Why Is Solving Crossword Puzzles Fun?
In honor of Denis Dutton, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about a piece that is in the January issue of the APS Observer called “Aha! The 23-Across Phenomenon.” It’s about why solving crossword puzzles is fun.
The item caught my attention not only because of Denis, but also because I have a personal connection to the subject; my father, with co-author Mel Rosen, in some sense literally wrote the book on solving and composing crossword puzzles. (If you’re a fan of crossword puzzles, I shamelessly recommend the book, though it’s out of print now. You can find it on the aftermarket on sites like Amazon.)
Anyway, the piece in the Observer (by Wray Herbert) talks about how nice it feels to figure out answers when you’re solving a crossword puzzle. As a solver – though not in the same league as my father by any stretch – I can say that, yeah, it does feel nice to get an answer right. The question is why.
Wray draws on a recent paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science by Sascha Topolinski and Rolf Reber about this, the “aha” experience, the sudden insight into a problem. Now, I have to say that while I read the piece, and while I can say that their explanation has to do with “processing fluency,” I confess I don’t understand it. First of all, they seem to define the term in two different ways, as both a feeling and as a dimension, saying that processing fluency is “a feeling state that helps integrate the experiential components of insight” but also that it is “the ease with which information is processed in the cognitive system.” Their basic hypothesis is that positive affect is caused by the “sudden appearance of the solution for a problem and the concomitant surprising fluency gain in processing.” Since I don’t really understand what they mean by fluency gain, I don’t know how to interpret this claim, and I have to say that they lost me.
I can tell you, at least, the sort of evidence that they say supports this view. In one experiment, subjects had to evaluate whether statements were true or not – e.g., “Osorno is in Chile” – and these statements varied in how easy they were to read because of the color of the font and background. Those that were easy to read – ones that were more “perceptually fluent” – were judged to be true (slightly) more often. (8.36 vs. 8.09)
Because I really don’t understand what they’re talking about, I’ll just offer a different account of crossword puzzles. (By the way, crosswords made it into Dutton’s The Art Instinct, and he describes solving a crossword puzzle as something that “is valued as a source of immediate experiential pleasure in itself” p. 52).
I take it – and I basically follow Thornhill here – that the experience of pleasure is the result of mechanisms designed to bring about (outcomes that would have led to) fitness gains. When Jared Diamond asked Why is Sex Fun, the answer had to do with the fact that evolved motivational systems are designed to drive organisms to do fitness-enhancing things, like having sex.
Now, I want to emphasize that this is speculative, but it seems to me that a key piece here is that humans seem to benefit from discovering certain kinds of new information they didn’t previously know. One way we do this is to read blogs like this one, but there are any number of other ways. The pleasure we take in new information depends on a number of factors, perhaps including how hard it is to get (easier is generally better), how many other people might be able to get it easily (fewer is often better, which cuts against the previous factor), the value of the information, how confident we are that it’s true, and so on. Gossip and Wikileaks are both, in a sense, satisfying our evolved appetites for finding out secrets, previously unknown and possibly useful information.
Crossword puzzles are an interesting case. I think of each of those empty white squares as a tiny little secret, something you don’t know, but, with some effort (and I note that “effort” is a small word that masks a complicated issue which I’ll skate over here), you can figure it out. The fact that the words cross, allowing you to confirm an across answer with the one that goes down, often helps you be sure you’re right about a tentative answer because of the logic of convergent evidence. So my sense is that it’s fun to solve crossword puzzles because there’s a favorable ratio of effort to what your mind experiences as discovering little secrets.
I think a key element any explanation ought to be able to capture is the difference among the experience of easy, moderate, and hard puzzles. (This varies depending on the solver’s skill, of course.) Take the following puzzle:
What three-letter word also means “feline”?: C ___ ___ .
This seems to pass the Osorno in Chile test – easy to read and process, and so very fluent indeed – but it’s not really fun. Why not?
I think this is because easy secrets aren’t valuable secrets. And secrets that people like me will never get – the ones in the Saturday Times puzzle – are no fun because they’re a waste of (my) time.
I’m not saying this gets the whole phenomenon, but it seems like a reasonable place to start, thinking about white squares as small but discoverable secrets. I’d like to think – but would never be so presumptuous as to assert – that Denis might approve.
Diamond, J. (1997). Why is Sex Fun? The evolution of human sexuality. New York: Basic Books
Thornhill, R. (2003). Darwinian aesthetics informs traditional aesthetics. In Evolutionary Aesthetics, K. Grammer and E. Voland, eds. (9-38). Berlin: Springer-Verlag.