Tuesday, September 16, 2014

On Toma, Halpern, & Berger (2014)

Two crossword-related papers were published in the last month; one by my student that I will post on soon, and another that came out last month by Michael Toma, Diane Halpern, and Dale Berger.

The Toma study compared both crossword and scrabble experts, and looked at whether there were any substantial differences between experts in these two areas.  What is probably most interesting about this study is in the differences they did not find, rather than the differences they did find.

I've tested some scrabble pros in my crossword studies, and have learned a few things about this skill.  Serious scrabblers engage in a lot of deliberate learning of specific patterns. There is a big payoff for getting a 'bingo' using all seven letters, so if you know these, there is a real benefit.  In fact, you don't even need to know the meanings of words to do well. There are Thai 'crossword' players, as they call it, who are expert English scrabble players, even though they do not know how to speak English! In contrast, crossword players knowledge seems to be heavily influenced by semantic-route associations between clues and answers, and pure visual/orthographic pattern matching only comes into play once the puzzle is underway.

The Toma study compared several 'working memory' and other cognitive measures of Scrabble and Crossword players to a control group.  They also surveyed their reported use of strategies. Cognitive measures included symmetry span, reading span, mental rotation, an analogy test, and self-reported SAT scores.  Both types of experts were better than the control groups on most of these tests, but BOTH scrabble and crossword players had similar abilities. So, it was not as if scrabble experts were better at one type of working memory and crossword experts better at another type.  However, their reported strategies used did differ a lot, as shown in the figure at the top. 

Having spent time hanging out at the crossword tournament, I'm not too surprised by fact that word-game experts are better at working memory skills; the 'control' group was not age-matched or demographically similar, and even elite undergrads probably don't take these tests as seriously as the avid puzzlers.  There may be aspects of self-selection as well; people who end up doing well in these games need to have somewhat better cognitive skills than average undergraduates.

Cognitive Abilities of Elite Nationally Ranked SCRABBLE and Crossword Experts. Applied Cognitive Psychology.

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