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The Danger of the False Choice Presented as Business Ultimatum

A false dilemma [or “false choice”] is a type of informal fallacy in which something is falsely claimed to be an “either/or” situation, when in fact there is at least one additional option. The false dilemma fallacy can also arise simply by accidental omission of additional options rather than by deliberate deception. (Wikipedia)

“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” (Bush, 2001)

(In demanding gifts for the royal treasury), “If a man lives well, he is obviously rich, and if he lives frugally then he must have savings.” (Morton, 1486)

The idea of a false dilemma or a false choice is both widely used and widely criticized in politics. In its worst application, the user “[sets] up two unacceptable extremes that no one is seriously advocating and position yourself as the champion of the reasonable middle ground between these unidentified straw men.” (Marcus, 2011) In its best application, citing it shows that we are being asked to choose between two ideas that are either not mutually exclusive (i.e. they have some overlap but are presented as being totally different) or are not collectively exhaustive (i.e. there are additional options not presented that may be preferable). At its worst, it tries to force an “optimal” middle ground that may not be optimal; at its best, it highlights the need for subtlety and options.

Like most philosophical constructs, it is all about nuance. Used maliciously, it can blind decision makers (be they elected leaders or voters) to potential alternatives or serve as a method of gaslighting. Used ignorantly, it creates a dichotomy that is either inaccurate or does not exist. Using it “well” is more about highlighting that a false choice is being presented either explicitly or implicitly. (Note for clarification:I am not implying that decision making based on a false choice will ever lead to good outcomes.

The false choice also appears in business.

  • I want to launch a new product, but it means I won’t be able to provide the same level of service to my existing customers.
  • I need to hire someone to fill this role, but I don’t have time.
  • If I don’t figure out how to make this advertising medium work, my business will fail.

You will notice that the false choices presented here aren’t phrased the way you are used to seeing them in politics.  In politics, the speaker is usually speaking to someone else they are trying to convince, often a voter. As an entrepreneur, you are likely speaking to yourself. 

This means that the choices may not even be presented as choices at all because your mind might skip straight to conclusion. While that habit deserves its own blog post, I find it helpful to back up when I realize that I’ve jumped to a conclusion and identify what choices I unconsciously made in my mind that led me there.

For the first example, I am torn between investing in the launch of something new versus servicing the customers I already have. I have limited resources/time and providing bad service is not an option. In the short-term, these may be mutually exclusive. But are they in the medium or long run? Could I make plans to ramp down my service-intensive business to carve out time for innovation and investment? Could I find a way to automate or fund a new employee to cover my existing customer needs? The choice here becomes a false one because it assumes that you have to provide the service and that the level of service must remain constant.

The next example falls into a bit of a “chicken and egg” issue: I need more help because I don’t have enough time, but I don’t have time to find more help. This is a trap that many entrepreneurs fall into, but think of it like a racecar driver. I blew a tire on the 20th lap of a 100 lap race. Do I pull into the pit to change it and watch my competitors blow by me? Or do I keep driving, eventually destroying my vehicle, and likely not finishing the race at all. The answer for the driver is obvious – you pull over, slap on a new tire, and get out there! The same applies with any part of your business that is slowing you down or limiting your capacity to move forward. Slowing down to speed up doesn’t doom you to finish last – it likely is the step that allows you to finish the race at all. By finding the time to hire a new employee or to fix a process, you are creating capacity, sustainability and a stronger business overall.

In life and in business, we all face challenges. Some of them are innate to who we are – a mental roadblock or physical limitation that makes life a bit more challenging when compared to others. (But don’t worry, those “others” all have their own things too!). But often, it is some external force that throws a wrench in our plans: a storm destroys a farmer’s crops, a competitor undercuts our prices, customers no longer want our product. 

Whether the hurdle is internal or external, they challenge us both mentally and emotionally. When the challenges are especially grave, they can make our very existence as an individual or company feel threatened. This is where we leap to a false choice. 

  • I make this advertising approach work or I fail. 
  • I convince this group of customers that they need this or I go out of business. 
  • I lose these 10 pounds next month or I give up. 

Outside of the situation, these are obviously not the only options available to us, but in the heat of the moment when something has gone wrong, it is easy to feel cornered by bad choices. Mindfulness work helps us identify and set aside those “lizard brain” responses and instead focus on alternatives. 

  • I find a new way to advertise. 
  • I find new customers or I create a new product. 
  • I find a new way to integrate exercise into my day slowly over time. 

False choices are not rooted solely in logic.  In both politics, business and philosophy, false choices present themselves because of non-exhaustive and incomplete thinking that can be driven by exigency or emotion on the part of the person presenting the false choice or the individual being asked to choose. The next time you find yourself being forced to make an either/or decision or jumping to a conclusion, step back and ask, “Have I evaluated other options? Have I made assumptions that unnecessarily limit what is possible? Am I using all of the right data points?” 

Life is rarely a binary decision – don’t get boxed into one based on the fallacy of the “false choice!”

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Andrea Eaton is a success coach for the Impact Scaling School.