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Competitive Scrabble makes you smarter


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August 17, 2011

A study of competitive Scrabble players has shown—for the first time—that it’s possible to develop visual word recognition ability in adulthood, beyond what researchers previously thought was achievable.

“Scrabble players have honed their ability to recognize words such that they have actually changed the process of reading words,” says Ian Hargreaves, PhD Candidate in Psychology and lead researcher on the study.

Since competitive Scrabble players are expert at studying language, Hargreaves and his team sought to determine if and how players’ techniques and training changed the process of reading words. They tested competitive Scrabble players to understand the extent to which the players relied on the meaning and physical orientation of words, in order to understand them as a part of the English language system.

“The average literate adult relies on three components to process and read a word: sound, spelling and meaning,” says Penny Pexman, professor of Psychology. “When we studied the Scrabble players, we found that there is significant flexibility in the tools they use to read words and that it can include the orientation of the word as well.”

The Scrabble players in the study were able to recognize English words, compared to nonsense words 20 per cent faster than non-Scrabble players. Researchers say competitive players, who dedicate large amounts of time to studying the 180,000 words listed in The Official Tournament and Club Word List, processed words more quickly and were better able to recognize words oriented vertically.

“The Scrabble players showed less difference in the time it took to recognize a word as real when it was positioned vertically than they did for a horizontal word, whereas non-Scrabble players are much slower in reading vertically,” says Hargreaves.

Researchers were surprised to find that for Scrabble players, the meaning of the word had less impact on their ability to recognize and process a word.

“This is atypical,” says Hargreaves. “Usually the meaning of the word would have a bigger impact a person’s decision about whether or not it is a true word. This shows that one consequence of extensive Scrabble training is that players don’t tend to emphasize what the words mean. Words are most importantly plays in a game.”

The study, “How a hobby can shape cognition: visual word recognition in competitive Scrabble players,” is published in the August 2011 issue of Memory and Cognition by Springer.