Puzzles saved my sanity during the pandemic—and I believe they can save the world.
Perhaps that sounds like a rationalization from a puzzle addict trying to justify the thousands of hours I’ve spent wrestling with crosswords, logic problems, jigsaws and other forms of delightful mental sadism.
And sure, that’s a part of it.
But after spending the last three years doing a deep dive into the science and history of puzzles, and after interviewing dozens of researchers and psychologists, I’ve come to believe it strongly: Puzzles are not a waste of time. These puzzles should not be considered a frivolous hobby. You don’t have to feel guilty for your daily Wordle habit or for skipping the gym to go to an escape room.
On the contrary, puzzles are a crucial tool that train us how to solve life’s problems, from minor personal issues to the world crises. The little puzzles help us solve life’s big puzzles.
What I refer to as the Puzzler Mindset is my secret. This is the mindset you need to be a good puzzle solver, and it’s a mindset that, I find, spills over into life outside of puzzles. The hallmarks of the Puzzler Mindset include being deeply curious, solution-oriented, rigorous, cognitively flexible, and good at taking other people’s perspectives.
I started that list with “curiosity” for a reason. It’s the most crucial attribute shared by almost every puzzler I’ve met. It’s almost an obsessive drive to find solutions and solve puzzles. It’s why one puzzle-solving motto is “get curious, not furious.”
It is common for anger to hinder puzzle-solving. It’s something that I also know. I’ve thrown Rubik’s cube-type puzzles across the room. I’ve pounded the desk while doing devious British crosswords. However, the more you feel angry the harder it will be for you to complete the puzzle. Studies show that anger can negatively impact your ability to make decisions.
In real life, there’s plenty to be justifiably angry about and outrage can be a powerful motivating force, but when I can, I try to counterbalance my anger with curiosity. One of the most frustrating real-life puzzles is: What makes people believe what they do? When I’m talking to someone on the other side of the political spectrum, I try to frame the discussion as a puzzle, not a war of words. Where do we actually disagree? What is it that we hold dear? Which evidence might she offer that could change my mind about it? How can you change her mind about me? It’s a mystery we can solve only by working together.
Researchers have shown that this approach to solving puzzles may actually be the best for changing our viewpoints. One promising technique— called deep canvassing—focuses on the participants asking the puzzling question: Why do we believe what we believe?
The Puzzle Mindset also has another benefit: It unites people.
Think of escape rooms. This popular game can only be solved if there are other players who focus on their strengths. This quote sounds like I created it to support my pro-puzzle agenda, but it’s actually from a meta-analysis of sixty-eight peer-reviewed studies by real scientists: Escape rooms “strengthen social relationships, activate team spirit, and facilitate benefits of deep learning through group discussion.”
Cass Sunstein, a Harvard behavioral economist and law professor, echoes these findings. He looked for ways to bridge the divide between conservatives and liberals. He discovered that crossword puzzles were the only activity that brought them together.
And that’s not the only evidence that the Puzzle Mindset makes us less tribal. Joshua Greene, a Harvard Psychology professor conducted an experiment in which he presented logic puzzles to one group and not the other. The subjects were then asked questions regarding moral dilemmas.
Puzzle-solving subjects were more inclined to answer in a selfless manner and place society’s good above their own political tribe. Puzzles teach us to think more clearly and less easily influenced by emotions. The way that you view the world can be changed by puzzles.
You become more solution-oriented with the Puzzle Mindset. Instead of dwelling in despair, you want to solve problems. The simple act of framing an actual-life problem can be a positive step. If I hear about the “climate crisis,” I want to curl up into a fetal position in the corner. If I hear about the “climate puzzle,” I want to roll up my sleeves and try to solve it.
When solving puzzles, puzzlers display incredible grit. Kryptos is one of my favourite puzzles. It’s a sculpture located at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and it contains a baffling cipher of 1,800 letters that has yet to be solved, even by the CIA itself. I’m on an email list of thousands of solvers who, every day, propose another theory. Maybe the key is Dante’s inferno? Maybe it’s Druidic runes?
This group has been in business since Kryptos was revealed over 30 years back. Now that’s persistence! When I’m helping my son with math homework and I want to give up after two minutes, I try to remember my Kryptos friends.
One reason these folks haven’t given up on Kryptos is because puzzlers are okay with being wrong. They are constantly looking for ways to challenge their assumptions. It’s why I use a pencil when doing crosswords. If you fall in love with a wrong solution, you’ll never succeed. Maximum cognitive flexibility is essential.
This lack of honesty is evident in public discourse. We are often governed by motivational reasoning and where changing our minds is viewed as shameful. This is the approach of scientists and puzzlers that works best. As Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman says, “being wrong is the only way I feel sure I learned anything.”
Finally, we can use the Puzzler Mindset to encourage us to view the world through different eyes. It’s a key strategy in solving puzzles. One of the most famous—and difficult—logic puzzles ever created centers on an island with blue-eyed, green-eyed and brown-eyed people. You can solve the puzzle only if you take the view of the islanders. It is necessary to alternate between the perspective of the islanders, which can be either the green-eyed castingaway or the brown-eyed castingaway.
You have to consider what each islander knows, and—even more important—what they know the other islanders know. This type of thinking is crucial to Game Theory, and is referred to as “Common Knowledge.”
It requires you to step into another person’s shoes. Or several people’s. I’ve found this mental exercise trains me to see the world from other points of view, which is a crucial skill in these high tribal times.
It is the question of how can more people adopt the Puzzle Mindset. Why not make more puzzles for the start?
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