One of the byproducts of being a mentalist and magician is that I love riddles and puzzles. (Although, some who know me well would argue that my love of puzzles and riddles is what drove me to being a magician in the first place.)
And recently on my TikTok account, I bestowed my favourite riddle on to the masses. The riddle is as follows:
Four men buried up to their necks, awaiting execution. Between Man A and Man B is an impenetrable wall; no windows, no doors, and no mirrors. The four men are arranged in a straight line, they can’t move, they can’t turn their heads, and they can only see what’s in front of them (so Man A can see the wall, Man B can see the wall, Man C can see Man B and the wall, and Man D can see Man C, Man B, and the wall). Each of these men are wearing a hat; either a black hat, or a white hat. However, each of the men don’t know and can’t see which hat they are wearing, and they don’t know what order the hats are in. But, all the men do know that there are four men, four hats and there are two hats of each colour.
Now, these men are destined for an execution. But, being a benevolent executioner, the Trigger-Man offers a chance for salvation: If one of the men can correctly guess the colour of their own hat, all four men go free. But, if your guess is wrong, the execution of the four men carries on as planned. If they try and speak to each other, they get executed. So, the men can’t speak to each other, and cannot be incorrect.
After a time, one man calls out, with absolute, one-hundred-per-cent certainty that he can (and does) correctly identify the colour of his own hat. True to his word, the executioner sets the men free.
So, the riddle is: Which man is it, and how does he know?
Ok, I’m going to give you a chance to noodle this one out on your own first. But don’t worry, I’m going to put the answer below.
You’ve almost got it.
Any luck? Give it one more try if you haven’t got it yet.
The answer is below. Are you sure you don’t want to work on it just a little longer?
Ok, here it is.
The man who speaks out is Man C. But, the more interesting part of the answer is why.
Man A and Man B can only see the wall in front of them. So, they have zero information about the men’s hats. However, Man D initially has access to the most information. But since Man D can only see two hats (a white one, and a black one), Man D realizes that because he can see one hat of each colour in front of him, he has a fifty-fifty chance of having a white or black hat on his own head. Therefore, he can’t be sure which hat he’s wearing, and can’t answer. So, Man D stays silent.
It’s the silence from Man D that tips off Man C. Man C realizes that if the two hats in front of Man D were the same colour, Man D would automatically know which hat he’s wearing, and would shout out the correct answer, saving them all. But, because Man D stays silent, Man C realizes that the hat he’s wearing, and the hat that Man B in front of him is wearing must be different, and therefore, Man C realizes he must wearing a black hat, as he can see the white hat on Man B in front of him.
Congratulations! Now that you know the answer, you can bestow this little nugget of frustration on your friends and family.
But there’s a reason why this is my favourite riddle.
Many, many riddles and puzzles that you come across out there are very much a you-vs-it situation. You tackle the problem head-on, and in some way or another, you rely on your own brain power, perseverance, or cunning to work your way around the problem you’ve been presented. But, the Hats riddle has one thing about it that makes it unique:
To solve the puzzle, you need to be able to think outside yourself, and put yourself in the shoes of more than one person. You need to understand what is happening in the heads of someone other than you.
Now, from a practical standpoint, this is a skill that magician like myself needs to have. I need to not only be able to execute whatever trick I’m performing, but I need to understand what every person involved - including me, my volunteers, and every member of the audience - is experiencing while it’s happening. Being able to put myself in the shoes of someone else and myself simultaneously is a crucial skill for my success.
But, it’s bigger than that. This isn’t just a magician skill. It’s a life skill. Being able to empathize with another human being and having the theory of mind to be able to understand what someone is going through, whether it’s a simple bout of indecision, or a massive life-changing event, is a huge part of what makes us human. Which, really, is something I feel all of us need a little more of right now.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go hat shopping.