Thinking Out of the Box

Many hundreds of years ago in a small Italian town, a merchant had the misfortune of owing a large sum of money to the moneylender. The moneylender, who was old and ugly, fancied the merchant’s beautiful daughter so he proposed a bargain. He said he would forgo the merchant’s debt if he could marry the merchant’s daughter. Both the merchant and his daughter were horrified by the proposal. The cunning moneylender suggested that they let providence decide the matter.

The moneylender told them that he would put a black pebble and a white pebble into an empty bag. The girl would then have to pick one pebble from the bag. If she picked the black pebble, she would become the moneylender’s wife and her father’s debt would be forgiven. If she picked the white pebble she need not marry him and her father’s debt would still be forgiven. But if she refused to pick a pebble, her father would be thrown into jail.

They were standing on a pebble strewn path in the merchant’s garden. As they talked, the moneylender bent over to pick up two pebbles. As he picked them up, the sharp-eyed girl noticed that he had picked up two black pebbles and put them into the bag. He then asked the girl to pick her pebble from the bag.

Now, imagine you were standing in the merchant’s garden. What would you have done if you were the girl? If you had to advise her, what would you have told her? Careful analysis would produce three possibilities:

1. The girl should refuse to take a pebble – not really a choice for it would send her father to the jail.

2. The girl should show that there were two black pebbles in the bag and expose the moneylender as a cheat – the moneylender was powerful and wily, there would be certainly an exagerated show of hurt and indignation at the head-on allegation and there was no telling how he would turn the tables on her.

3. The girl should pick a black pebble and sacrifice herself in order to save her father from his debt and imprisonment – a choice of desparation.

The consequences are not pleasant whichever logical answer she chooses.

The girl’s dilemma cannot be solved with traditional logical thinking.

What would you recommend the girl do?

Well, this is what she did:

The girl put her hand into the moneybag and drew out a pebble. Without looking at it, she fumbled and let it fall onto the pebble-strewn path where it immediately became lost among all the other pebbles.

“Oh, how clumsy of me,” she said. “But never mind, if you look into the bag for the one that is left, you will be able to tell which pebble I picked.”

Since the remaining pebble is black, it must be assumed that she had picked the white one. And since the moneylender dared not admit his dishonesty, the girl changed what seemed an impossible situation into an extremely advantageous one.

End

I couldn’t resist including it when I came across a version of it at: ezines@arcamax.com. Here it is, with a little bit of editing.

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