There are two large urns placed in front of you. The urns are completely opaque, so you cannot see their contents. The urn on the left contains ten black marbles and ten white ones. The urn on the right contains twenty marbles, but you do not know the proportion of black to white. Now, the game is to draw a black marble from one of the urns. If you are successful, you win $100. You only have one chance, so which urn will you draw from? Keep the answer in mind.Buy Iconoclast on Amazon
Let's play again. Now, the game is to draw a white marble. Again, you only have one chance, so which urn will it be?
Most people when confronted with these choices choose the urn on the left -- the one with the known proportions of black and white marbles. And therein lies the paradox. If you choose the left-hand urn when trying to pull a black marble, that means you think your chances are better for that urn. But because there are only two colors in both urns, the odds of pulling a white must be complementary to the odds of pulling a black. Logically, if you thought the left-hand urn was the better choice for a black marble, the right-hand urn should be the better choice for a white marble. The fact that most people avoid the right-hand urn altogether suggests that people have an inherent fear of the unknown (also called the ambiguity aversion).
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.