Recently, a video of Emil, a contestant in the bonus round of Wheel of Fortune went viral because the contestant got the answer to the following:
NE_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
with the clue "THING".
This was an amazing feat, and although not strictly crossword, is very much related. One of the reasons this was amazing is because the answer was sort of obscure, yet blocked by a high-probability response, which is the basis for a line of research first studied by Roger Brown in the 1960s called the "Tip of the Tongue" phenomenon.
The TOT phenomenon or TOT state is one everyone has probably experienced. It usually happens with names. Let's try one:
Who was that guy who was in the Usual Suspects? (Not Kevin Spacey, the other guy) Answer after the break.
Does this help?
Maybe you could 'see' the person's face you were thinking of, but if you were trying to come up with a name, and kept returning to Kevin Spacey, this is a classic TOT state. One of the most prominent accounts for TOT is that you get 'blocked' by a good but incorrect answer, and can't reset your thinking to get the right one. Kevin Spacey is a great block, because he was the most memorable of the characters in the movie, and is currently very prominent. So, you may be able to remember the Baldwin, or the psychoanalyst, or the other guy named Kevin, or the Latino, but be unable to retrieve their names.
So, back to the Wheel, and to crosswords. What is amazing to me about this solution is that this was the clue,
NE_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
but these letters had been eliminated:
So, pretending we don't know the answer, the first word is almost certainly NEW (could be NET, but can't think of anything that goes with NET). But NEW + _ _ _ _ looks like NEW YORK. And a bunch of possible answers come from this; NEW YORK GIANTS. But clearly this won't work, because O was eliminated. Regardless, we usually find it difficult to not use associates like this to help search memory, so everything that comes up when you try ends up starting with NEW YORK. NEW JACK CITY doesn't have the O, but it won't work for the third word. Most of us get stumped at that point, if we even get that far.
What Emil, the contestant, was able to do was eliminate NEW YORK, not get stuck on it, and try a bunch of other words. In terms of the TOT effect, he was able to avoid getting blocked by the obvious but incorrect answers. Also, he got the right almost right away, which was both amazing and incredibly lucky, and he walks away $45,000 richer for it. The answer, in case you don't watch youtube: NEW BABY BUGGY. What is even more amazing is that this isn't really a phrase, or thing. This answer/clue certainly wouldn't fly in a real crossword puzzle, but the norms for Wheel are a bit different, and so things like this are acceptable. But it is both an amazing example of human memory search, and a illustration of how our memories sometimes fail the rest of us. This happens all of the time when solving crossword puzzles, and in fact the clues are often designed to encourage it. I also suspect that really good crossword players are able to avoid these blocks, much like Emil did on Wheel of Fortune.