Research Programs

Below are descriptions of my various programs of research, along with links to associated articles. Because of copyright restrictions, these are my copies of my published manuscripts and may not exactly replicate the final version published in the journal. Feel free to email me at to request a final version.

Tip-of-the-Tongue (TOT) States

The overarching goal and significance of my research on TOT states is the discovery of critical variables that facilitate or impede the cognitive process of phonological activation, a necessary precursor for successful speech production across the lifespan (see Abrams, 2008; Abrams & Davis, 2016; Abrams & Farrell, 2011; Abrams, Trunk, & Margolin, 2007; Farrell, Abrams, & White, 2012, for reviews). A TOT state is an often frustrating inability to recall a known word, occurring when activation of the word's phonology is deficient. My research has shown that a word's initial syllable is key to its retrieval, such that encountering another word beginning with that syllable (Abrams, White, & Eitel, 2003), or the syllable in isolation (Hofferberth-Sauer & Abrams, 2014), helps to resolve a TOT. However, grammatical class moderates the first syllable's influence: Encountering a phonologically-similar adjective (robust) resolves a TOT for a noun (rosary), whereas another phonologically-similar noun (robot) does not (Abrams & Rodriguez, 2005). The impact of these factors changes with aging, suggesting that older adults have difficulty activating the phonology necessary for resolving TOTs (White & Abrams, 2002). Older adults are also more susceptible to competition from phonologically-similar words in the same grammatical class (Abrams, Trunk, & Merrill, 2007) and from knowing more words with that first syllable (Farrell & Abrams, 2011). However, knowing more words in general does not cause age-related increases in TOTs (Shafto, James, Abrams, Tyler, & Cam-CAN, 2017). I have begun to investigate TOTs for proper names, a class of words that is particularly susceptible to TOTs and even more so in old age. One experiment (White, Abrams, & Frame, 2013) showed that names may be particularly difficult to retrieve because competing names have the capacity to share both phonology and semantics, a combination that is rare for non-names (e.g., Elton John can compete with retrieving Elvis Presley because both share the same first syllable of their first name, and both are singers). Current research is investigating other factors that may make name retrieval either more difficult or easier and the degree to which these factors can explain the disproportionate impairment in name retrieval for older adults.

Emotional Influences on Speech Production

While emotion has been shown to influence cognitive processes including episodic memory and attention, there is relatively little research on how emotion might influence speech production. Some of my recent papers have examined the role of emotional distraction during speech production, specifically how encountering taboo words can affect one's ability to produce an intended word. In collaboration with Dr. Katherine White at Rhodes College, I have investigated interference from taboo words during picture naming, relative to other kinds of distractor words. Our findings demonstrate that taboo words are most interfering, slowing picture naming more than negative words, positive words, neutral words, and semantically-related words. Interference from taboo distractors is uniquely persistent, slowing naming of the next picture that follows. Taboo interference is also robust under different conditions: It occurs regardless of whether the taboo word is presented briefly or when it remains on screen for the duration of the picture, and it interferes when presented before, with, or after the picture (White, Abrams, LaBat, & Rhynes, 2016; White, Abrams, Koehler, & Collins, 2016. These results are interpreted in terms of taboo words engaging attention, which in turn influences the cognitive processes underlying speech production. Current research is exploring (a) the degree to which attentional control can be used to reduce taboo interference, and (b) whether a context that includes taboo words alters how negative and positive words are processed. In addition, I am conducting several studies that are exploring whether emotional arousal can influence the likelihood of TOTs. Despite anecdotal claims that arousing states such as stress or anxiety increase susceptibility to TOTs, there is no definitive empirical evidence linking emotion and TOTs.


With greater reliance on email and instant messaging, people are writing/typing more errors than ever, but there is limited research in this area. My research has led to a better understanding of orthographic retrieval processes, their similarities and differences with phonological retrieval, and effects of aging on these processes. Like speech errors, written errors are influenced by the presence of similar word. Encountering a particular spelling (e.g., the "ege" in sacrilege) increases the ability to correctly spell another word containing that spelling, e.g., privilege (Abrams, Trunk, & White, 2008). Writing a sentence like The teacher was most proud of the beech tree in his garden increases homophone substitution errors (producing beach) because of first writing a word (teacher) that contains the error's spelling (White, Abrams, Zoller, & Gibson, 2008; White, Abrams, McWhite, & Hagler, 2010). Unlike TOTs, older adults are not consistently impaired in retrieving spelling: They sometimes make more spelling errors than younger adults (MacKay & Abrams, 1998) but other times make equivalent or even fewer errors (Abrams & White, 2010; Margolin & Abrams, 2007). Similar inconsistencies emerge for older adults' homophone substitution errors (White, Abrams, Palm, & Protasi, 2012; White, Abrams, & Zoller, 2013), suggesting that orthographic retrieval processes are somewhat preserved in old age, possibly because of older adults' greater familiarity with words. Perceptual processes relevant to spelling are also preserved, as the ability to recognize words as correctly spelled remains intact (Abrams & Stanley, 2004; MacKay, Abrams, & Pedroza, 1999); however, the ability to detect misspellings while reading declines for adults in their 80s(Abrams, Farrell, & Margolin, 2010).

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