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The Psychology Behind Wordle

A new game is taking the world by storm. Here's the psychology behind it.

Key points

  • Wordle is a new word puzzle that has taken the internet by storm.
  • Wordle's immediate performance feedback and strong social media integration may trigger the brain's reward system.
  • Downward social comparisons to other players with worse performance can make players feel positive about themselves.

If you have recently used a social media app, you've almost certainly come across some posts that contained several rows of grey, yellow, and green squares. These strange figures are posted by players of Wordle, a new and wildly popular online word game that has taken the internet by storm.

In Wordle, players guess five-letter words. Players start out by typing in a five-letter word and then receive feedback on whether each of the individual letters of their guess is part of the target word at all, and whether they are in the right spot, or not. If a letter is not part of the target word, it is marked in grey. If it is part of the word, but not in the right spot, it is marked in yellow. And if the letter is part of the word and in the right spot, it is marked in green.

Players have a maximum of six guesses to find the target word, and, importantly, you can play the game only once every day. After players finish the game, they get the option to post their results to a social media app of their choice. Importantly, only the grey, yellow and green squares are posted, not the letters themselves. This way, people can show off how impressively fast they solved the puzzle without spoiling the fun for other players.

The game is free, and its popularity is immense. For example, currently, every hour more than 10,000 posts with the hashtag #wordle are posted to Twitter.

Why Is Wordle So Successful?

There are many word puzzle games on the internet, so what makes Wordle so successful? Lots of people like a challenge, as evidenced by other types of games such as crosswords or Sudoku, but often do not have the time to solve a puzzle that requires more than a few minutes of their time. Wordle is quite short—it usually takes less than 10 minutes to complete a puzzle (although you can take breaks if you get stuck and take your time).

Unlike other games, performance feedback is given instantly after every try, by means of the green, yellow, or grey coloring of each letter. This instant performance feedback and the option to post results on social media may be among the central features for Wordle’s success.

While some people may be playing but choosing not to post their results on social media, the game is highly competitive in that these people likely still compare their own results (how many tries did I need today?) with the results of other people online. Importantly, a really good result (e.g., solving a Wordle in only two tries) and posting it may result in lots of "likes" by other people on social media. Psychological research has shown that likes on social media are seen as a numeric representation of social acceptance (Rosenthal-von der Pütten et al., 2019). They act as a form of reinforcement for the brain’s reward system (Sherman et al., 2018), similar to other rewarding experiences such as winning money when gambling or receiving positive feedback for an action or decision and thereby drive people's tendency to compare themselves with others.

Another aspect of Wordle’s success may lie in so-called downward social comparisons (Festinger, 1954). These comparisons happen when you discover that your performance is superior to someone else’s, e.g., you solved the Wordle in two tries and see on social media that another person needed five. This favorable outcome of the comparison leaves you feeling accomplished, smart, and successful, and these feelings may well motivate you to attempt the Wordle again. (And again. And again…)

On the other hand, if you discover that other players were better than you, e.g., solving the Wordle in four tries while this time maybe you did not succeed at all, this may engage your competitive side. You tell yourself that you can do better, and thus you try again. (And again. And again…)

References

Festinger L (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Hum Relations, 7, 117–140.

Rosenthal-von der Pütten Am, Hastall MR, Köcher S, Meske C, Heinrich T, Labrenz F, Ocklenburg S (2019). “Likes” as social rewards: Their role in online social comparison and decisions to like other People's selfies. Comp Hum Behav, 92, 76-86.

Sherman LE, Hernandez LM, Greenfield PM, Dapretto M. (2018) What the brain 'Likes': neural correlates of providing feedback on social media. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci., 13, 699-707.

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