Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and you're listening to The Takeaway. In a pandemic world where days can blend into each other with little distinction, there's one thing that makes each day unique, special, and maybe a little cultish. Wordle. Every day is a new day with a new puzzle, and 2.7 million people waiting to solve it. Created by software engineer Josh Wardle, Wordle, pun intended, is a free game that requires players to identify the five-letter word of the day.
After you choose your first word, entering those five letters into individual boxes, the tiles turn various colors that indicate which letters are in the word, and which ones are not, and whether or not they're in the right place. Now, you have six chances to guess the word, and if you do, you can share your results to social media for recognition and applause from friends and family. Now, it turns out when they are not deep in the archives, or sniffing out injustice, the producers of The Takeaway are crushing Wordle.
Producer 1: I can't really give you my strategies, except for one, pay attention. Because when you pay attention, there are clues to get you to the right word.
Producer 2: I do try to incorporate those Wheel Of Fortune letters into my first word. I think they are R-S-T-L-N-E.
Producer 3: I'm on a one-game win streak. You have to think of a five-letter word and try to get it right within six times.
Producer 4: Healthy mix of vowels and common consonants is a great way to go.
David: I usually get it within four lines. I don't know. Is that good?
Producer 3: I like to send those scores to some of my friends and see who wins each day.
Producer 2: Usually, by the third or fourth word, my two-year-old is shouting letters at me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes, outside the box. I love it, but if you want to hear all of our team's advice, you can check out our segment online, or our podcast. Meanwhile, we have Matt Baldwin, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Florida, because yes, clearly this is a story about the human mind and condition. Welcome, Matt, did you play today?
Matt Baldwin: Hi, Melissa. I have played. I played it right when I woke up.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Did you win?
Matt Baldwin: I did win. I think I won in three tries.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Oh, okay. Smarty Pants. Cool. [laughs] That's all right. Tell us why it's so popular. Why are my producers obsessed with this?
Matt Baldwin: I think there's a lot of things going on psychologically in Wordle, which maybe is a testament to its success. It hits a sweet spot with a lot of things that we enjoy, but I think one of the main things is that it's a deeply social experience, so we're not just playing for ourselves, but we're playing with other people, and psychology tells us that when we all engage in a common goal, which, in this case, it's solving the same puzzle, then we tend to come together and view ourselves as a big social group, and this connects us together.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering if that aspect of it is part of the pandemic appeal part as well. In some ways, pandemic behavior has been sit alone in your house and binge an entire series on Netflix in a day and a half or something, but this slows you down. You can only do one a day, and it is social in that sense that everyone's doing it.
Matt Baldwin: I think you're right about that. I think that, on the one hand, we are craving social connection. All of our lives have basically gone virtual, and it's maybe hard to find social connection in that kind of space, but Wordle binds us together, because yes, we're all trying to accomplish the same task. In a sense, I don't know if you've ever heard the phrase, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but psychologists study this phenomenon, and in a way, we're all fighting against the puzzle. In a way, we've all become friends because we're all working toward the same goal. I think this is maybe something that we haven't experienced much of since the pandemic started, especially with lots of the division going on in society right now, something as simple as Wordle may be bringing us all together again.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Matt, this point you made about having a common enemy, or at least a common task, trying to create dialogue, not by facing each other, but by standing next to each other and facing outward, right, directing our attention towards this task of Wordle, would that last beyond? Like if the word of the day were somehow politicized, vaccine, would it be able to last? Are those social bonds that we're creating through this kind of gaming enough to help to bridge these real divisions in society?
Matt Baldwin: I think one thing that makes Wordle special is that it doesn't seem politically motivated or driven. It's unclear who started it, and what sort of ulterior motive there might be. It's very apolitical, and it doesn't seem to have any reason other than to have fun. I think even if the word was some sort of political word, we probably wouldn't read into that too much.
As far as how long that lasts, I don't know. There's a really classic study in psychology called the Robbers Cave experiment where a bunch of summer camp kids were given a problem to solve together at camp. Over the course of the camp, they all became friends, and had to band together to solve this problem that was created by the experimenters at the summer camp.
It seemed to create a pretty lasting bond there, at least in that time period. This isn't necessarily a social problem we're trying to solve together, but maybe the understanding that something as simple as Wordle can at least reveal to us what we have in common, and that there is still some sort of innocent, simple, good in life left that we can all agree is out there. Maybe that's, again, something that's special for us right now, and holding onto that could be something that lasts, sure.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That experiment that you just talked about and the insight from it has been applied, thought about in everything from basic training for military, to sororities and fraternities. Give folks a common task, and you end up with that bond. I'm wondering if there's also something about the actual task itself that matters, so not just a task, but a word task, does this benefit our individual or collective minds, our brains in any way?
Matt Baldwin: I think that's also a good question. The other reason why Wordle is so fun for us, I think, is because the task itself has a perfect combination of challenge and meaning. The words that are chosen for us to guess are not too difficult, but they're not too boring. We have the perfect amount of guesses to get to the answer. Again, it doesn't get boring. It doesn't require too much of our attention and our time. Each time we play it, it's as meaningful as the time before, and the way that it's set up where the answer is slowly revealed to us, builds up this feeling of insight, or what researchers might call fluency. As we get closer and closer to the answer, we feel like we're getting closer and closer to the truth.
When it's finally revealed, this sudden influx of insight is really rewarding to us, maybe even at the brain level. It might activate that reward pathway. I think the game itself is motivating because it feels fun and it feels good and challenging for us in an optimal way. As far as whether or not it's training our brains to be smarter in general, I don't know. The research on brain games is still to be determined, I guess, but as far as what Wordle is doing for us, generally, I don't know, but in terms of connecting with us on a deep individual level, I think it satisfies something for us intrinsically.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This can be pure conjecture, but do you think it'll last, or peak and then go ahead and peter out?
Matt Baldwin: I think that depends on whether people continue to share their experience with it on social media. So long as the game doesn't "sell-out" to, I don't know, yes, mass advertising or something like that, yes, I could see it lasting for a little while.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Matt Baldwin, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Florida. Thanks so much for your time.
Matt Baldwin: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. As promised, unbridged Wordle advice from our producers here at The Takeaway.
Producer 1: I love Wordle as I do all word games, and I'm super competitive, so I can't really give you my strategies except for one. Pay attention. Because when you pay attention, there are clues to get you to the right word.
Producer 2: I don't have a super-specific Wordle strategy, but I do try to incorporate those Wheel Of Fortune letters into my first word. I think they are R-S-T-L-N-E. Sometimes I try to figure out the vowels in the first word or two. Usually, by the third or fourth word, my two-year-old is shouting letters at me to try, and then I get frustrated by the fourth, and then it usually clicks around four or five.
Producer 3: I don't really have a strategy for Wordle, but I really do enjoy doing them. I think it's funny and fun that they've become such a big trend, and seeing everyone's scores and comparing them. I also like doing the New York Times mini crossword almost every day, and I like to send those scores to some of my friends and see who wins each day.
David: It's David, I'm kind of late to the Wordle party. I only found out about it this week. I'm not sure if I'm strategic. I just use logic. The first word should have several vowels and a couple of common consonants. That sets you up well. I usually get it within four lines. I don't know, is that good?
Producer 3: For a while now, people have been talking to me about Wordle, and I figured, you know what, today's the day, I'm going to try it out. Keep in mind, I'm a 2048 kind of guy, so I log on. I win in a couple of rounds. I'm on a one-game win streak, and if I were to have a strategy, it would be that you have to think of a five-letter word, and try to get it right within six times.
Producer 4: Our family plays the Wordle puzzle every day individually, but then we all compare notes after we've played. While our teenaged boys like to start with colorful words, we do all agree that a healthy mix of vowels and common consonants is a great way to go.
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