The psychology of Wordle: in case you haven’t heard, Wordle is a daily free word game that’s amassed millions of fans since launching in October.
But why has it become such a global success?
Matt Baldwin, a psychologist at the University of Florida, points out several psychological concepts that explain our infatuation with this simple but extremely sharable game.
1. Wordle delivers an “aha” moment, even if you lose
The moment at the end of the puzzle when the answer is revealed delivers what psychologists call a sudden influx of fluency. And this is something that we’re hard-wired to pursue, Baldwin says.
“Even when you don’t get it, and the answer is revealed, finding that solution feels good,” he said.
That feeling of fluency is something that we seek out not only in games, he said, but also when we’re trying to resolve a problem in our work or in our relationships.
2. It takes our minds off the constant stream of worrisome news
“We’re overwhelmed,” Baldwin said. “Things can’t hold our attention because we’re so bombarded” by all the bad news that’s perpetually popping up on our screens.
But Wordles, in contrast, offer a perfect way to create what psychologists call “flow“: the pleasurable immersion we feel when tackling an activity with the right combination of meaning and challenge.
This is also known as “being in the zone.”
Wordle is not too easy and not too hard, and it doesn’t demand too much of our attention, Baldwin said.
It’s also purposeful, he said. “It feels like you’re training your brain,” and not just meaninglessly stacking blocks on a screen.
3. Wordle can be easily shared
Have you even been a fan of a band that no one else seemed to know about, and then got excited when you met someone who also loved that band?
That’s the essence of shared reality theory — our subjective preferences feel validated when someone else shares them.
And with its seamless sharing function, Wordle provides just such an experience.
“We like to tune our internal states to the internal states of others,” Baldwin said.
“I may think Wordle is fun, but when I see that everyone else on Twitter thinks it’s fun, then it’s like it becomes an objective fact,” he said.
4. Wordle is binge-proof: scarcity heightens interest
Being offered only once per day keeps Wordle from being “too familiar,” Baldwin said.
The scarcity of the “insightful moment” keeps it interesting.
5. It satisfies our urge to fit in with our peers
If your friends on social media do Wordles, then you’ve probably seen someone post that they’ve also “given in” and started playing.
That’s peer pressure, but peer pressure isn’t inherently bad, Baldwin said.
The concept of in-group identity can help us bond with others.
“Norms give us the ability to tune our attitudes, beliefs and identities to those of other people in our group. It gives us something to coalesce around, and helps form a collective identity,” he said.
Sharing your Wordle results on social media is a way of saying, “look at me, I’m also doing Wordle just like everyone else.” And that makes one feel like the member of a special group.
6. It lets you show off your smartness in a socially acceptable way
Sharing your daily Wordle score doesn’t just signify you’re part of the group; it also shows how you performed, which offers an opportunity for social comparison.
And for better or worse, Baldwin says, we love social comparison.
“Comparison can be detrimental to self-esteem if you’re always comparing upward to people who are unattainable,” he said.
“But I can learn something about myself by the way I stack up against others, and it doesn’t always have to be a negative feeling.”
“Maybe people just like the information they get from looking at what other people are doing, and getting a sense of where they stand.”
Conclusion: we love Wordle because our brains are wired to love it
Add all these concepts together, and Wordle’s exponential growth begins to make sense.
It’s about a lot more than guessing a five-letter word.
“Shared experiences give a lot of meaning to life,” Baldwin said.
“They help us orient toward what’s good, what’s meaningful, and what’s worthwhile.”
Photo: by Afif Kusuma on Unsplash