GAME SHOW HOST: Charismatic, quick-tongued, and artificially
cordial—like a salesman except you like him.
CONTESTANT 1: The contestant whose answers are fixed in the script.
CONTESTANT 2: The genuine contestant.
Enter HOST, with flair.
HOST: Welcome, one, all, some, and none, to yet another episode of Quandaries Unplugged, the show where the classic logical puzzles, paradoxes and enigmas of antiquity are brought to life in full stereo sound! Last week, we went into the great virgin pine forests of the Northwest and cut down a tree to see what sound it made. Unfortunately, our ratings show that no one was listening to the program just then, so our results were inconclusive. But this week, we have a real humdinger of a puzzle for you! The paradox of the two boxes!
Host waves his arms toward a pair of imaginary boxes to his left, one large and one small.
HOST: This paradox was invented by physicist William Newcomb. The idea is this—listen carefully. Each of our two contestants will be given a choice of taking home either both boxes, or the big box alone. The small box contains one thousand dollars. The big box may contain one million dollars, or it may contain nothing. Now here’s the twist—a super-powerful mental collective has carefully analyzed the minds, personalities and preferences of our two contestants, and has decided whether each of them will take both boxes, or just the big one. If the contestant is predicted to take only the big box, it will contain a million dollars. If, on the other hand, the greedy contestant is predicted to take both boxes, then the big box contains nothing, and the contestant will get only a thousand—assuming the collective has predicted correctly. Now, we can’t guarantee that the collective’s predictions will be correct…but They’ve Never Been Wrong Yet.
Now, here’s the paradox. Should our contestants take only the big box? If they do, they stand to gain a cool million—and that’s tax-free. So it seems to make sense. However, the fact remains—both boxes already have their contents set and they’re not going to change now. So they might as well take both boxes and get everything there is. So that seems to make sense too.
Which argument is correct? Let’s find out! Contestants, come on out!!
CONTESTANTS plod onto stage, looking confused.
HOST: Which one of you is Contestant 2?
CONTESTANT 2: I am.
HOST: Okay, well… let’s start with you. Do you understand your choices?
CONTESTANT 1: Hey, wait a minute! I’m Contestant 1! I should go first!
HOST: What? Why?
CONTESTANT: Well, because 1 comes before 2. Duh.
HOST: I personally am offended by your attitude. Is Contestant 2 less of a person just because (he/she) has a higher-numbered part than you? Are the Contestant 1s, the Police Officer 1s, the Student 1s of this world so pompous that they must always be the first in everything, the first in line, the first to speak, to laugh, to live… to die!?
CONTESTANT 1: Sheesh. Okay, fine. Let Contestant 2 go first. See if I care.
CONTESTANT 2: Hooray!
HOST: Okay, now that that’s settled, Contestant 2, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself?
CONTESTANT 2 says a little about (himself/herself).
HOST: That’s great, that’s just great! Now, do you understand the choices?
CONTESTANT 2: Yep!
HOST: In that case, think about the problem, and whisper your choice to me when you’re ready. Will you take both boxes, or just the big one?
CONTESTANT 2 thinks and then whispers his/her choice to HOST. NOTE: Really do this, instead of just pretending.
HOST: Okay! We have our choice. Now, let’s retroactively predict what Contestant 2 chose!
CONTESTANT 2: Retroactively??
HOST: Well, sure! Everyone in the audience—based on your impressions and knowledge of this contestant—if you think Contestant 2 chose to take both boxes, clap your hands now!!
Wait for applause.
HOST: Okay. And everyone who thinks Contestant 2 chose to take only the big box, clap now!
Wait for applause.
HOST: Okay, I think we have our answer! Just a moment while we find the right part of the script…
PART 1A: Contestant chooses both boxes, audience predicts both boxes.
HOST: The superintelligent audience predicted that our contestant would
take both boxes, and that’s exactly what (he/she) did! Which
means that you get to feel silly. You get only a thousand dollars,
and the big box… (goes over to lift big box)…is empty! Tough
CONTESTANT 2: Oh well. At least I’m right in principle. Who wants to help me spend a thousand bucks?
CONTESTANT 2 grabs the thousand and dances off stage.
Jump to the Last Section.
PART 1B: Contestant chooses both boxes, audience predicts only the big box.
HOST: The audience predicted that our contestant would take only the
big box. Tell ‘em what you really predicted, contestant!
CONTESTANT 2 (leaping up and down): I’m taking them both! I’m taking them both!
HOST goes over to lift the big box.
HOST: Well, you certainly proved our No Shame Night audience wrong! You get a million dollars in the big box, and a thousand in the small one!
CONTESTANT 2: Wooohooooo!!! I get it all!!! I get it all!!!
CONTESTANT 2 grabs the money, clutches it tight, and rushes off stage.
Jump to the Last Section.
PART 2A: Contestant chooses only the big box, audience predicts both boxes.
HOST: The audience predicted that our contestant would take both boxes…
CONTESTANT 2: I… uh… no. I only wanted to take one box. My poor, ailing grandmother told me not to be selfish… so I only wanted one box… I was hoping maybe to get some money…
HOST slowly goes to box and lifts it.
HOST (guilty): Oh… well, I’m sorry… but there’s no money here. We thought you were going to be greedy…
CONTESTANT 2 (pitiful): Oh, that’s all right. I’ll just take this box and sell it… maybe it’ll pay for half my grandmother’s operation…
CONTESTANT 2 takes the box and leaves, sadly.
Jump to the Last Section.
PART 2B: Contestant chooses only the big box, audience predicts only the big box.
HOST: Our superintelligent audience collective predicts that you would
take only the big box… and that’s exactly what you told me! Congratulations,
Contestant 2! You get… (goes over and picks up the box)…One
CONTESTANT 2: Woohoo yeah-huh!! Yeah, baby! Way to throw logic out the window and go with reeeeesults! Bhooo-yeah!
HOST: Aw, take your mil and get outta here.
CONTESTANT runs to money, picks it up, and dances off stage.
Continue to the Last Section.
HOST: Well, that was certainly fun. Let’s go to our second contestant—
CONTEST 1 (annoyed): First.
HOST: Yeah, sure, whatever. First. You saw what happened before. Whisper in my ear what you choose.
CONTESTANT 1 pretends to whisper in HOST’s ear.
HOST: Okay! now, audience! You know how it goes! Everyone who thinks this contestant is going to take only the big box, clap now!
Waits for applause.
HOST: Okay, and everyone who thinks this contestant will take both boxes, clap now!
HOST claps and cheers really loudly while the audience claps.
HOST: Okay! I think that was pretty obvious… the collective predicted you would take both boxes.
CONTESTANT 1: Ummmm…
HOST: What did you really choose?
CONTESTANT 1 (sullen): Why are you doing this to me?
HOST: Just answer the question.
CONTESTANT 1 (low angry voice): I chose only the big box.
HOST: Oh, did you! Well, it looks like you’re out of luck. You see…(goes to box)…There’s nothing IN the box! Stupiiid!! Hahahaa!
CONTESTANT 1: This is ridiculous! Your collective is supposed to know what I chose, not to punish me by predicting wrong!
HOST: Hey, thy tried their best. I mean, obviously, the best choice is to take both boxes. The other one’s still standing over there… you could’ve had that. But the trick is to be the sort of person who would only take one.
CONTESTANT 1: To be that kind of person, and yet take both of them?
CONTESTANT 1: But I just reasoned that if I got a million, great, and if I got nothing, I could at least embarrass you in public.
HOST: Ah. Well, you see, the real source of the paradox comes from the fact that this puzzle is not addressed to an impersonal puzzle-solving mind, like most puzzles are. This puzzle makes assumptions about the personality of the chooser. It’s designed to make you think you want to take the big box alone… but the real answer is to take both, regardless of which personality type you actually have. For other opinions, however, see the July 1973 issue of Scientific American.
CONTESTANT 1: Oh yeah!?!?! (Pulling coat open) Well, here’s a riddle for you, Host Man! I’ve got two sticks of dynamite in my coat, ready to go off! You can choose to have me explode them both, or only one of them! But if I predicted you would choose only one stick, it’ll kill everyone in this room! If I predicted you would choose them both, they’ll only be strong enough to maim and disfigure most of you. What’ll it be?
HOST: Ah, well. That’s a very interesting quandary. Couldn’t it wait until next show?
CONTESTANT 1 (growling): It’s logically equivalent.
HOST: I guess you might say that…
CONTESTANT 1: So what’re you going to do?
HOST: I have an ace up my sleeve you’ve forgotten about!
CONTESTANT 1: Huh? What?
HOST runs to ELF.
HOST: Say The End! Say The End!
CONTESTANT 1: What??
Uh… The End! The End!! THE END!!!