· The Question: There is an island upon which a tribe resides. The tribe consists of 1000 people, 100 of which are blue-eyed and 900 of which are brown-eyed. Yet, their religion forbids them to know their own eye color, or even to discuss the topic; thus, one resident can see the eye colors of all other residents but has no way of discovering his own (there are no reflective surfaces). If a tribesperson does discover his or her own eye color, then their religion compels them to commit ritual suicide at noon the following day in the village square for all to witness. All the tribespeople are highly logical, highly devout, and they all know that each other is also highly logical and highly devout. One day, a blue-eyed foreigner visits to the island and wins the complete trust of the tribe. One evening, he addresses the entire tribe to thank them for their hospitality. However, not knowing the customs, the foreigner makes the mistake of mentioning eye color in his address, mentioning in his address “how unusual it is to see another blue-eyed person like myself in this region of the world”. What effect, if anything, does this faux pas have on the tribe?
What makes this question interesting is that there is one convincing argument that the traveler’s comments have no effect, and another convincing argument that the traveler’s comment will have a dramatic effect. Which argument is true – and what is the logical flaw in the other argument? (I recommend that you try reaching your own conclusions first, before reading either of the two arguments).
There are also some amusing variants for this problem, which I recommend reading after solving the above puzzle.