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What would be a nice short expression to describe a choice which isn't really one, in that all of its possible outcomes are ultimately equivalent despite being presented as different?

My first thought was "false choice", but this turns out to have a different meaning, and my next idea was "empty choice" which doesn't seem to exist. Does anyone know of such an expression?

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Insufficient research? Maybe. –  Kris Sep 7 '12 at 6:53
Also see question #38243 or question #60212 –  jwpat7 Sep 7 '12 at 10:29
In reviewing this question, I have Hobson's Choice... –  Andrew Sep 22 '12 at 5:46

8 Answers 8

up vote 18 down vote accepted


Your choice is moot; whatever you pick, the outcome will be the same.

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I like this, hadn't thought of it. +1 and I will accept it if nothing else is suggested. –  Thomas Sep 7 '12 at 7:12
Note, while many other suggestions give a choice that is unimportant due to equality of options or them leading to one outcome, or lack of information on outcome, "moot" may mean totally irrelevant, for example you choose between two options, of which both are then discarded and a third one picked without you having any say in it, or you are given a choice while the outcome is already fixed and your choice can't affect it either way. –  SF. Sep 7 '12 at 11:27
I've always understood "moot" to have the connotation of "no longer relevant, overcome by events". Like, "Whether you want the job is a moot point, because they've already hired someone else" or "Who you vote for is a moot issue, because Mr Jones already has more than enough votes to win." –  Jay Sep 7 '12 at 14:22
Moot traditionally means that it's debatable, unclear, or unsettled. "Whether raising our prices will save the business is a moot point. Do we want to tackle this issue now?" More commonly though, it means that it's of little importance to the task at hand, or that it's purely academic. "Whether raising our prices will save the business is a moot point, we're trying to figure out what to get for lunch." –  Dean Sep 7 '12 at 15:40
@Dean: while "traditionally" it does, I have yet to hear it in common speech in other context than "outside the point"/"meaningless". You can argue, you can weight it, this won't affect the outcome either way. I believe this use is the origin of the nickname of the 4chan's admin. Who's the 4chan admin? It's Moot... –  SF. Sep 7 '12 at 23:35

The term that should most-thoroughly suit your need is

Catch 22

The term is very common in common usage, and means precisely what you're asking for (instead of, no offense to @SF, 'moot' which means an irrelevant, due to the past-tense implication of the word. A catch 22 has no implicit or explicit temporal locus.

This fits the question, because when "all of possible outcomes are ultimately equivalent despite being presented as different" the reason for the equivalency stems from "contradictory constraints or rules" (Catch 22) which, generally, were not initially seen because of the poor deductive powers of someone involved.

The situation in Heller's novel, Catch 22, is identical to the question:

any pilot requesting a psych evaluation, hoping to be found not sane enough to fly (and thereby escape dangerous missions) would thereby demonstrate his sanity

There are two choices (on the part of the doctor):

  1. the pilot is insane
  2. the pilot is sane

but actually #1 is the same as #2 in this context. The choice of sanity really isn't a choice. It's a Catch-22

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@Andrew Leach thinks "this one isn't Catch 22", though. –  Kris Sep 18 '12 at 11:18
@Kris I can't help it if AndrewLeach can't make this discernment. I've updated my answer with a careful explanation. –  New Alexandria Sep 18 '12 at 15:04

The term I have always used is 'an illusion of choice', such as when you ask a child "would you like to go to bed at the end of this show or in half an hour?" when the show ends in half an hour.

The choice appears to be a valid choice but both options are functionally equivalent.

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This answer could be improved by providing supporting facts, references, or citing your specific expertise. Otherwise it is only an opinion, not an answer. –  MετάEd Sep 8 '12 at 19:31

It's as broad as it is long.

Idiom Definition for 'It's as broad as it is long': Used to express that it is impossible to decide between two options because they're equal.

The expression (for me at least) conjures the mental image of two equidistant ways round the edges of a rectangular block or field.

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Sorry - pasting the link isn't working. –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 7 '12 at 8:46
Fixed link .... –  Andrew Leach Sep 7 '12 at 9:55
Thank you, Andrew. –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 7 '12 at 19:56

The phrase “six of one, half a dozen of the other” is often used to describe such a choice. The idea is that if you take alternative A, you have a net benefit of six; while if you choose alternative B, it's half a dozen.

The choice may also be called a toss-up, which wiktionary defines as “A decision in which neither choice is clearly favorable or unfavorable, or for which the outcome does not matter”.

The colloquial phrase “It don't make no nevermind” might also be used of such a choice. Finally, note that the paradox of Buridan's ass is slightly more relevant (because it relates to a choice between two equally valuable outcomes) than is Morton's fork.

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Burdian's ass paradox is much more about how bad indecision is than about stating equality of choices. "Toss up" may be a decision with completely opposite outcomes but one that must be made blindly - you get two boxes, one contains fortune, the other is empty, your choice is a toss-up because you have no clue which is which. –  SF. Sep 7 '12 at 11:20
@SF., do you have any source that says a toss-up is blind? I don't remember having ever heard it so used. Instead, picture two schemers, who have mapped out lots of routes to a target; one says, “Looks like it's six of one...” and the other says, “Yeah, same difference whether we go around the barn or back, it's a toss-up, you choose.” –  jwpat7 Sep 7 '12 at 18:32
for me, the mental image is connected with a coin toss. It doesn't have to mean what I said, it's just a possible/likely application. You can toss a coin about two choices with the same outcome, or you can toss a coin about two choices about which you don't know enough. You see two paths to the target, you know one is much longer than the other - but it's still a toss-up, because you don't know which. –  SF. Sep 7 '12 at 23:25

If you must make a choice, but every alternative leads to the same outcome (that is, walking away is not an option), then it is Morton's Fork. It appears to be called a fork because you must choose one of the tines and you always end up at the handle.

There is also no-win situation, which may more familiar.

There's a list of similar situations under Catch-22 in Wikipedia (but this one isn't Catch 22).

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The term used in the UK is Hobson's choice. It has its origin in one Tobias Hobson who let out horses, and is said, in the OED, 'to have compelled customers to take the horse which happened to be next the stable-door, or go without.'

If not choosing either is not an option, then you might be speaking simply of a dilemma, 'A choice between two (or, loosely, several) alternatives, which are or appear equally unfavourable' (OED).

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From the Wikipedia page, Hobson's choice allows the person to refuse to take the option, so this isn't quite what I am looking for (all its possible outcomes i.e. the person is forced to "choose" this option). But the page links to Morton's Fork which seems to be closer to what I need? –  Thomas Sep 7 '12 at 6:53
@Thomas: See my edit. I've not heard of 'Morgan's fork', and I'd be surprised if many others have, so it may not be wise to use it. –  Barrie England Sep 7 '12 at 7:03
A dilemma is a good one, but it still conveys the notion of "equally unfavourable" instead of plain "equivalent" - close, though. –  Thomas Sep 7 '12 at 7:31
A dilemma is often a very difficult choice - the options are not equally unfavorable, they are differently unfavorable (but the degree is unclear) and the dilemma is all about problems in judging them with deep insight. –  SF. Sep 7 '12 at 11:29

Hobson's Choice

A Hobson's choice is a free choice in which only one option is offered. As a person may refuse to take that option, the choice is therefore between taking the option or not; "take it or leave it". The phrase is said to originate with Thomas Hobson (1544–1631), a livery stable owner in Cambridge, England. To rotate the use of his horses, he offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in the stall nearest the door or taking none at all.

These days, they could be calling it the unchoice, a la unconference.

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We await an unmoot. –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 7 '12 at 8:08
+1. Hobson's choice is the term I learned for simple card tricks, where you give the spectator the illusion of choice. Pick A or B! And either way, you toss away A and keep B. –  TRiG Sep 7 '12 at 15:45
@TRig: "You picked A, so we discard it." "You picked B, so we keep it." –  SF. Sep 7 '12 at 23:30
Heads I win; tails you lose. –  Kris Sep 8 '12 at 12:29
@SF. Exactly what I meant. –  TRiG Sep 9 '12 at 21:44

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