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Doing Puzzles Can Help Solve Your Other Problems, Too

7 minute read

Jacobs is a journalist and author whose books include Drop Dead Healthy, The Year of Living Biblically, and The Puzzler. He is host of the podcast The Puzzler, and his latest book is THE YEAR OF LIVING CONSTITUTIONALLY: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Constitution’s Original Meaning

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. They are not a frivolous addiction. 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.

The secret is what I call the Puzzler Mindset. 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. They all have an almost obsessive desire to figure stuff out, to solve problems. It’s why one puzzle-solving motto is “get curious, not furious.”

Anger is often a hindrance to puzzle-solving. I know this too well. I’ve thrown Rubik’s cube-type puzzles across the room. I’ve pounded the desk while doing devious British crosswords. But angrier you get, the less likely you are to solve the puzzle. Research shows that anger negatively affects your decision-making.

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. Consider one of the most exasperating real-life puzzles: Why do people have such divergent beliefs? 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. What do we really disagree on? Why do we believe what we believe? What evidence can she provide that might change my mind? And what can I provide that might change hers? It’s a mystery we can solve only by working together.

Research shows this puzzle-solving approach might be the best way to actually evolve our views. One promising technique— called deep canvassing—focuses on the participants asking the puzzling question: Why do we believe what we believe?

This brings up another advantage of the Puzzle Mindset: It brings people together.

Consider the escape rooms. These popular games can only be solved when you cooperate with teammates, each focusing on your 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.”

The Harvard law professor and behavioral economist Cass Sunstein echoes this finding. He studied methods that would bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives. He found that one of the only activities that brought them together was jointly solving a crossword puzzles.

And that’s not the only evidence that the Puzzle Mindset makes us less tribal. Harvard Psychology professor Joshua Greene conducted an experiment where he gave logic puzzles to one group of people, but not the control group. He then asked the subjects questions about moral quandaries.

The subjects who did puzzles answered in a more selfless way, more likely to place the good of society over themselves or their political tribe. This is because puzzles train us to be more rigorous thinkers, less swayed by atavistic emotions. Puzzles can change the way you see the world.

With the Puzzle Mindset, you become more solution oriented. You want to fix things instead of wallowing in despair. Even the framing of a real-life problem can make a difference. 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.

Puzzlers show amazing grit when tackling problems. One of my favorite puzzles is called Kryptos. 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?

These people have been at it ever since Kryptos was unveiled over thirty years ago. 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. The best puzzlers are always looking to disprove their hypothesis. It’s why I use a pencil when doing crosswords. If you fall in love with a wrong solution, you’ll never succeed. You need maximum cognitive flexibility.

This is, of course, lacking in so much public discourse, where we are ruled by motivated reasoning, where changing your mind is seen as a mark of shame. The best puzzlers and scientists take the opposite approach. As Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman says, “being wrong is the only way I feel sure I learned anything.”

And finally, the Puzzler Mindset encourages us to see the world from different perspectives. 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. The only way to solve this puzzle is to adopt the perspective of the islanders. You have to switch between the perspectives of the green-eyed castaway, the brown-eyed castaway, and the blue-eyed castaway.

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.

The meta-puzzle is: How do we get more people to adopt the Puzzle Mindset. Well, for starters, why not do more puzzles?

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