Who’s smarter — champion crossword puzzle players or champion Scrabble players? It’s a question you might not have pondered unless you yourself are a word nerd of the elite variety, but recently, a team of researchers set out to answer it. Or, more specifically, they were curious which group had stronger working memory, a sort of mental juggling system in which we’re simultaneously processing and remembering information (think a seven-digit phone number). The results were recently published in Applied Cognitive Psychology.
The researchers, led by Michael Toma of ClaremontGraduateUniversity, rounded up 26 top Scrabble players and 31 top crossword puzzlers and pitted them against each other in a series of tasks. Psychologist Christian Jarrett over at the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest explains the experiments thusly:
For example, there was a visuospatial task that involved judging whether images were symmetrical, while also remembering highlighted locations in a series of grids that always appeared after each symmetry image. Another challenge was the reading span task (a test of verbal working memory), which involved judging the grammatical sense of sentences, while also remembering the order of individual letters that were flashed on-screen after each grammatical challenge.
For these tests, it was, essentially, a tie between the crossworders and Scrabblers. But a separate test required the participants to solve word-analogy puzzles, and here the crossword players performed better than the Scrabble players. And that makes sense — to play Scrabble, you need to know a lot of words, but you don’t necessarily need to know what those words mean. You’ve got to know word definitions, too, to be a top crossword puzzler.
Still, the fact that the experiments found no differences in working memory between the groups was interesting to the researchers, as it suggests “that there exists a single mechanism that supports the processing of verbal and visuospatial information,” Jarrett writes.
Oh, and by the way, both the Scrabble players and the crossword players outperformed a group of smarty-pants students with similar verbal SAT scores as the elite word game players. So the battle of brains between Scrabble and crossword champs may have (mostly) resulted in a tie, but they’re all still smarter than the rest of us.