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Being Bad at Wordle Doesn't Mean You're Dumb. Here's Why

My work revolves around words — reading them, writing them, editing them — but I still struggle to uncover the right one in Wordle, the viral online game.

Green squares are the most controversial emoji on the internet right now. Earning the right to post five in a row can fill you with a sense of smug superiority. But seeing a flood of them when you didn't can leave you frustrated or even humiliated.

In some ways, that's the point of a word game like Wordle, which challenges players to guess a random five-letter word in six tries. When you guess a word, the game will tell you how close it is to the word of the day by color-coding the letters in your guess. If a letter in your guess is not in the answer, that letter turns gray. If a letter in your guess is part of the right answer but not in the right spot, it turns yellow. If it's in the answer and in the right spot, it turns green. It's free to play online once a day, and every player is attempting to uncover the same word.

"Word games are meant to make you struggle," Mark Beeman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Northwestern University, told NBCLX. "They wouldn't be fun if they were super easy or just another aspect of your work."

Words are my work, and I have yet to get a Wordle in fewer than four tries, while my fiancé, a quintessential numbers guy, has established quite an effective strategy without much "adieu." (Try it as your first guess next time.) To be fair, in quarantine I consistently destroyed him at Quiddler, a word game with cards, so this shift got me wondering: What does being good at Wordle say about your intellect? After all, it's only been out for three months and can only be played once a day, so practice can't provide an advantage in the same way it does for Scrabble or Bananagrams.

The first assurance I got that I'm not a total idiot came from psycholinguist Gerry Altmann, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Connecticut.

"Most people have good implicit knowledge of their language. But word games often require meta knowledge (knowledge ABOUT the words or their structure), which often has to be explicit," he told NBCLX via email. "We tend to be worse at using explicit knowledge about language. For example, we are not very good at saying what the rules are that make one sentence grammatical and another ungrammatical."

Another example relates to our implicit knowledge of the chronological order of the months of the year: If someone asked you which month comes after February alphabetically, it would be difficult to think of it quickly, unless you knew it prior.

"We don’t have easy access to that in the same automatic way as we have access to the implicit knowledge about the order of the months, and that knowledge has a kind of priority — and gets in the way of trying to figure out the alphabetic order," Altmann said.

Simply put, intuiting the perfect word to fit in a sentence requires different knowledge of a language from thinking of a five-letter word starting with A and E as its fourth letter. And for the latter task, our existing knowledge of how a language works can sometimes get in the way.

With a game like Wordle, you might focus on the most common letters or letter combinations, but doing so can make it harder to see the answer if it doesn't contain either. Beeman compared it to looking for a friend in a crowd who wears a blue jacket. It's going to be a lot harder to find them if they happen to wear a black jacket that day — not impossible, but harder. And even once you realize your strategy isn't working, trying to force your mind to stop applying it is kind of like telling yourself not to imagine a white elephant, Beeman said.

So, how can you force your brain to think about word problems differently?

Taking a break can help because "your brain can settle into a new configuration that allows you to see a rearrangement of the different features of the problem," Beeman said. Breaks also create the opportunity to encounter something in the world around you that might prompt you to think of the answer. Say you're stuck on the clue "G_ _ ST," and then you spot a Halloween decoration.

"Most people who work in the field think there's also some unconscious processing going on [when you take a break from a problem], maybe just enough processing so that when the hint comes along, you're ready to recognize it," Beeman said.

What he referred to as "fluency," or "the ability to come up with a lot of different things very quickly," can also help you succeed at Wordle because you're not looking for the most creative solution. You're just looking for any five-letter word that fits. Fluency, Beeman said, varies from person to person depending on topic.

Intelligence also varies from person to person, but Abhilasha Kumar, a postdoctoral student in cognitive sciences at Indiana University who wrote her dissertation on word games, discouraged the assumption that being good at Wordle says anything about your overall intellect. She pointed to the same idea of fluency, explaining that intelligence tests sometimes ask you to come up with different word combinations.

"There may be a moderate correlation, but I wouldn't put too much stock into it given that there are such varying levels of familiarity," like if English is your second language, she said. "There are a lot of different factors that go into why you can play a certain way, and those factors also kind of feed into intelligence. ... We don't know enough about either of those two things to make a very strong claim."

Visualization and spatial reasoning can also help with a game like Wordle, according to neuroscientist Bob Schafer, Ph.D., chief science officer at Lumos Labs, the maker of Lumosity, a suite of games designed to train cognitive abilities.

"You're imagining what it would look like if you were to put that letter first and then put the next one next," he said.

"You need to think about the spatial relationship between letters in a word, and at that point ... you've broken it down to its pieces so much that you're probably leaning much more on spatial skills than language skills," he added. "You might find that you're really good at certain word games because those spatial reasoning skills are carrying your performance."

Schafer believes success at Wordle correlates to intelligence only on a superficial level. The general idea of intelligence is that if someone does well on one task, they're more likely to do well on another task, even if it's unrelated. "As soon as you go deeper, though, you see big differences across domains," he said.

So, no, missing a Wordle when everyone is posting all green squares for their second try doesn't automatically mean they have some intellect you don't. If you're stumped tomorrow or the next day, just put your phone down and clear your head. And then remind yourself that I, a professional writer, probably failed it, too.