10 Paradoxes That Will Twist Your Mind

  • December 14, 2017
  • 4-Minute Read

Paradoxes can either be real observations about the world and our lives or invalidated arguments, but they are valuable in one very important aspect—they nourish critical thinking. These are just a few of the seemingly infinite number of paradoxes that you will find through your life, but they will give you a solid foundation on which to base your thinking.

1. Catch-22

Coined by the author Joseph Heller in 1961 novel of the same name. A catch-22 is a situation in which a person cannot escape because of contradictory rules. For example, a job posting will only accept a person with previous experience, but in order to get any experience one would need to get the job.

2. Friendship Paradox

The Friendship Paradox is a phenomenon first observed by a sociologist called Scott L. Feld, which says that most people have fewer friends than their friends have. In other words, people with a lot of friends are more likely to be friends with you, while people with fewer friends are out in the wild.

3. Zeno's Paradox

Zeno of Elea (450 BCE) is credited with creating several paradoxes, but the best known and thus entitled Zeno's Paradox is the paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles, which Achilles is challenged to a race by a tortoise and apparently concedes the race to the following argument presented by the Tortoise...

Suppose the tortoise has a head start of 10 meters, while Achilles moves 10 meters to catch up, the tortoise moves 1 meter. Then, when he moves 1 meter to catch up again, the tortoise moves 10 centimeters. Then again when he moves 10 centimeters the tortoise moves 1 centimeter, and so on forever. Thus Achilles never catches up to the tortoise.

Well, this paradox is not actually real because there are limits of how small you can go, at some point they would have to be moving distances smaller than an atom. The truth is more like this: while Achilles moves 10 meters, the tortoise moves 1 meter. While the tortoise is in its 12th meter achilles is in its 20th and so on, there is no slowing down.

4. Abilene Paradox

In this paradox, a group of people decides on a course of action that in reality no one is in favor because they erroneously believe that other members of the group are in favor. The term was introduced by the management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his 1974 article “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement”.

5. Navigation Paradox

This is another real phenomenon, which states that the increased navigational precision incurred by GPS navigation has enabled craft to follow paths that are more likely to be occupied by other craft when no coordination is present. Most notably the shortest distance between two points.

6. Prevention Paradox

The prevention paradox describes the seemingly contradictory situation where the majority of cases of a disease come from a population of below moderate risk of that disease, and only a minority of cases come from the high risk population. This is actually because the high risk population is small and the low to moderate risk population is large.

7. Willpower Paradox

The willpower paradox describes the idea that a person may do a thing a lot better when not focusing so much on doing it.

8. Fermi Paradox

Named after the physicist Enrico Fermi, describes the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence and high probability for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. Consider the following:

  • There are billions of stars in the galaxy that are similar to our sun, many of which are billions of years older than Earth;
  • Many of these stars have Earth-like planets, therefore prone to developing intelligent life;
  • Many of these intelligent life forms, having billions of years of head start, should have shown themselves by now.

So, where are they?

9. Peto's Paradox

Named after Richard Peto, states that the incidence of cancer doesn't seem to correlate with the number of cells in an organism. For example, the incidence of cancer in humans is much higher than the incidence of cancer in whales, even though the whales have a lot more cells than a human being.

In 2014 a paper stated that larger organisms have slower and bigger cells with lower energy turnover, significantly reducing the risk of cancer.

10. Paradox of Hedonism

Similar to the Willpower Paradox, it says that it is much more difficult to attain pleasure or happiness directly than indirectly.

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself.” — Viktor Frankl