You might have heard the riddle, “What’s heavier, a pound of cotton or a pound of gold?” and kicked yourself in the head afterwards when you chose gold. The reason riddles and brain teasers are often so frustrating is because they’re so simple yet you over think them or don’t think about them enough and then you feel totally stupid afterwards.
Sometimes we get so caught up in the big things that we forget all about the little, basic things. You might also have heard of “Petals Around the Rose,” a simple math exercise that has stumped some of the greatest minds, even taking Dr. Richard Duke of the University of Michigan a year to figure out, even though it’s just a matter of addition (the saying is that the smarter you are, the harder it is to solve the puzzle).
There’s nothing like a good, annoyingly elementary riddle that brings an elevated scholar back down to earth.Check out the picture on the right, see if you can find how many black dots there are?
But is the ability to solve tricky riddles and brain teasers truly a sign of intelligence? Victims might tell you no, or keep silent for fear of appearing bitter. Others might say yes, because it takes keen observation or critical thinking to solve them, and such ability is often positively correlated with being smart.
In reality, some riddles and brain teasers are definitely tests of intelligence, such as logic and mathematical puzzles, but many are really just tricky and created for the sole purpose of bothering people. The reason they trick people so often can possibly be explained by heuristics, which are prototypical solutions, rules and procedures we have in our heads. For example, the knowledge that gold is heavier than cotton is a heuristic. Heuristics are very useful because they help us process things quickly and efficiently, and when you depend on a heuristic you don’t have to think too much about a situation.
So intuitively, you picked gold but if you had thought more about it, you would have realized that they’re equal weight and in this way, heuristics sometimes trip us up. This doesn’t mean that it’s bad to use heuristics; it just means that they’re useful in many situations, and detrimental in others. If you picked the wrong answer, it’s likely because you weren’t thinking, not necessarily because you’re unintelligent.
The message is that while it’s impressive to solve riddles and brain teasers that have stumped and humiliated others, we shouldn’t take it to mind and determine intelligence according to how we answered. In any case, you might do well to avoid answering riddles in the future or to present them to others yourself so that you can smugly watch others struggle to figure it out.