Could a Wordle habit save a life?

By Laurel White

There are roughly 400,000 people in Wisconsin who want to quit smoking — and only about 29,000 of them are likely to succeed the next time they try, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Tanya Schlam, an assistant professor in the School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology, is working to close that gap.

“Most people who smoke want to quit,” Schlam says. “But, if they try — especially if they try without evidence-based treatment (meaning cessation medication and/or counseling) — too frequently it doesn’t work. We’re creatures of habit. Even if we develop new behaviors, stressors happen and we may revert to our old ways.”

A research psychologist who studied behavior therapy and eating disorders before taking up smoking cessation research, Schlam develops interventions to help people break the habit that is a leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States.


One of those interventions may be considered by some — albeit more playfully — to be an addictive vice in its own right: cell phone games.

In 2020, Schlam authored a study on how mobile games, combined with medication and counseling, could help people cope with cigarette cravings. She says there’s untapped potential for mobile games to help people change behavior.

“It has not been fully exploited,” Schlam says. “It’s right in a person’s pocket, it’s fun, and it’s quite distracting.”

Finding the right game can facilitate a phenomenon known as “flow,” which Schlam explains as a state when a person’s abilities are well-matched to their current task.

Schlam says a key indicator of “flow” is losing track of time, and often only a few minutes are needed for a smoking craving to pass. In other words, find the right Wordle puzzle and, poof, your desire to cope with stress by smoking goes, well, up in smoke.

One of Schlam’s current projects looks at another potential use for mobile phones: helping people stay on top of their smoking cessation medications.

“We’re human, and we’re often bad at consistently taking our medication,” she says.

Her guess is that a phone ping will help keep people on track better than “a counselor three days ago reminding you to take your meds.”

Another project studied more than 1,000 people who received different follow-up interventions after a failed smoking cessation attempt.

“When people relapse, it appears especially effective to immediately encourage them to quit again, and to use cessation medication and counseling,” says Schlam.

Hopefully, with the help of Schlam’s work, more of those repeat attempts will become final breaks from a habit so many wish they never built.

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