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What is Hobson's Choice?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A Hobson's Choice is a a choice in which someone is offered the opportunity to decide between two distasteful options. In reality, a Hobson's Choice is not a choice at all, since the individual must decide upon the lesser of two evils, or settle for something rather than nothing. The term is often used in a situation where someone has the illusion of choice, but is not actually able to exercise free will. One of the most classic examples of the Hobson's Choice is Henry Ford's marketing campaign for the Model T, in which he famously said that consumers could “have any color they want, as long as it's black.”

The term originates from an actual person, Thomas Hobson, who ran a livery stable in Cambridge, England, in the early 1600s. In an attempt to keep up stable rotation so that his horses were not overused, he said that customers could take the horse closest to the door of the stable, or none. The phrase “take that or none” was immortalized in a 1688 poem by Thomas Ward, who also referred to “Hobson's Choice” in the poem.

Often, Hobson's Choice is an option between something or nothing. When asked to choose between an unsatisfactory thing and nothing at all, many people will settle for something unsatisfactory, but they have not truly made a choice. The term is often used to find the situation in which homeless people find themselves, where they are offered no real options, merely the illusion of choices. This type of Hobson's Choice is sometimes used to push people into a decision, especially in marketing.

Another type of Hobson's choice is the option of two unpleasant things. The classic phrase “your money or your life” is an example of a Hobson's Choice, because presumably the victim does not want to give up either. Forced to choose between the two, many victims choose to give up their money. This is not, of course, a real choice at all, it is a demand masquerading as an option.

In marketing, the concept of Hobson's Choice is often used to push people into purchasing products or reaching a quick decision. Prospective purchasers of real estate, for example, might be told that another couple is making a bid on a house, so they need to move quickly or end up with nothing. Many marketing professionals are skilled at forcing their clients into these types of situations while keeping the clients unaware, while others are blatant about offering a Hobson's Choice.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By truman12 — On Nov 04, 2011

Hobson's choice kind of sounds like a catch 22. It was always my understanding that this meant you would have a negative outcome no matter what you choose. Damned if you do damned if you don't as they say.

These are just two examples but I bet there are tons of different expressions across cultures that relate this same sentiment. It seems to be a pretty common feature of the human experience. More often than not you only have bad choices, or no choices at all. That is a story as old as humans themselves.

By backdraft — On Nov 04, 2011

I feel like I am grappling with a hobson's choice right now. I have had this thing going with this girl for a few months now. She recently moved to another city for a job but there are still a lot of lingering feelings.

We have exchanged calls and texts and e-mails and a few of them have gotten really emotional. She has even talked about moving back here to be with me.

Here is the tricky part. I like this girl, but I know that we wouldn't work out in the long run. I don't want to hurt her and make her feel like our time together was a waste, but I also want to let her know that we cannot be together and she should not move back here. I am so torn. How do I be a nice guy and do a mean thing?

By manykitties2 — On Nov 03, 2011

I had a professor who thought it would be fun to make us choose from the lesser of two evils as it were, by forcing us to choose between a huge final project and writing a ridiculously long essay. Both options were pretty bad when it came down to it, but I suppose there was some benefit in being able to pick your poison.

I suppose our university liked the idea of the students having some individual choice within the courses, although they did it in the most unpleasant way possible. Who knows, perhaps my professor knew all about Hobson's Choice when he was making our course outline.

By lonelygod — On Nov 02, 2011

My mother used to love to give me the something bad or nothing at all option when it came to dinner time. She knew what dishes I hated but still made them anyway so there was very little wriggle room at our house about what to eat.

I understand why she did what she did now, but back then I thought she was just being mean. It never occurred to me that my childhood dislike of vegetable stir fry and other healthy dishes was just me being ungrateful. Basically my mom wouldn't make junk for dinner, and told me to eat what she made or starve. I of course usually ate the provider's choice.

By Kat919 — On Nov 01, 2011

@EdRick - Ah, those early childhood traumas. I bet in your memory, you always got stuck with orange or green. I had a similar experience with my first-grade teacher that has stuck with me.

She was giving out candy one day and she had several kinds: I know peppermints were one, and perhaps there were also Hershey kisses and those little strawberry candies. At any rate, I had held my hand up for each and every one as it was offered, and I got overlooked every time. Finally, all she had left was butterscotch, and I was offered butterscotch or nothing.

Well, I don't like butterscotch, and I started to cry because I didn't get any good candy and was sent into the hall for being an ungrateful little wretch.

I have actually found some good alternatives to cable, like Netflix streaming, a digital antenna for local stations, etc. I often feel like elections are a bit of Hobson's choice, but without even the option of "nothing." You're faced with two candidates, both of whom have often dishonored themselves, and you can't say "Neither, thanks."

By EdRick — On Nov 01, 2011

I didn't know this had a name! I encountered this at a very young age. I had a babysitter (a painful experience; I shudder just thinking about it), a stay-at-home mom who would have other children over to her house.

She used to give us popsicles for snacks and she would never let us choose a flavor. She would say, "You git what you git and you don't throw a fit." I'm sure she didn't know it was a Hobson's choice she was offering, but there it was.

I think cable companies are the best example of a Hobson's choice in modern life. They're so often the only game in town; you have to take what they're offering or nothing at all.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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