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riddles >> general problem-solving / chatting / whatever >> How to Solve What Happened? Puzzles
(Message started by: River Phoenix on Jul 19th, 2005, 7:02am)

Title: How to Solve What Happened? Puzzles
Post by River Phoenix on Jul 19th, 2005, 7:02am
Lateral Thinking (What Happened) Puzzles pose a situation and require some kind of explanation or answer. These puzzles seem illogical and appear to have insufficient information to solve the problem, yet have a satisfying answer.

One classic puzzle is stated as follows: ďA man walks into a restaurant, orders albatross, takes one bite, and kills himself. Why?Ē

In order to solve this problem, one will need more information, coupled with a relaxation of rigid control of thinking. The whimsical solution is that the man, his wife, and a second man were in a ship that was wrecked on a desert island. The manís wife died in the wreck. When there was no food left, the second man brought what he said was an albatross but was really part of the dead wife. Later they were rescued, and at some point, the first man decides to order albatross at a restaurant. It tastes nothing like what he was told was albatross on the island, which makes him realize that he really ate his wife. Unable to cope with the realization, he kills himself.

There are specific techniques associated with that can be used when creativity is needed to address a problem. One major technique involved in lateral thinking is Restructuring. This represents the adjustment of any assumptions which may be polarizing the problem. Restructuring is very useful to come up with better, but unobvious ways of looking at a problem.

In the case of the albatross puzzle, one basic assumption is that the manís suicide was a direct result of something that happened that day. Clearly, this assumption needs attention in order to come up with the solution. Once having consciously identified this assumption, we can simplify it to a boolean. Then, rather than follow with a continuation down the discovered approach in a vertical direction, we consider both options without preference.

It should be noted that the need to place information into predetermined structures at all or to choose only a single way of looking at the problem can impede learning. Any structure can be limiting and no assumption can always be applicable. "The most basic principle of lateral thinking is that any particular way of looking at things is only one among many other possible waysĒ (De Bono, 1970).

Viewing information from the angles of alternate assumptions allows us to see conflicts in the information more easily Ė and, importantly, to mentally recognize the crucial binary factors in the understanding of the problem.

So, one first recognizes the dominant idea polarizing a problem, and then considers the alternatives to that idea - assuming that all information is equal. Letís return to the albatross example and examine it more closely. Already knowing the solution, itís easy to say that we needed to use restructuring to defeat the assumption that the man committed suicide only to the time frame described in the question. But how could we begin to figure that out?

The first thing to do is to pick out a dominant idea. Here, the main point which can be extracted from the problem is that the man didnít like the albatross he ate. This conclusion is almost unambiguous, since the alternate case implies simply that the problem is poorly written (and we know it isn't).

Now, we can focus in further to consider that he either didnít like that particular albatross, or that he doesnít like albatross in general. Why somebody would dislike all albatross, I do not know. But the technique described here mandates that we choose a concept and examine the results of following the low probability routes. In this case such an attitude will lead us to the solution; at minimum it would help develop a better understanding of the problem and its crucial factors.

Returning to the case in point: if we are to follow the assumption that any albatross would cause the man to commit suicide, then (since there is nothing unique in the wording of the problem other than the albatross) it seems as if the man must not have eaten albatross before, else he would be dead already.

So what could the man have had against albatrosses that caused him to commit suicide? If the man had known that the albatross would cause his death, he would not have ordered it (unless he was suicidal... but this would be a very unsatisfactory solution to the problem).

Therefore the man must have realized something about albatrosses after he started eating. Was it against his religion? This is worth considering momentarily, but the man specifically ordered an albatross. So he would have needed to suddenly realize that he could not eat albatrosses. So this category of solutions is similarly unsatisfactory.

Now we return and focus on another point of the problem. Because the man only took one bite of the albatross, we consider the assumption that it was the taste of the albatross that caused him to commit suicide. Was it simply distasteful to him? This should not lead a man to suicide (once again, I would take issue with the puzzler if it did).

It seems that the man must somehow recognize the taste. But we were already working under the assumption that he has never had albatross before! Then what about the taste of the albatross could have been so striking? It must be that the albatross did not taste as he expected, which led the man to suicide!

An experienced solver of What Happened puzzles may have instantaneously wondered if the man was worried by what the albatross did Not taste like.

And even now it is difficult to prove that the man realized that he had eaten his wife far away on an island.

It is common for Lateral logic puzzles to require more knowledge than is present in the initial problem. One is meant to ask the puzzler a series of yes/no questions related to the assumptions polarizing each point of the problem, which eventually lead to the answer.

Had we set out considering the nature of the restaurant rather than the albatross, we might have reached another solution. Or, we might have reached a dead end - a point at which no answer would fit the phrasing of the question in a satisfactory manner. Then we would have needed to identify the root cause of this discrepancy, and reverse our assumption.

These puzzles are interesting in that at each step, the correct approach tends to make perfect sense but be counter-intuitive, or a low-probability outcome.

I only mean to utilize some of the intuition of Lateral Thinking on a limited-information problem, in order to  demonstrate the power and generality of the approach.


PostScript: In the real world, it may not always do to probabilistically choose the angles from which to approach a problem. But the ability to consciously identifying the precise factors polarizing a problem - and to pay attention to both the high and low probability angles - is the beginning of any creative problem solving.

Title: Re: How to Solve What Happened? Puzzles
Post by rmsgrey on Jul 19th, 2005, 7:22am
I never liked the albatross puzzle. Apart from anything else, the desired solution doesn't seem to be the only possibility - or even the best possibility.

For instance, if the man has, unknowingly, a lethal allergy to albatross, by taking one bite, he kills himself.

Or he might have amnesia, and the taste of albatross restored his memory of something terrible in his past.

Or the man wishes to commit suicide, so enters the restaurant and orders "albatross" (the code name for the illegal suicide pill).

Yes, a question and answer session with the proposer of the riddle can narrow down which implausible scenario he had in mind, but my preference for riddles is for them to be self-contained (apart from anything else, it means that, when someone who doesn't know the answer asks for help, there's a reasonable chance of being able to provide the answer)

Title: Re: How to Solve What Happened? Puzzles
Post by towr on Jul 19th, 2005, 12:38pm
I find most such lateral thinking puzzles farfetched.
And why do most of them include someone dying? Is lateral thinking inherently morbid?

Title: Re: How to Solve What Happened? Puzzles
Post by Don Corleone on Jul 19th, 2005, 5:52pm
Yes, the albatross puzzle is ridiculous. One which I find satisfying is: "A man walk into a bar, orders a glass of water. The bartender shows him a gun. The man thanks the bartender and walks out of the bar".

Title: Re: How to Solve What Happened? Puzzles
Post by SWF on Jul 19th, 2005, 7:07pm
Why are people in What Happened riddles so often committing suicide whenever they come across some unfortunate news?

Title: Re: How to Solve What Happened? Puzzles
Post by River_Phoenix on Jul 20th, 2005, 10:03am
Well, it's better than "a man eats some albatross, and then somewhat disappointed in a manner that is unobvious to a casual observer" - isn't it?

They're story puzzles, so the only way to make the concept of unhappiness cut and dry to the context of the problem is to call it suicide.

Title: Re: How to Solve What Happened? Puzzles
Post by SWF on Jul 20th, 2005, 7:42pm
If a logical answer is sought, suicide should be a likely response from real people given the same situation. If he commits suicide at the slighest disappointment, then he might also kill himself because the albatross was too salty, or he was a vegetarian and thought albatross was a vegetable when he ordered it.

I do like well phrased What Happened riddles because there are often many answers as good as or better than the one intended.

Title: Re: How to Solve What Happened? Puzzles
Post by Sir Col on Jul 21st, 2005, 3:29am
I agree, SWF.

The problem with What Happened puzzles is that they appeal to two different audiences...

(i) Those that like  "I'm thinking of a number" type games, in which we host of the game will reply, "Higher", "Lower", or "Got it!". There can be only one answer.

(ii) Those that have an insatiable appetite for puzzles and take great pleasure in the open ended nature of problems; they often enjoy hearing an equally plausaible alternative above the intended "solution".

The problem is that both groups are generally incompatible and I'm sure that we have all observed many frustrated conversations indicating such differences in mind-set.

Title: Re: How to Solve What Happened? Puzzles
Post by Grimbal on Jul 22nd, 2005, 6:38am
The man went to the bar and ordered albatros, hoping  to discover what is so special about its taste, and to find at last the answer to the "man-eats-albatros-and-kills-himself" riddle.
He finished his meal but he didn't learn anything.  He was so frustrated that he decided to take his life.
Before he killed himself, angry at world, his twisted mind made him declare "Now I know why he killed himself!".  Even though he didn't.

Title: Re: How to Solve What Happened? Puzzles
Post by River_Phoenix on Jul 22nd, 2005, 7:53am
:P -> Grimbal

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