Wordle, fast and slow

Like so many others on the fun, quick games bandwagon, my partner and I are regular players of Wordle. We’ve been playing for 20 days, and we each have 20 wins. In Wordle, you’re guessing the identity of that day’s five-letter word, and you get six tries. Just type in a valid word, and it tells you whether you’ve gotten any letters correct and in the correct spot (green), correct but not yet where it belongs (yellow-ish), or not in the word at all (grey). Then, use that information and try again.

You can share your process and success with your friends without spoilers, too. Today I did:


The game keeps track of how many times you’ve eventually gotten the word right, and how many tries it’s taken you. You can then calculate the average number of tries. His average is just under four tries, and mine is just over four tries. The game does not display a very different metric – how long it takes you to solve the puzzle. If it did, I’d be way ahead of him, because I zip right through it, whereas he’s careful and methodical.

Basically, we’re using different thinking styles – as Daniel Kahneman succinctly put it in the title of his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Keith Stanovich and Richard West named the two styles System 1 and System 2, where System 1 is relatively automatic and intuitive, and System 2 is more deliberate and systematic. People always use System 1, but we can choose to devalue what it tells us in favor of System 2.

This applies to everyone, even experts. Doctors are as intuitive as anyone, especially when meeting a new patient with familiar symptoms. They run the most typically useful tests and prescribe the treatment that experience has told them is most likely to be effective. At least at the first visit, they simply don’t have the time to invest in a full-scale investigation (though it’s so satisfying when they do – see Lisa Sanders’s “Diagnosis” column on medical mysteries, in the New York Times). That’s always a challenge for science – our initial reactions are usually pretty well informed, so it takes an effort to set that aside to be open to new possibilities.

With Wordle, I take an intuitive approach, usually choosing an initial word with at least two non-U vowels and some subset of T, N, R, S, L, and D. I’m not playing on hard-mode, where you have to keep using the non-incorrect letters in all subsequent guesses, so if I only get one correct letter I might try something completely different the next time. For example, ALERT first, then SOUND. Once I’ve narrowed it down, I’ll then go with any word that fits the parameters and isn’t too low-probability.

This is not my partner’s approach. He chooses a first word much like I do, but he does play on hard mode, and he actually enjoys being systematically analytical about it. Once he’s got at least three letters, he’ll start jotting down all the possible patterns. Only after he’s listed them all and weighed the possibilities of gaining new information will he hazard his next guess.

(He can get so deep into analytical mode that he can type “AB_EY” and “A_BEY” as two possibilities without automatically merging them together, as I would, to guess a solution of “ABBEY,” and I marvel at that.)

Obviously, both approaches are equally valid – it’s recreation, after all. I value getting it done quickly, and he values the minimization of guesses, which is, after all, what the game’s statistics tell us is important.

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m about to connect this to politics.

In a democracy, everyone’s vote counts, but voters can use whatever method they like to make their choice. Most voters don’t have the time or inclination to look more carefully into the backgrounds of the candidates; they have to trust their preferred media and their social contacts to do the job for them. And if we look at the many studies finding that more physically attractive candidates tend to win, it’s obvious that first, surface impressions play a big role in politics.

But I want to clarify that this System 1/2 distinction is not the same as what I’ve elsewhere described as being fully or reflectively immersed in a worldview. People who are fully immersed in a worldview – not questioning their assumptions – are every bit as likely to use analytical thinking as those who are trying to approach issues with an open mind, but in their case they use that analytical thinking to support the conclusion they already think is correct. We call this “motivated reasoning.”

That means that if someone is going to come up with answers that really are objectively “best,” if there is such a thing, then they have to jump two hurdles, not one. They have to decide to take the time to analyze things carefully, and they have to be willing to question their basic assumptions (and live in a social world that gives them that option, and access to alternatives). That’s a lot to ask, and all the more reason to support both education and economic fairness. Only those who are relatively free from urgency and stress have the leisure for “thinking slow.”

(Even when playing Wordle.)

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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