Press Release: Cryptic Crossword Solvers Show Excellent Problem Solving Abilities

20 September 2013

Does solving cryptic crosswords appeal to a particular type of mind? New research at the University of Buckingham by Dr Kathryn Friedlander and Dr Philip Fine suggests that it might.

“We invited cryptic crossword solvers to carry out some challenging tests which tap into people’s ability to solve complex problems”, explains Dr Friedlander. “This showed that cryptic crossword solvers have above average fluid intelligence – the ability to make the mind jump through hoops while solving problems.”

The research team asked 28 experienced cryptic crossword solvers to take part, looking for individuals who had been solving for decades and who devoted around 7 to 8 hours per week to the pastime. 18 participants were top-flight cryptic crossword solvers, including past Times speed-solving champions, ‘advanced cryptic’ aficionados and a number of crossword setters. 10 participants were keen non-expert solvers who tackled daily crosswords as a regular hobby.

Participants were also invited to crack a specially commissioned crossword puzzle in 45 minutes. As expected, the expert solvers were much more likely to finish the bespoke crossword in the time available. They also had higher scores on the fluid intelligence test.

Dr Philip Fine commented: “As with all skills, learning to solve cryptic crosswords requires practice over a number of years to acquire a good knowledge of the rules and the common clue devices. But both of our groups had equivalent experience of solving cryptic crosswords over many decades, yet their performance in tackling our bespoke crossword was strikingly different.”

“We think that cryptic crossword solvers as a whole may have an innate aptitude for problem solving, making cryptic crossword solving an attractive and rewarding pastime. But we also found that experience in itself doesn’t fully explain the differences between expert and non-expert performance in this area. Higher problem solving ability appears to play a role in enabling elite solvers to excel.”

So should ‘ordinary’ solvers feel despondent at these results? “Not at all!” comments Dr Friedlander. “Most people don’t set out to solve a puzzle at break-neck speed, and feel cheated if it doesn’t offer them a little challenge. There’s a lot to be said for tackling the crossword at a more leisurely pace, admiring the skilful construction of the clues and savouring that ‘Aha!’ moment when the penny finally drops.”

Dr Friedlander and Dr Fine are now exploring some of the subskills – such as anagram solving and pattern-matching – which may also be part of the picture.

Glossary of terms

Fluid intelligence is the ability of the mind to perform ‘mental gymnastics’ while problem solving. It refers to the brain’s ability to reason quickly and logically, manipulate data and handle complex or abstract information – ‘thinking on one’s feet’.

Its opposite, ‘crystallized intelligence’, involves learning, knowledge and skills that are acquired over a lifetime, such as vocabulary.

Details of the Research

Our study falls into the broad category of ‘Expertise Research’. Many previous studies have looked at how people become ‘expert’ in practice-intensive fields such as music, chess or Scrabble, and have weighed up the relative contributions of hard work, motivation and talent. Based upon these studies, it has become commonplace in popular psychology (for example, Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’) to downplay the importance of innate aptitudes and to stress the need for regular, focused practice routines over many hours (the 10 year/10,000 hour rule), starting from early childhood.

Cryptic crossword solving offers a fresh approach to the study of expertise because the ground-rules are rather different. Solvers of all standards generally begin tackling puzzles in their teens or early twenties, and spend only 5-10 hours per week solving puzzles; yet there is a wide range of expertise. Our previous surveys also indicated that cryptic crossword solvers were generally very well-educated and tended to favour university subjects and careers in the fields of IT, science and maths. This led us to hypothesize that cryptic crossword solvers as a whole were particularly good at logical problem-solving, compared to the normal population; and to suspect that expert solvers might be even more proficient at this.

We invited 28 participants to the University of Buckingham, comprising 10 non-expert solvers of cryptics, who generally take longer than 30 minutes to solve a standard daily cryptic crossword; and 18 experts, representing an elite body of top-class performers in the field. These elite solvers could be divided into the following 3 groups (although there was some overlap between them): 6 speed-solvers, who compete successfully at the Times Speed-solving Championships (including 3 past champions); 6 solvers of advanced cryptics such as the ‘Listener’ crossword (including a number of ‘annual all-correct’ and ‘roll-of-honour’ solvers); and 6 people who either set or edit crosswords professionally, as well as being successful solvers in their own right. We made sure that all participants had equivalent experience (both experts and non-experts had solved for an average of over 30 years) and that they spent similar amounts of time solving crosswords each week (about 7.5 hours on average).

We asked our participants to complete both parts of the AH5 test of problem solving (Heim, 1968), a timed high-grade fluid intelligence test which measures the ability to solve novel problems ‘on one’s feet’. The AH5 is intended to discriminate among very highly able people at university/post-graduate level. Part I measures verbal and numerical reasoning abilities, and Part II non-verbal (diagrammatic) reasoning abilities.

Then, after two warm-up word games, participants solved a bespoke cryptic crossword which we commissioned from a setter for the Independent newspaper. The puzzle was typical of those found in a good-quality daily broadsheet newspaper. The participants were allowed 45 minutes to solve it and were filmed while they did so, talking aloud to explain their thoughts and progress. We are still in the process of analysing these recordings, which will form the basis of a separate article.

Analysing the AH5 scores, we found that all the participants scored well within Heim’s range for high-ability populations, indicating that all participants were indeed excellent problem-solvers. But, as we hypothesized, expert solvers scored significantly higher overall (and in Part I, but not in Part II) than the non-experts. The experts’ scores placed them, as a group, in the very top band of Heim’s range.

Most of the non-expert solvers (8 out of 10) failed to finish the crossword in 45 minutes; conversely 17 out of the 18 experts finished. The finishing times ranged from 11:07 to 40:35 minutes. The solving time of the finishers also correlated significantly with their Part I AH5 scores: those who finished faster generally had higher AH5 Part I scores.

Conclusions

We have concluded from this that cryptic crossword solvers as a whole appear to be of above average fluid intelligence, and thus may have an innate aptitude for problem-solving which makes cryptic crossword solving an attractive and rewarding pastime. Experts score even higher on fluid intelligence tests.

As with all skills, learning to solve cryptic crosswords requires practice over a number of years to acquire a good knowledge of the rules and the common devices. But both of our groups had equivalent experience of solving cryptic crosswords over many decades, yet their performance in tackling our bespoke crossword was strikingly different. This suggests that experience per se does not fully explain group differences in this domain, and that fluid intelligence may play a significant role. We are now looking at some of the sub-skills which the AH5 may have been tapping into.