Suppose you have the choice of receiving a $20 bill or a $100 bill, which will you opt for, you clever financier, you? Wait! There's a catch. The same offer is being made to 999 other people. And if more than 200 of you long reachers go for the $100 bill, nobody gets anything.
Will the rules of the game inspire you to be cautious, requesting the sure-thing $20? Or will you deviously assume that at least 800 other people will play it safe, justifying your greedy grab for $100 as a reasonable gamble?
Science '84 magazine wonders. And so the editors have sponsored a contest to discover which way human nature hops when confronted with the $20 vs. $100 dilemma. Read your January '85 issue to find out.
Meanwhile, an essay in the October issue more than hints at which way we ought to choose by producing statistical evidence that the half-a-loaf compromise of the $20 player is a better bet than the all-or-nothing wager of the $100 player. Even the computer says so after testing out all the possible ploys. The results prompt the headline of the article to announce triumphantly: ''Nice Guys Finish First.''
And this is where we get a little lost. How come the $20 bettor automatically qualifies as a ''nice'' guy - in fact, a ''cooperative'' guy? Why does this calculating awareness of other players whose destiny is linked to his destiny deserve to be referred to as ''cooperation''?
The use of the word ''cooperation'' in this context baffles us. We suppose the lesson that selfishness doesn't pay - selfishly speaking - is the beginning of cooperation. But picking a case that measures the virtue of cooperation only in dollars and cents - an $80 differential, to be exact - strikes us as a little cool. Nor does the voice of the computer, crying, ''Cooperate! There's a fatter return,'' exactly carry the moral authority of John the Baptist.
Maybe we're sidling up here to something in the neighborhood of ''Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'' But it's not really a neighborhood; it's more like a parimutuel board.
The truth is, the word ''cooperation'' has always baffled us. In our childhood, ''Cooperate!'' - with the exclamation point like a club - seemed to us synonymous with ''Obey!'' as the command lashed across our naughty moments.
Whenever a statesman reminds us that peace is up to The Other Fellow, we can still hear our third-grade teacher's ultimatum to the class, ''Your cooperation is required'' - with many an or-else floating in the chalk-dust air.
And now the cooperation-endorsers are telling us that collecting the $20 bet called arms agreement is better than winning the $100 bet called nuclear victory - and not living to collect it.
We can't disagree. After the Age of Narcissus or the Me Decade - choose your cliche - maybe we should be satisfied that the word ''cooperation'' is back in good standing.
But neither the schoolmarm's ultimatum nor the gambler's bet captures the essence of cooperation. The heart wants more.
Cooperation is a country that lies somewhere between pure reason and love. Lately we've been neglecting its warmer boundary.
On the subject of cooperation - one of his favorite subjects - the philosopher Martin Buber observed that the ''manifold togetherness'' of individuals merging into a cooperative ''covenant of humanity'' becomes like a ''light kindled from a leaping fire.''
The $100 (or $20) question is this: Can cooperation succeed, even on the simplest practical level, if this passion to join the human race does not become an end in itself - the very substance of cooperation?
We wouldn't bet on it - no matter what the computer says.