The other day we heard the behavioral economist Dan Ariely talking on the radio about his new book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty. One of its themes is that people’s dishonesty can vary across a wide spectrum of behavior, depending on the circumstance. That in turn got us thinking about cheating in solving crosswords. Is there even such a thing? And if so, what are the parameters?
At a first approximation, of course, cheating on a crossword is like cheating at solitaire—unless you’re enrolled in a competition , it’s a contradiction in terms. Solving a puzzle is something each of us does for our own enjoyment, in our own way. Any technique I use to solve a crossword is no business of yours, and vice versa.
But in practical terms, crossword solvers do tend to follow certain guidelines. In the extreme case, if you were to simply look up the answer to each clue in the next issue, no one would realistically say that you had “solved” it—but more importantly, it’s hard to see how you would have derived any pleasure from the exercise. If a puzzle is worth doing at all, it’s worth doing while observing certain constraints.
What’s interesting is how those self-imposed constraints vary from person to person—and how changing the parameters just a little reveals the psychology underlying the process. For instance, many solvers have no compunction about asking a friend, spouse or office-mate for an answer, yet would never ask Google (or Siri) the same question. There seems to be something about sharing the solving process with a fellow, and equally fallible, human being, that feels different from consulting the cyborg mind.
The ethics of looking things up arises much more often in standard crosswords than in cryptics, because cryptic clues are less overt and more deceptive about what they’re asking for. If you see “actress Witherspoon” in a clue, it’s probably asking for “Reese,” but you can’t be sure—and in any case there may be more steps to take before reaching a final answer. So there’s a certain amount of unavoidable brainwork that can’t be circumvented by cheating.
What you can do, with both standard and cryptic puzzles, is use external sources to confirm an answer that you’ve gotten but aren’t sure of. This seems to be the most common, and most widely acceptable, practice that might be construed as “cheating.” All of us have holes in our knowledge, and we all find ourselves at one point or another thinking, “Everything in this clue suggests that such-and-such is the name of a pop singer”—or Impressionist painter, or chemical compound or African capital—“that I’ve never heard of.” And very few of us would refrain from checking that in a dictionary or an on-line search.
What about the situation where you know the answer is A?R?O?L, and is some sort of rotor blade, or perhaps a monk, but no actual word comes to mind? (This may have happened to you in last week’s puzzle .) You also know that Kosman and Picciotto are not shy about throwing in an occasional word you’ve never heard of. Well, fear not: there are electronic aids that will help you fill in the blanks. See, for example, OneLook Dictionary Search , or the National Puzzlers’ League site  or the Franklin Crossword Solver devices or (for the iPhone) the Crossword Help app.
Oops. Have we been abetting cheating by providing these suggestions? What are your thoughts about cheating when solving a crossword? Do you have favorite electronic helpers? Are there some practices you think are never OK? Please share your thoughts below, where you can also post comments, questions, kudos or complaints about last week’s puzzle  or any previous puzzle.