Cracking Psychology: Understanding the appeal of cryptic crosswords #3 – Anagrams

It’s a common experience – you have a blank grid in front of you, 1A isn’t helping, and there’s no obvious way to get going. Maybe you, too, scan the list of clues hoping for an anagram clue or two? In the third part of our ‘explainer’ series, Kathryn Friedlander takes a look at the psychology behind this popular clue form.

Anagram clues – a simple way in?

Often thought of as an easy way into a crossword, anagram clues are a staple of cryptic crosswords. Anagram clues typically contain both the letters to be rearranged, and some type of adjacent indicator signalling that they need to be jumbled to form a new word. For this reason, it’s pretty difficult to camouflage the mechanics of the clue, meaning that this clue type often jumps out at an experienced solver.

  • Find rare new frequencies beyond the visible range (8) (Johnstone, 2001)

[Answers to all puzzles can be found at the foot of the page.]

Misdirection in anagram clues

All the same, many cryptic crossword setters employ great ingenuity in adapting the indicator to fit the context, and this can lead to a much more sophisticated clue. Because of the level of misdirection in the surface reading, and the heavy disguise of the clue components, we’d expect these better crafted anagrams to trigger the Penny Drop Moment (PDM) much more successfully. As for rebus clue types and riddles/puns, this is because the solver has to relax the ingrained rules of reading in order to overcome their automatic understanding of the text, allowing a new interpretation of the problem to unfold. Take a look at these two examples:

  • Tube taken to theatre for three-act play (8) (Aarons, 2015)
  • Doctor Watson’s kit – or bits of modern office furniture (12) (Biddlecombe, 2009)

Choices in anagram solving – it’s a personal decision

But there’s more to the psychology of anagram solving than misdirection, and research suggests a few ways we might get better at setting and solving anagram clues. In fact studies of anagram solving have shown that individual solvers approach anagram problems in a number of different ways, and that there are a few choices to make along the way.

Pop out or search?

The first choice is whether to work purposefully at the solution – trying out likely-looking letter combinations using ‘search-and-test’ strategies – or whether simply to allow the solution to ‘pop out’ of the letters in front of you, without any apparent effort on your part. Research suggests that individual differences between solvers determine which strategy you typically use, although many of us seem to try to let the solution flow from the letters for a short time, but turn to search-and-test strategies if this fails.

Interestingly, using the ‘pop-out’ pathway will tend to give higher levels of PDMs/Aha! moments, and studies using EEGs can reliably distinguish between pop-out and effortful solutions by recording the signals from the brain. So if a PDM is what you are after, you might want to try to stick with the pop-out route for a little longer!

Anagrammer or personal challenge?

Conversely, some solvers feel that – once they have understood the mechanics of the clue – anagrams are not worth much further effort. In a way, it’s just a handle-turning process to arrive at the solution. So the next choice is whether to turn to an electronic letter scrambler to speed the solution time up, without further investment of effort. This might well depend on the type of crossword you are solving, as well as your standpoint on the level of personal challenge that you are seeking, and whether you consider such tools constitute ‘cheating’.

From the graph, showing data from our 2007/2010 surveys, it’s clear that there’s a range of views out there. For example, 14% of solvers used this type of aid freely or heavily to solve blocked-style cryptic crosswords, with a further 44% of solvers using them to finish the crossword off once they had got as far as they could. Quite a few solvers don’t turn to aids at all for this type of crossword, though.

Solving aid use is much higher among advanced cryptic crossword solvers, who may feel that this more difficult puzzle form gives them carte blanche to crack the puzzle by any available means! Here, 51% of solvers used solving aids at least regularly, with a further 33% turning to them only to finish off a puzzle. Very few solvers attempt a puzzle without them.

Of course, the trade-off may well be that solvers who readily turn to electronic aids sacrifice the PDM/Aha! moment in the process. Achieving the solution through the use of a gadget is more likely to produce an ‘Ah-duh!’ moment instead – that slightly sinking, irritated feeling you get when someone else gives you the solution, rather than allowing you to solve it yourself. Needless to say, it also deprives you of the mental work-out that solving an anagram can provide!

Mental juggling, or writing the letters out randomly?

A final choice lies in whether you write the letters out, or try to do the anagram in your head. We’ve argued in our research that being able to anagram in your head requires pretty high levels of fluid intelligence, because maintaining, manipulating and integrating potentially promising combinations places a very heavy load on one’s working memory. However, for super-solvers involved in speed-solving competitions, being able to anagram in this way might confer a useful speed advantage.

Those who write the letter-fodder out tend to do so in a random arrangement (such as a circle). Again, there’s a really good reason to do this: It’s well-established in in cognitive psychology that the structural features of the letters to be anagrammed really affect how easy it will be to solve the challenge. So, if a collection of letters form pronounceable groups or words in their own right (e.g. ZELBA, OARLY or HEART), they should be much more difficult to anagram than random letters such as HNWEI or AOSLR. That’s because familiarity with the letter patterns in the original configuration gets in the way of a solution by accessing automatically stored “chunks” of data, which may be unhelpful.

To avoid this fixation, writing out the letters in random sequence will break up the prior associations and allow new patterns to form. Studies have also found that actively shuffling the letters with (e.g.) Scrabble tiles will sometimes help to resolve the puzzle, whether because of the physical interaction with the tiles, the ease of forming morphologically possible units, or because of the serendipitous solutions which might spontaneously occur along the way.

What next?

All in all, there’s a surprising amount to think about, even for a supposedly ‘easy’ anagram clue. If you’ve enjoyed learning more about cryptic crosswords in this blog article, do dip into any of the other articles we have written before – see links below). You can also click on the ‘cryptic crossword’ category in the right hand panel of the home page.


Links to our other blogs on cryptic crosswords:

Answers to puzzles:

  • Find rare new frequencies beyond the visible range (8) (Johnstone, 2001) = INFRARED (”frequencies beyond the visible range”) Letter fodder = FIND RARE; anagram indicator = NEW
  • Tube taken to theatre for three-act play (8) (Aarons, 2015) = CATHETER (=“Tube taken to theatre”). Letter fodder = THREE-ACT; anagram indicator = “PLAY”. There is heavy misdirection drawing the solver away from the required medical context and into theatrical performance and the London Underground (the “Tube”).
  • Doctor Watson’s kit – or bits of modern office furniture (12) (Biddlecombe, 2009) = WORKSTATIONS (”bits of modern office furniture”) Letter fodder = WATSON’S KIT OR; anagram-indicator = “Doctor” Misleading disguise of anagram indicator in the name “Doctor Watson”, making the parsing of the clue unclear; the punctuation is unhelpful, too.
  • ZELBA, OARLY, HEART = BLAZE, ROYAL, EARTH
  • HNWEI, AOSLR = WHINE, SOLAR

Image credits:

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