In 1487, John Morton was appointed to the post of Lord Chancellor by English King Henry VII. At that time the Lord Chancellor served as Keeper of the Great Seal (which was like keeping safe the King’s signature), spiritual advisor or chaplain, and general advisor. Henry VII found himself short on funds and so it fell to John Morton to come up with a plan to replenish the royal checking account. John’s plan was as simple as it was unjust: tax everyone more, no exemptions — based on the following justification.
If the subject is seen to live frugally, tell him because he is clearly a money saver of great ability, he can afford to give generously to the King. If, however, the subject lives a life of great extravagance, tell him he, too, can afford to give largely, the proof of his opulence being evident in his expenditure. –John Morton
According to the Oxford dictionary:
‘A dilemma, especially one in which both choices are equally undesirable’ is known as Morton’s Fork. And who among us has not at one time found ourselves at the wrong end of Mr. Morton’s fork?
Feeling limited to only 2 alternatives, an either/or scenario, is a situation psychologists call a false dilemma or the fallacy of false choice. We oversimplify a situation and become convinced that there are only two mutually exclusive options. Faced with two equally unappealing choices, what is one to do? Most situations have a myriad of possible choices and outcomes, and there is at least one additional option. With both options of the false dilemma leading to bad outcomes, the only logical solution is to find a third way.
Here are a few examples of false dilemmas:
You are either with me or against me. (Relationships are able to flourish even when people do not agree. Dissenting opinions don’t mean that the friendship is over.)
If we don’t raise taxes our government will go bankrupt. (Alternatively, the government could cut spending.)
A child egregiously misbehaved and they have a fun, four day school trip coming up. The parent feels that letting them go on the trip would be akin to communicating that what they did was going unpunished, but in fact the parent wants the child to have the wonderful experience of the trip and feels stuck between choices. (Narrowing their view to only the trip falsely limits the array of consequences. The parent could limit another activity upon their return.)
It all seems so simple on paper, but narrowing our options to a false dilemma is something that we have all done from time to time, and when we are looking through the narrow lens of our hyper-focus, we can’t see the other simple options that abound. Widen your view, look for alternative methods and means of getting a more favorable outcome. Find an exception to the rule. Enlist the help of a trusted friend or mentor. We’re only stuck between a rock and a hard place because we put ourselves there!
Now that you are clear about Morton’s Fork and the False Dilemma, look around at the choices that are offered to you from businesses, advertising, salespeople and politicians. Narrowing choices down to an either/or option is a proven sales technique and an effective way to influence thinking and behavior.
Another aspect of Morton’s Fork is being aware of how we present options to others. Purposely presenting someone with a false dilemma is effective manipulative marketing. However, if you find yourself in a place of authority on a person to person level, be mindful of how you offer choices and assure that there is at least one favorable choice. No one likes to feel cornered or bullied.
Thought Into Action
Do you feel like you’re caught between two bad options? Broaden your view! Find a third way.