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Is a Tip-of-the-Tongue State Contagious?

People are more likely to experience a tip-of-the-tongue state when in groups.

Key points

  • New research shows that tip-of-the-tongue states happen more often when people are in groups than by themselves.
  • The presence of other people in a collaborative effort can make a person feel more like they are on the verge of identifying a word.
  • The tip-of-the-tongue state is not likely to be directly "contagious" to others.
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels
People in one-on-one Zoom meetings experienced fewer tip-of-the-tongue states than people in group Zoom meetings.
Source: Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Have you ever felt like a word was right there, on the verge of access, as if right on the tip of your tongue but unable to be brought to mind? We've all been there. And, the older we get, the more often it happens.

Research on the "tip-of-the-tongue" state

Though researchers are still trying to unravel the mystery of why this peculiar state occurs, some new research suggests a very strange aspect to it that may provide some new clues. Researchers Luc Rousseau and Nathalie Kashur gave people a set of general knowledge questions commonly used in research on tip-of-the-tongue states. For example, "What is the name of the curved stick that returns to you once thrown?" or "What is the last name of the scientist who formulated the theory of relativity?" [The answers are presented below.] In addition to trying to answer each question, the participants indicated if they were experiencing a tip-of-the-tongue state for the answer.

What is unique about this study is that the researchers provided the questions to people in a Zoom meeting, and compared when that meeting was one-on-one between the researcher and the participant (in which case the participant worked alone in trying to answer each question), versus when that meeting was a group meeting (in which case four participants worked collaboratively on trying to answer each question).

Strangely, the people who worked collaboratively in a group were more likely to report experiencing a tip-of-the-tongue state than the people who worked alone. This does not appear to be a case of people pretending to have more tip-of-the-tongue states in order to appear more knowledgeable in front of others—participants were told not to disclose to others when they were experiencing a tip-of-the-tongue state.

Why should people be more likely to experience a tip-of-the-tongue state when working with a group to try to identify a word than when trying to identify a word alone?

One possibility is that, like other social contagion phenomena, a tip-of-the-tongue state is somewhat contagious across people. This could happen if, for example, you see other people in the midst of a tip-of-the-tongue state and so you start to feel like you are having one too. To assess this, Rousseau and Kashur carried out a study in which they had a "confederate" (an actor rather than a real participant in the group) pretend to be experiencing a tip-of-the-tongue state. However, this did not increase the likelihood of a tip-of-the-tongue experience in the real participants, suggesting that the feeling of being in a tip-of-the-tongue state is not socially transmissible, at least not in such a simple manner of spreading from one person to another.

So, no, your tip-of-the-tongue state is probably not contagious to other people.

Rousseau and Kashur suggest that the social influence on the occurrence of a tip-of-the-tongue state may instead be more nuanced and mostly internally driven. Specifically, they suggest that because identification of the sought-after word should be more likely to emerge out of a group of people than out of just one person alone (similar to the logic behind crowdsourcing), and because people probably tend to recognize this, people may feel a greater sense of "closeness" to the sought-after word when in a group. This greater sense of closeness may drive the feeling of having the word on the tip of the tongue.

If accurate, this explanation could mean that the phenomenology of the tip-of-the-tongue state includes a subjective feeling of closeness to the word. If so, might there be other ways to try to induce a greater feeling of closeness to a word? And, might it also mean that a tip-of-the-tongue feeling can be stronger or weaker, depending on how close versus far away one feels in relation to the as yet unknown word? These are very interesting questions indeed. Answering them could help us to better understand the nature of the tip-of-the-tongue experience and what drives it.

Answers to the earlier questions: boomerang and Einstein

References

Rousseau L and Kashur N (2021) Socially Shared Feelings of Imminent Recall: More Tip-of-the-Tongue States Are Experienced in Small Groups. Front. Psychol. 12:704433. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.704433

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