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The Cognitive Abilities That Help You Excel at Wordle

Is this word game a measure of intelligence?

Key points

  • Pattern recognition is when something in your environment causes you to recognize something in your long term memory.
  • Wordle relies on your vocabulary and on pattern recognition.
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Who is the smartest of them all?
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Five letters, one word, five chances to get it right...go!

Unless you have been living under a rock or have (understandably) sworn off social media for the last few months, you are no doubt aware of the newest time-wasting craze that is driving our egos in this cold, chaotic January.

Wordle is an online game in which you have six chances to guess a five-letter word. If you guess the correct letter in the correct place, the letter turns green. If you guess a letter that is in the word, but not in the right place the letter is yellow.

The first time I saw someone solve a Wordle in one try my brain nearly exploded. How brilliant could a human being possibly be?

Vocabulary and Intelligence

The relationship between vocabulary and intelligence is not as simple as cause and effect and instead appears more like a complicated spiderweb of factors. Research shows that even in utero, an infant begins to recognize the language to which they are exposed. This exposure forms the basis of pattern recognition in later years. In fact, research has demonstrated that one of the reasons vocabulary and intelligence are highly correlated may be because of an individual's ability to recognize similarities in known and unknown words and extrapolate the meaning of a new word from these similarities (or patterns).

A few days after I first started playing Wordle, I realized that I had become more aware of five-letter words than I had been in the past. The key to solving Wordle is in understanding the study of language, or the linguistics (rules) that are common to a particular language, or can easily be generalized to the majority of languages of a certain region. Within the study of linguistics, there are both known rules, or rules we consciously follow, as well as unknown rules that have taken on an almost instinctual understanding.

As I mentioned earlier, the English language version of Wordle relies on a five-letter word that must be solved by sifting through the five-letter words you have in your memory bank. (Which means that the bigger and better your vocabulary, the more likely you are to tap into a suitable word)

(In case you were curious, in English, there are 6,308 five-letter words.)

The first step in Wordle is picking one of these words at random – which often feels a lot like being blindfolded and having someone hand you a bunch of darts.

It's after that first guess that things get interesting when your brain is forced to rely on your conscious and subconscious understanding of pattern recognition.

If you read more, you are quite likely to have a better vocabulary. Even if words haven't been actively defined for you, there is a passive enhancement of our fund of knowledge when we learn a new word by reading and understanding the content.

Intelligent people are also more likely to shift their point of view when the evidence warrants it. Intelligent people are flexible in their problem-solving strategies, large and small. Intelligent people have a variety of strategies to rely on, rather than using the same approach every time. Intelligent people adapt and adjust along with their environment.

Pattern Recognition

In psychology, pattern recognition occurs when (new) information or stimuli causes you to recall something from your long-term memory. Pattern recognition is crucial for being able to learn and understand new information that is presented to you in academic learning, and it is also crucial for our survival in that it helps us to recognize a predator, even if we have never seen this type of creature before.

Consider the fact that predators often have sharp teeth and/or claws, eyes that point forward focus on tracking their prey. And having a good digestive system allows for easier digestion of raw meat.

Thanks to pattern recognition, even if I have never seen a bear before, I’m probably going to notice the sharp claws and teeth and the ginormous bear body and run away really fast.

Similarly, the English language has certain rules when it comes to grammar and spelling. And what are rules other than patterns that we recognize subconsciously?

The English language relies on rules of both grammar and spelling. All of those rules we learned in second grade, such as "I before E except after C" are still ingrained our brains. These rules provide clues as to how to solve these word puzzles.

That amazing time you guessed the word on the second try, only having known one letter that was in the correct place? You can thank your short-term and long-term memory for working together for that win.

Your Wordle score is actually a measure of two separate and yet equally important components that contribute to your overall intellect: your vocabulary, or fund of knowledge, and your ability to recognize patterns.

Feel free to boast and brag about your amazing Wordle stats. I'll still be impressed. But, scientifically...Wordle is simply not a reliable test of your brilliance -- or of mine.


Neuman, S., Newman, E. and Dwyer, J. (2011) Educational Effects of a Vocabulary Intervention on Preschoolers’ Word Knowledge and Conceptual Development: A Cluster-Randomized Trial. Reading Research Quarterly. Vol. 46 (3), pp. 249-272.

GLICKSBERG, C. I. (1943). VOCABULARY AND INTELLIGENCE. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 1(2), 92–98.

Curtis, M. (1987). Vocabulary testing and instruction. In M. McKeown & M.

Curtis (Eds.), The nature of vocabulary acquisition (pp. 37–51). Hillsdale, NJ:

Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Biemiller, A., & Slonim, N. (2001). Estimating root word vocabulary growth in

normative and advantaged populations: Evidence for a common sequence of

vocabulary acquisition. Journal of Educational Psychology,93, 498–520.

Blachowicz, C. L., Beyersdorfer, J., & Fisher, P. (2006).

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