Psychology graduate student Andrew Huebert wins Psychonomic Society Graduate Travel Award

Andrew Huebert, a graduate student studying cognitive psychology at Colorado State University, was selected as a recipient of the 2020 Psychonomic Society’s Graduate Travel Award, a highly competitive award presented to only 20 recipients.

Huebert’s supervisor, Professor Anne Cleary,  provided a letter of support for Huebert’s award nomination, expressing admiration for his enthusiasm.

“Andrew is a very eager and ambitious student who is passionate about research,” Cleary said.

He received a competitive award of $1,000, a ribbon for his research poster, and a featured notation in the conference program booklet indicating the award.

It’s on the tip of my tongue!

Huebert researched the tip of the tongue (TOT) phenomenon, which is the feeling someone experiences when a word cannot be recalled along with the sensation that it is about to be recalled. Scientific theories about the TOT sensation suggest that an accurate partial-recollection of the inaccessible word is present during the phenomenon, with subjects often feeling as though they can recall the first letter or the sound of a word. Huebert decided to explore a new theory and question whether this feeling of partial-recollection was often an illusion.

Cleary published a paper in 2015 along with former graduate student Alex Claxton noting an interesting bias regarding the TOT state. According to Cleary and Claxton, participants experiencing a TOT state believed that the inaccessible target had accessible qualities, such as being a frequently used word. However, their research discovered that TOT phenomena were not more likely to occur with frequently used words. This research caused Huebert to ask whether a similar bias occurs with partial-recollection during a TOT state, and if people experiencing a TOT phenomenon assume they have access to partial information when in reality they do not.

“If people erroneously infer qualities of accessibility from a TOT state, do they also erroneously infer partial access to the first letter of a target word?” Huebert asked.

This topic interested Huebert for many reasons, including the idea that almost everyone can relate to the commonly occurring TOT phenomenon. His research also has an impact on current theories regarding TOT phenomena.

“The commonly reported association between TOT states and partial-recollection has been used to argue what underlies the TOT state and how it arises,” Huebert said. “Also, the association between TOT states and partial-recollection has been used to make inferences about how we recall words. We thought that discovering a TOT bias towards partial-recollection would throw a major wrench in these assumptions.”

To test his hypothesis, Huebert created two experiments in which participants were given 80 general-knowledge questions. Participants were required to guess the first letter for answers that could not be retrieved in both TOT and non-TOT states. A non-TOT state occurs when the participant does not know the answer and also does not feel like the answer will be retrieved. In the first experiment, participants indicated the feeling of knowing the first letter in the form of a yes or no judgement, and in the second experiment they indicated this same feeling in the form of a rating. The results of both experiments indicated a very large illusory feeling of participants knowing the first letter of a target during TOT states compared to non-TOT states.

“Participants [in TOT states] felt that they knew the first letter 58% of the time, compared to only 6% of the time in non-TOT states,” Huebert said. “However, participants only guessed the correct first letter during 11% of TOT states and 7% of non-TOT states. Furthermore, when only considering incorrect first letter guesses, TOT participants felt that they knew the first letter 50% more often than non-TOT states. Similar results were found in the second experiment. Taken together, these results suggest that partial-recollection of the first letter might be an illusion of the TOT state, rather than the idea that TOT states are states of partial-recollection of a word.”

The difference in actual partial-recollection vs. perceived partial-recollection was an exciting discovery. In the first experiment, there was only a 4% difference in actually stating the correct first letter between TOT states and non-TOT states. By comparison, the difference in stating the feeling of knowing the correct first letter between TOT and non-TOT states was 52%.

Huebert is currently working on extending these experiments about illusions of partial-recollection to other aspects of words beyond their first letters. He would like to know if participants feel like they know certain things when they are guessing their answers, such as what a word sounds like or the number of syllables within a word. He will also use the award to travel to more conferences in the future.