Not everyone knows what you know

Posted in Reviews at 17:45 by RjZ

“Five pieces of coal, a carrot and a scarf are lying on the lawn. Nobody put them on the lawn but there is a perfectly logical reason for them being there. What is it?”

That’s a rather easy one. You can probably guess without even asking any questions. Sometimes these “Lateral Thinking Puzzles” can be quite a bit more difficult. The quizmaster will answer your questions only with “yes”, “no”, or “irrelevant” and somehow you slowly piece together the story behind this odd situation.

“One night during the Second World War, an allied bomber was on a mission over Germany. The plane was in perfect condition and everything on it worked properly. When it had reached the target, the pilot ordered the bomb doors open. They opened. He then ordered the bombs released. They were released. But the bombs did not fall from the plane. Why should this be so?”

They really were released and neither was the crew surprised by this nor did anything malfunction, but still the bombs remained in the plane. Had they been on the ground back in England when they tried this, the bombs would have fallen from the plane. Got it yet?

These puzzles are truly logical and involve little or no word play. But they require “lateral thinking” which is a phrase coined to describe the non-linear problem solving you’ll need to put everything together. There’s a logical explanation of course, but it’s not the kind of answer that follows 1-2-3 from the question.

I first learned about these puzzles from my new boss, while I was living in Holland. He was an American and he loved these puzzles and knew many of them by heart. I liked them too, but when I tried them with friends and colleagues I noticed a problem in many of them. It turns out that many of them have a cultural bias. You have to know something about an custom or activity that clues you into what’s really going on in the story but that activity might not be practiced everywhere.

Without spoiling the questions above, the first one might be tougher if you live in, say, India, or Thailand. The second one is pretty reasonable, but it helps the process if you can at least picture a WWII airplane.

Still trying some these out and having them fall so flat with my intended audience was a great lesson in assumptions. It’s certainly easy to assume that someone ought to know something but that doesn’t make it so. But imagining what is not obvious to someone else requires you to really step out of your own skin and into someone else’s. Turns out that’s a handy skill to have.

For more of these puzzles, pick up the book Lateral Thinking Puzzlers by Paul Sloane. If you didn’t already figure out the examples above, feel free to ask yes-or-no questions in the comments and we’ll solve them right here.


  1. Amy said,

    December 9, 2006 at 8:18

    I have the first one, MAY have the second. I’ll stay tuned…

  2. Aaron said,

    December 9, 2006 at 11:44

    I have the first one also…as to the second, I don’t think this is the answer so I’ll ask…was the plane flying upside down?

  3. RjZ said,

    December 9, 2006 at 13:57

    Smart one, that Aaron. Got it on the first question.

    Well, alright, how about another one then. This one is easy too and it’s a classic. You may have heard it already–if you have, sit on your hands this time and let everyone someone else play for a change:

    “A man lives on the tenth floor of a building. Everyday, he takes the elevator to the first floor to go to work or to go shopping. When he returns he always takes the elevator to the seventh floor and then walks the remaining flights of stairs to his apartment on the tenth floor. Why does he do this?”

    The elevator works just fine, by the way. It’s not broken in any way.

  4. Neuromancer said,

    December 9, 2006 at 17:34

    Why are you so disappointed with your life? What you are searching for is already within you. Stop trying so hard, and enjoy what you have.

  5. Aaron said,

    December 10, 2006 at 2:49

    Sorry about that…I didn’t think it was the answer they wanted. The elevator problem baffles me after one reading but less so than the Neuromancipation Proclamation. I never got the impression that you were disapointed with your life, but maybe these lateral thinking puzzles are a cry for help I never noticed.

    Either that or he/she has given us a terribly difficult lateral thinking puzzle to solve. If this is the case allow me to ask a few yes/no questions:

    Does the search involve a raccoon?
    Is the trying as hard as say…adamantine?
    Is that comment supposed to have anything to do with this post?

  6. RjZ said,

    December 11, 2006 at 16:54

    Really, only Neuromancer (whose post, I was sure was spam, except that it had none of the hallmarks of spam, such as links, so I posted it) can really answer your questions about his puzzle.

  7. Aaron said,

    December 11, 2006 at 17:33

    hmmm…I guess I’ve had a couple like that as well. Although don’t spammers usually hit posts that have been up for awhile and have a chance to come up with search engines?

    To your puzzle then…Does the man work in the same building?

  8. RjZ said,

    December 11, 2006 at 17:37

    No, the man does not work in the same building. He really leaves and returns everyday and really uses the elevator. It’s just that for some reason, he exits at the 7th floor and takes the stairs the rest of the way up.

  9. Aaron said,

    December 12, 2006 at 7:53

    Does he HAVE(as opposed to WANT) to get off on the 7th floor?

  10. RjZ said,

    December 12, 2006 at 8:53

    Pretty much.

  11. tim r said,

    December 12, 2006 at 20:02

    if thinking outside the box interests you, may I recommend “orbiting the giant hairball” and the “happy mutant handbook”… two very interesting, very inspiring divergent thinkers.

  12. Amy said,

    December 24, 2006 at 7:42

    Where’s the man’s mailbox located? Any remote chance it’s on the 7th floor?

  13. RjZ said,

    December 27, 2006 at 8:23

    His mail box is on the first floor. Note: above we found out he pretty much has to get out on the 7th floor. It’s not just to get his mail or to visit a friend. That’s not it. Keep trying!

  14. Mark said,

    December 27, 2006 at 19:07

    Does he like lollipops?

  15. RjZ said,

    December 27, 2006 at 23:03

    He may, but that isn’t the reason he gets out at the 7th floor.

  16. Aaron said,

    December 29, 2006 at 19:00

    I had thought that perhaps there was a really attractive woman on the 7th floor, but decided that probably wasn’t the reason. But how about this…are 3 of the floors in the building called something else, like the ground floor, mezzanine, etc. so that even though he lives on the 10th floor of the building, it is in fact called the 7th floor? He would still have to walk the remaining stairs…which would of course be 0.

  17. Al said,

    January 3, 2007 at 16:18

    Seems like everyone’s coming up a little short for the second answer…

    can he go all the way to the 10th floor when it rains?

  18. RjZ said,

    January 3, 2007 at 16:20

    Sounds like you might know this one somehow, Al, but no, not when it rains.

  19. Aaron said,

    January 4, 2007 at 8:07

    Is it a normal apartment building?

  20. RjZ said,

    January 4, 2007 at 8:29

    There is nothing strange about the apartment building and indeed, other residents ride the elevator regularly all the way up to the 10th floor.

  21. Aaron said,

    January 5, 2007 at 10:46

    Is there something strange about his apartment?

  22. RjZ said,

    January 5, 2007 at 11:22


  23. Al said,

    January 25, 2007 at 11:28

    I think I do know, but don’t want to spoil the answer. What I meant about the rain is that perhaps an umbrella would be useful in enabling him to get to the 10th floor in the elevator…

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