Conundrums are problems of several types. They may be riddles with a pun for an answer. They may be puzzling problems that are complicated with intricate features. And they may be presented in the fashion of a rhetorical question, but with only conjecture for an answer.
Conundrums create paralyzing paradoxes or dilemmas. Psychologically, they are similar to approach-approach conflicts, such as a conflict known as Buridan’s ass, which was posed by fourteenth-century philosopher Jean Buridan. An ass forced to choose between two equally luscious piles of hay that are equidistant starves to death. This is similar to the Malthusian dilemma, which states that helping the poor (humanitarian) may be increasing starvation (inhuman) when food supplies grow arithmetically while population grows geometrically.
The word conundrum is often used cynically to describe a puzzle that will probably never be solved because of a lack of data. The word conundrum is also used to describe a paradoxically difficult problem, such as the problem faced by economists in the second half of the twentieth century of how to achieve full employment without inflation.
Conundrums are puzzles that call for lateral thinking. In traditional logic puzzles an array chart can be used to sift through the possibilities in a systematic way. In lateral thinking, puzzles are not solved by a linear method but more in the fashion of brainstorming. Every possible piece of the riddle is identified and all solutions are posed as hypotheses with the mostly likely tested first.
Unlike traditional logic puzzles, conundrums use riddles with plays on words that seek to mystify or mislead, or a conundrum may pose a fanciful question that is answered with a pun. For example, the chicken conundrum: which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Conundrums pose problems that seem to defy solution because the problem is in the form of a dilemma wrapped in a riddle. Businesses, voluntary organizations, and other human enterprises often face problems that seem to be insolvable riddles. Should criminal wrongdoing be reported so that justice can be done, but also damage the institution by the exposure? What should be the treatment dilemmas for patients with complicated medical conditions when action “A” kills and inaction kills.
The structure of scientific revolutions has been one in which anomalies do not match the prevailing model. Eventually the anomalies defy the orthodox theory and create a conundrum. How is it possible for things to be both this and not this? What illumination travels like a wave and like a packet, but cannot be simultaneously both? Daylight dancing and waving until it delivers its quantum packets.
In the conundrums faced by political and economic decision-makers, the “play” aspect of conundrums suggests that game theories may help with solutions. Presumptions are abandoned and solutions are sought freely.
SEE ALSO Economics; Kuhn, Thomas; Mystification; Paradigm; Revolutions, Scientific
Katz, Leo. 1987. Bad Acts and Guilty Minds: Conundrums of the Criminal Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kendzior, Lawrence J. 2004. Conundrum: The Challenge of Execution in Middle-Market Companies. New York: iUniverse, Inc.
Andrew J. Waskey
co·nun·drum / kəˈnəndrəm/ • n. (pl. -drums ) a confusing and difficult problem or question. ∎ a question asked for amusement, typically one with a pun in its answer; a riddle. ORIGIN: late 16th cent.: of unknown origin, but first recorded in a work by Thomas Nashe, as a term of abuse for a crank or pedant, later coming to denote a whim or fancy, also a pun. Current senses date from the late 17th cent.