“Sixty-four million people do it at least once a week. Nabokov wrote about it. Bill Clinton even did it in the White House” (Marc Romano, 2005).

I’m sure many of you reading this opening quote will think that it refers to sexual infidelity but it doesn’t. I was also deliberately obtuse in the title of today’s blog to throw you off the scent of what today’s blog is about. Well, to put some of you out of your misery, the topic under the microscope today is crossword puzzles. For those who don’t know, a cruciverbalist is an enthusiast of word games (especially of crosswords). According to Michael Quinion in his excellent World Wide Words website:

“[The word ‘cruciverbalist’] seems to have appeared in English about 1980 (the first reference I can find is to the Compleat Cruciverbalist of 1981 by Stan Kurzban and Mel Rosen, subtitled ‘how to solve, compose and sell crossword puzzles for fun and profit’). However, Stan Kurzban tells me that Mel Rosen had encountered the word some years earlier in the title of a directory of crossword puzzle notables that was not widely circulated. Whatever its origin, cruciverbalist has spread into the wider language as a result of their efforts to the extent that it now appears in some larger recent US dictionaries. The word is a modern mock-Latin invention, being a translation back into Latin of the English crossword (using Latin crucis, cross, as in words like cruciform, plus verbum, word, as in verbose or verbatim).There is also cruciverbalism, for the art of crossword compilation or crossword fandom generally, but that is much rarer”.

The opening quote comes from Marc Romano’s 2005 book The Crossword Obsession: The History and Lore of the World’s Most Popular Pastime who asserted that: “the crossword puzzle has arguably been our national obsession since its birth almost a century ago”. Seeing the word ‘obsessive’ was enough to make me think it was a topic worthy of consideration of writing a blog about it (especially when reading the accompanying blurb for Romano’s book):

“Saying this is a book about puzzles is to tell only half the story. It is also an explanation into what crosswords tell us about ourselves – about the world we live in, the cultures that nurture us, and the different ways we think and learn. If you’re a puzzler, Crossworld will enthrall you. If you have no idea why your spouse send so much time filling letters into little white squares, Crossworld will tell you – and with luck, save your marriage”.

On a personal note, I ought to declare a vested self-interest in that I been doing cryptic crosswords since I was taught to do them by my father in my mid-teens. In the early 1990s until the late 1990s I did (or rather attempted) The Guardian newspaper’s cryptic crossword almost every day (the birth of my daughter put a stop to daily crosswords and what little spare time I had outside of my job). On the way to a conference in Bristol in 1998, I had a race on the train with one of the departmental colleagues as to who could complete that day’s Guardian crossword first. I even got a letter in The Guardian (November 26, 2002) about a crossword puzzle set by my favourite crossword setter (John Galbraith Graham, better known under his crossword compiling pseudonym ‘Araucaria’). Many of the clues in the prize crossword I had just completed related to an anagram of the word ‘presbyterians’. The letter I had published said:

“I don't know what is worse. The fact that some clues in the prize crossword related to Britney Spears and her hit singles, or the sad fact that I knew the answers to them all!”

The fact that ‘presbyterians’ is an anagram of ‘Britney Spears’ I found amazing. Doing crosswords appears to be a very popular hobby. According to Dean Olsher in his 2009 book, From Square One: A Meditation, with Digressions, on Crosswords, about 50 million American people do crosswords. Olsher says that for some, crosswords are a pastime and for others it is a form of escapism (suggesting that crosswords may produce psychological feelings and motivations associated with addictive behaviours). Olsher noted that some people like the film director Alfred Hitchcock “didn’t get” crosswords. Hitchcock told film actor, director and screenwriter Francois Truffaut that:

“I don’t really approve of whodunits because they’re rather like a jigsaw or crossword puzzle. No emotion. You simply wait to found out who committed the murder”

Olsher claims Hitchcock fell prey to a common false dichotomy that thinking and feeling are an either/or proposition. Olsher claims they are inextricable, and that cerebral and emotional satisfaction are not at odds with each other. For Olsher, crosswords can be an exhilarating experience and akin to seated meditation. However, he also notes that doing crosswords (based on his own personal experience) could be an addiction:

“It is more honest, though, to think of crosswords as a habit, like smoking. It’s just something to do, every day, because it’s there. When finished with a puzzle, I don’t pump my fists in triumph or congratulate myself for my perseverance. I solve crosswords because they bring on a feeling of emptiness, and paradoxically, that feeling seems to fill a hole deep inside. It’s not a release, it’s not a flushing out, although both those terms grasp at some aspect of it. Norman Mailer said that for him, solving the crossword every day was like combing his brain. This simile is strong because it has nothing to do with usual mental fitness. It’s not about intelligence or holding onto memory. Crosswords bring about a focused state of mind, the elusive ‘flow state’. Then there are days when I decide that this is all an elaborate self-deception. That the puzzle is indeed an escape mechanism. The crossword addiction is not a metaphor but a destructive literal truth”

I was surprised to find there has been quite a lot of academic research on the benefits of doing crosswords (although very little on whether doing crosswords can be obsessive and/or addictive). However, the psychologist Dr. Howard Rachlin does mention in a number of his writings on addiction that there are many activities that could be described as ‘positive addictions’ including “listening to classical music, collecting stamps, exercise, reading novels, doing crossword puzzles”. Dr. Rachlin also noted in a paper published in a 2002 issue of the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS):

“Patterns of behavior may be maintained without extrinsic rewards. For example, on a relatively small scale, activities such as solving jigsaw or crossword puzzles are valuable in themselves. People, like me, who like to do crossword puzzles, find value in the whole act of doing the puzzle. When I sit down on a Sunday morning to do the puzzle I am not beginning a laborious act that will be rewarded only when it is completed. Yet, despite the lack of extrinsic and intrinsic reward for putting in that last particular letter, completing the puzzle is, for me, a necessary part of its value. Like listening to symphonies, the pattern is valuable only as a whole. Extrinsic rewards may initially put together the elements of these patterns but the patterns, once formed, are maintained by their intrinsic value. The cost of breaking the pattern is the loss of this value – even that of the parts already performed”.

However, Rachlin is not without his critics. In responses to the BBS paper, Dr. Stephen Kaplan and Dr. Raymond De Young claimed that Rachlin’s interpretation of intrinsic motivation as arising from a string of habits was far from convincing. More specifically, they noted that the “fascination with crossword and jigsaw puzzles seems far more likely to be an expression of the human inclination to solve problems, a tendency humans share with nonhuman primates”. Another response to the BBS paper by Dr. Thomas R. Zentall claimed that the concept of intrinsic reinforcement is needed to explain the variety of behaviour that has no extrinsic material or social reward, such as crossword puzzle solving. He argues that:

“Intrinsic reinforcers are difficult to assess. They are what [are] left once you have ruled out extrinsic reinforcers, and in the case of humans, typically we assess them by means of verbal behavior (e.g., ‘I just like doing it’). But this sort of definition can easily become circular, especially when we are talking about behavioral patterns that are themselves not clearly defined. One can hypothesize that extrinsic reinforcers become internalized, but that does not explain, it only describes”.

Doing crosswords may even be of psychological and practical benefit. For instance, Dr. Mike Murphy and Dr. Roisin Cunningham published a paper last year in the Irish Journal of Psychology claiming that: “a crossword a day improves verbal fluency”. More specifically they examined ‘semantic verbal fluency’ (SVF) an important contributor to general communication ability. In their study, 34 final year students completed a daily crossword for one month and compared this to a control group of 40 students who did not do any crosswords. Their results indicated that the crossword group experienced greater improvement in SVF than the control group. They concluded that doing simple crosswords may be a relatively straightforward way improving SVF among students who are about to enter the job market and need good transferable skills.

Dr. Graham Pluck and Dr. Helen Johnson writing in a 2011 issue of Education Science and Psychology claim that stimulating curiosity (with activities such as crosswords) can enhance learning. They drew on the work of Dr. Ludwig Lowenstein who noted that many features of human behaviour appear counter-productive on the surface but are not. For instance:

“Lowenstein discusses the interest that many people have in completing puzzles such as crosswords, or why soap operas end on cliff-hangers. According to the theory, the information gaps that people are exposed to act to motivate them to obtain the missing information, either by persevering to complete the puzzle or tuning in to watch the next episode of the soap opera”.

Another study led by Dr. Joshua Jackson and published in a 2012 issue of the journal Psychology and Aging claimed doing crosswords could change some aspects of personality among old-aged people. More specifically, they examined whether an intervention aimed to increase cognitive ability in older adults (i.e., doing crossword and Sudoko puzzles) affected the personality trait of openness to experience (i.e., being imaginative and intellectually oriented). In their study, old-aged adults completed a 4-month program in inductive reasoning training that included weekly crossword and Sudoku puzzles. They were then assessed continually over the following 30 weeks. Their findings showed that those who did crossword and Sudoko puzzles increased their openness scores compared to the control group. The authors claimed that this study is one of the very first to demonstrate that personality traits can change through non-psychopharmocological interventions.

Although there are a number of people online who have confessed as to being ‘crossword addicts’, I have yet to find any empirical evidence that it is negatively detrimental in people’s lives. For most, even those who describe themselves as ‘crossword obsessives’, it is a behaviour that adds to and enhances their lives.

References and further reading

Amende, C. (2001). The Crossword Obsession: The History and Lore of the World’s Most Popular Pastime. New York: Berkeley.

Davis, T.M., Shepherd, B. & Zwiefelhofer, T. (2009). Reviewing for exams: Do crossword puzzles help in the success of student learning? Journal of Effective Teaching, 9, 4-10. 

Jackson, J.J., Hill, P.L., Payne, B.R., Roberts, B.W., & Stine-Morrow, E.A. L. (2012). Can an old dog learn (and want to experience) new tricks? Cognitive training increases openness to experience in older adults. Psychology and Aging, 27, 286-292.

Kaplan, S. & De Young, R. (2002). Toward a better understanding of prosocial behavior: The role of evolution and directed attention. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25, 263-264.

Murphy, M. & Cunningham, R.K. (2102). A crossword a day improves verbal fluency: A report of an intervention study. Irish Journal of Psychology, 133, 193-198.

Olsher, D. (2009). From Square One: A Meditation, with Digressions, on Crosswords. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Pluck, G. & Johnson, H. (2011). Stimulating curiosity to enhance learning. Education Science and Psychology, 2(19), 24-31. 

Rachlin, H. (2002). Altruism and selfishness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25, 239-250.

Rachlin, H. (2003). Economic concepts in the behavioural study of addiction. In R.E. Vuchinich & N. Heather (Eds.), Choice, Behavioural Economics and Addiction. (pp.129-149). Oxford, UK: Pergamon Press.

Romano, M. (2005). Crossworld: One Man's Journey into America's Crossword Obsession. Blackpool: Broadway.

Underwood, G., Deihim, C. & Batt, V. (1994). Expert performance in solving word puzzles: From retrieval cues to crossword clues. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 8, 531-548.

Zentall, T.R. (2002). A potentially testable mechanism to account for altruistic behavior. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25, 282.

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