What is going on in our emotional brain when we reach for a word and can’t quite get it to come to mind? 

We have all experienced that maddening “tip-of-the-tongue” state where we are desperately trying to recall a name or phrase but can’t quite get it to come to mind. “Brain researchers wonder about what is happening when this occurs, too,” says INDY Neurofeedback owner Leanne O’Neil, “and what they are finding is fascinating.”

“In fact a group of psycholinguist researchers decided to study this common phenomena. A new study published in the  Memory & Cognition journal has found that when people experience this state, the phenomenon can exert a surprising influence on completely unrelated behavior – risk-taking.”

Here’s what they found:  Interestingly, when study subjects are unable to recall a word but feel like they are on the verge of remembering it, they are more likely to report that that word they are searching for is positive, or that the forgotten name belongs to an ethical person.

Why might this be? Researchers speculate that compared to a complete inability to recall a word, having it just out of mind’s reach might provide an encouraging feeling that you have relevant knowledge, even if you can’t quite bring it to mind. So, those individuals may infer from those feelings that the word itself has positive qualities.

How does this lead to risk-taking? If subjects have a positive association with an idea, could that bias influence other decisions completely unrelated to the word retrieval behavior?

To investigate this possibility, researchers at Colorado State University conducted a series of studies on how the so-called Tip-of-the-Tongue Phenomenon related to risk-taking decisions: specifically, whether or not they chose to gamble.

  • To test this, the team asked 19 students to answer 80 general knowledge questions.
  • If they couldn’t answer, the participants were asked whether they were experiencing a Tip-of-the-Tongue If so, 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.
  • Of the 44 questions asked, students experienced the Tip-of-the-Tongue phenomenon on 8 of the questions. They rated their willingness to gamble as significantly higher than when they had no inkling of the answer.
  • The study was then replicated in a second study of 180 participants. These participants also showed a greater inclination to gamble after Tip-of-the-Tongue moments, but less so after a 10 second delay before the gambling question.
  • In a final study, participants were asked to make an actual (rather than hypothetical) decision to gamble on a coin toss. The participants were more overwhelmingly willing to gamble after Tip-of-the-Tongue moments rather than when they couldn’t answer the question.

What does this mean about emotions related to how we retrieve information? Researchers think that Tip-of-the-Tongue moments are experienced as “a partial form of retrieval success”, which is internalized as “more positive than no success at all.”

“In other words,” summarizes O’Neil, “Temporary positive experiences seem to affect our immediate future behavior in ways that we might not realize, providing very interesting food for thought.”