In some situations, someone may make a request or ask a favor while fully knowing that the other party is highly unlikely to agree. This is often done to shift the blame or to justify oneself. For example, if I feel unsuccessful in life, I might make some unreasonable requests of people in authority. When I am denied, I can then easily blame them for my situation instead of myself.

In such situations, it may also happen that in the unlikely event of the other party accepting the proposer's terms (often in the case of an argument between relatives or spouses), the proposer gets annoyed because the real goal was not the fulfillment of the request, but securing an excuse to get angry at being refused.

Other examples can be found in politics when an unreasonable demand is being made with the expectation that it will be refused, in order to make it possible to rally other people to one's cause against the 'oppressors'.

Is there a phrase or idiom for such a situation, or for a person who often does this? I'm not seeking to cover situations where someone makes themselves into a victim or martyr: the focus is the unreasonable request itself, which is made mostly to enable oneself to feel entitled and to fuel one's own sense of dissatisfaction.

  • Also see stalking horse sense 3, and ploy (“A tactic, strategy, or gimmick” — en.wiktionary), Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 22:21
  • In U.S. politics a poison pill bill is expected to be voted down, but is nonetheless offered up with political gain being the ulterior motive.
    – D Krueger
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 8:23

5 Answers 5


You aren't thinking of a Hobson's Choice by any chance are you? Which is offering multiple choices but really there is only one, so it's not a choice at all. "Tea and cake, or death!" Very few would choose death.


I would call them "impossible requests" or, as you have said, "unreasonable requests". One could say "They intentionally made impossible requests in order to stall the peace process."


Pro Forma--made or carried out in a perfunctory manner or as a formality (Merriam-Webster.com). 'The meeting was strictly pro forma, since the decision had already been made.' Provocative--serving or tending to provoke, excite or stimulate (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary)--'His request was provocative because his only purpose was to elicit an emotional response.'


Depending on the exact context, you might call such a demand, a request for a favour (or even an ultimatum) either:

  • a spurious pretext [to do/for doing something],
  • an excuse [to do/for doing something], or
  • an invented reason [to do/for doing something].

As I read your question, it was hard for me to pin down exactly what you were asking for.

A good one would be "covering one's ass", in that the asker may be simply making the request to ensure they aren't blamed for an issue later on; however, this could be used for simple correspondence, such as a written memo, which disseminates information which may have been verbally or informally announced prior to the memo's more permanent nature.

Depending on the context, one could use "Catch-22", from the novel of the same name, in which "Catch-22" was a fictitious military order leaving the pilots in a hopeless situation. It is used today to refer to any impossible situation.

One could also use "suicide mission" for what is being asked.

As for labeling the person making the request, I might call them "unreasonable". An alternative could be "politician", if you're a bit cynical and wanting to describe someone who isn't actually a government figure.

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