of-the-tongue feeling.

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‘Socially shared’ tip-of-the-tongues

In the lab, tip-of-the-tongues are elicited by using general knowledge questions or definitions of rare words. But since 1966, all tip-of-the-tongue studies have involved individuals remembering alone. According to a survey conducted on Laurentian University campus, 96 per cent of the participants had encountered at least one occasion where two or more people shared a tip-of-the-tongue experience in a small group over the past six months.

In our recently published study “Socially Shared Feelings of Imminent Recall: More Tip-of-the-Tongue States Are Experienced in Small Groups,” my research team presented groups of four people with 80 general knowledge questions (for example, “Which planet is the closest to the sun?”). Participants were prevented from telling others when they were having a tip-of-the-tongue feeling. Each group member independently filled out a response sheet, indicating one of three responses:

  • I know it, here’s the answer;
  • I don’t know it; or
  • I have a tip-of-the-tongue.

We presented the same set of questions to individuals remembering alone. Remarkably, we found that each group member independently reported, on average, six tip-of-the-tongues, while individuals remembering alone reported, on average, two tip-of-the-tongues. How can we explain this finding?

Social contagion or informed guess?

A peculiar feeling may arise when one is experiencing a tip-of-the-tongue next to someone else experiencing one. It is the feeling of having “caught” the tip-of-the-tongue, as if the feeling were contagious. Social contagion of tip-of-the-tongue feelings may arise, for instance, when hearing somebody say, “Oh wait, I know it!” or “What was the name of that movie?”

Four people who all appear to trying to remember something.
A tip-of-the-tongue feeling can sometimes seem contagious. (Shutterstock)

But there’s another, alternative explanation for shared tip-of-the-tongues in a group. There are more instances of remembering in several heads than in one. Because of this, people remembering together may entertain the guess that the target word will be easier to remember by a group of people than by a single person. Such a guess may drive a stronger feeling of closeness with the target word, triggering a tip-of-the-tongue feeling in one (or more) people in the group.

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A closer look at our results is revealing. Evidence for tip-of-the-tongue contagion is obtained when two or more group members experience a tip-of-the-tongue for the same question (common tip-of-the-tongues), or when group members exchange words. Yet, after removing both common tip-of-the-tongues and those following words (45 per cent of all tip-of-the-tongues), there were still more in group members than in single individuals.

Therefore, even if social contagion is a plausible explanation, it seems that a more powerful one is the informed guess that the word is available there … in somebody’s memory (“If I can’t remember it, they will!”).

Tip-of-the-tongue feelings are highly private personal experiences, but we begin to gain an understanding of their social dynamics. Both possible causes of shared tip-of-the-tongues — social contagion and the “several-heads-are-better-than-one” informed guess — are currently under investigation.

And just for the record, the baby lion’s name is Simba.The Conversation

Luc Rousseau, PhD, professeur agrégé de psychologie et chercheur au Laboratoire de recherche en santé cognitive, Laurentian University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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