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Using Psychology to Win at Wordle

Cognitive skills you can put to use.

Key points

  • Applying heuristics or rules of thumb can help you solve word problems like Wordle.
  • The study of heuristics falls under cognitive psychology, the science of thinking.
  • Heuristics don't guarantee a solution, but they can help you find one more efficiently.
C5Media/Adobe Stock
Source: C5Media/Adobe Stock

I’m not good at word puzzles, not good at all. I regularly skip the word puzzles in the back of the New York Times Magazine, especially crossword puzzles or anything requiring a prodigious memory for trivial facts.

But I play Wordle daily, in part because it is solvable without esoteric knowledge or trying to piece together intricate word or number puzzles. You just need a good working vocabulary and some cognitive skills. Full disclosure: I’m running a streak, having just reached a 100-day Wordle milestone.

Mentioning this may well have jinxed it for me, so I wouldn’t be surprised if my streak ends tomorrow.

Applying Heuristics

Cognitive psychology focuses on how we think, solve problems, and use language, all of which come into play in solving word games like Wordle. One cognitive device we can use to solve problems is a heuristic or rule of thumb. A heuristic doesn’t guarantee a solution to a problem like Wordle, but it can help you find one more efficiently. We use heuristics in many different ways.

For example, when shopping for the freshest packaged salad mix or milk, I use a “back of the shelf” heuristic. I’ll reach for a carton in the back of the refrigerated display case rather than one in front, as I know the store generally stocks shelves from the rear with the freshest goods. Here are a few Wordle heuristics you might try:

The Brute Force Heuristic

This tried-and-true method relies on the process of elimination, as it involves trying every possible combination of letters that comes to mind until you find a combination that matches the word of the day. Say you find the second and third letters of the daily Wordle on your first or second try. You might then test every remaining first letter that might work with the other two letters and then repeat the process for the remaining letters until you arrive at the correct word.

For example, a recent Wordle was the word “scrap.” I happen to have hit upon the "c" and "r" in my first two attempts. Applying the brute force algorithm, I tried each of the remaining letters in the first position until I got to “s,” which, in combination with “c” and the “r,” helped me discern the full word.

A computer applying a brute force algorithm can test many thousands of combinations in a fraction of a second. We, humans, take longer to process information, much longer, and we cannot rely on bringing to mind every word in the dictionary. Thankfully, the good folks at Wordle rely on common words, so there’s a high probability you’ll find the answer by testing every possible letter choice one by one. Fortunately for me, you don’t need a prodigious vocabulary to win at Wordle; you just need the patience to keep at it.

The Bottom-Up Heuristic

Some people are especially good at recognizing whole words from word fragments. They are top-down processors, but unfortunately, I’m not very skillful in this regard. So I use a bottom-up heuristic, piecing together words one letter at a time. Let’s say you find that “c” is the first letter of the daily Wordle. You might then try common sequences of letters with "c" in the first position, such as "ch," "cl," and "cr," which is also likely to be followed by a vowel (chi, cha, cho, etc.).

Recently, after two test words (teams and depot), I had “e” in the correct position (2nd letter) and “t” in incorrect positions (as first and last letters). Knowing that an “e follows very few words that start with a vowel,” I tested every available consonant as a first letter, which led me to "berth" (alas, incorrect, but it fixed the "t" in the next to last position). This helped me decipher the correct Wordle on the next try, "jetty."

The Starter Word Heuristic

Another rule of thumb is adopting a starter word strategy. Many people use three-vowel starter words, like "aisle" I personally like words like "teams" and "tries," which include a couple of vowels but also test common consonants (t, r, s, m) in frequently found letter positions in words. Try out different starter strategies to see what works best for you.

The Likely Letter Combination Heuristic

Say you hit upon an “h” or “r” as the second letter in the Wordle. You can apply a heuristic of trying likely letter combinations, such as pairing these letters with a “t” in the first position. A related rule is testing a vowel after two consonants, as three consonants placed together is a much less common letter combination. Another helpful heuristic is trying commonly used consonants as first or second letters before testing less frequently encountered consonants, so try t, s, r, c, d, and p before v, q, x, and z.

The Availability Heuristic

The availability heuristic is the tendency to rely on information that comes most readily to mind. This heuristic is why people may decide to drive rather than fly after a highly publicized plane crash, despite statistical evidence that air travel remains a much safer means of conveyance. Likewise, we are more likely to generate words from knowing the first letter than when we know the same letter appears at the end or middle of the word.

As an example, do you think the letter “k” is more likely to appear as the first or third letter in a word? Most people think it is more likely to appear as the first letter because they are better able to bring to mind words beginning with “K” than those with “k” in the third position. As it turns out, “k” is actually more likely to appear as the third letter in a word than the first.

The availability heuristic is built into our cognitive wiring. Rather than try to fight against it, make use of it. Focus your efforts on finding the first letter or two of a word. Then again, there may be occasions when it is best to use a “backward working” heuristic.

The Backwards Working Heuristic

Most people generate test words in their head from left to right by focusing on the first letter in generating words. In some cases, however, you may be better able to piece together a Wordle by working backward from the last letter or two. Recently, I found t to be the next to last letter in the daily Wordle. So I mentally tested all the words ending with a t-something combination, narrowing it down to the most likely candidates: th, te, and ty. Using the remaining letters, I worked backward in my mind to consider words ending with these letter combinations until I hit upon the correct choice, "lefty."

The Double Letter Heuristic

There’s a tendency to think that when you find a correct letter that it won’t occur again in the same word. Wrong. Many words have repeat letters, especially vowels. Consider as well unlikely repeat letters, like that of the double z’s in a recent answer, "frizz," on a Wordle knockoff site.

Other heuristics don’t involve testing letter combinations but provide helpful rules of thumb for solving different problems, including Wordle. Here are two you may find helpful in becoming Wordle-wise:

The Walking Away Heuristic

Yes, Wordle can be frustrating, but rather than let your frustration induce you to give up, try walking away and trying again later in the day, giving yourself a chance to clear your mind. You may be surprised how often the answer may come to you when you give your mind time to refresh itself.

The “See It is to Know It” Heuristic

A retrieval cue is a memory device used to jog one’s memory. As seen in countless TV crime dramas, detectives bring the victim back to the scene of the crime to ferret out details about the crime the person may have been unable to recall. So too, with Wordle, as visual cues can help jog our memory, representing what I call the “see it is to know it” heuristic.

Try inserting letter combinations on the Wordle screen so you can see them as plain as day in front of you. Suppose the correct word turns out to be "anger," but you only score the last three letters after your first few tries. You could then insert filler letters in the first two positions, for example, using a filler word like "jager" (but making sure not to press the enter key). Seeing the "ger" sequence on the screen may help jog your memory for the letters that complete the correct word.

With this posting, the Minute Therapist expands its scope to include how psychological science is applied in our daily lives. The unifying theme remains the same, applying psychology in morsels that can be easily digested in about a minute’s time.

(c) 2022 Jeffrey S. Nevid

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