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L.Srikumar Pai
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Reflections-By Dr Rajan Philips

Hobson’s Choice

( This motivational article was published in Oman Observer , one of the leading Newspapers in Oman. The article is reproduced with the permission of the author )


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Dr.Rajan Philips: Making choices can be a privilege as well as an onerous task. However, at times we have the illusory notion that we are exercising our free will when the real choice is made by somebody else who thrusts it on us either blatantly or subtly. The expression Hobson’s choice aptly conveys this scenario.

A recent experience I had while on vacation triggered my brain cells to look at this lively expression and its interesting origin. I was at a specialist eye care hospital with my son who was keen to undergo a Lasik surgery so that he could do without his power glasses. The efficiency and competence of the specialist doctors and staff as well as the general ambience of the place greatly impressed me.

We were briefed well about the procedures involved and offered two options — a general one and a more expensive customised version. While we waited to hear the relative merits and need for the second option the counselling session came to an abrupt end. They chose the second option for us! It all happened so smoothly and swiftly. In matters of health and well-being of one’s kids you can hardly be niggardly and the decision they made would probably have been ours as well. But the least you would have expected was a briefing on the additional benefits. It was quite akin to the ‘we know better what’s good for your child’ kind of stance that teachers usually adopt with parents.

‘May be, we were not assertive enough’, my wife later speculated. But soon we discovered that many others had also exercised (?) the second option! That was when the phrase ‘Hobson’s choice’ hit me with great impact.

Let us take a quick look at the fascinating story of its origin. Thomas Hobson had a thriving horse rental business in Cambridge, England, around the turn of the 17th century. He had an extensive stable of about 40 horses and therefore seemingly offered a wide choice to his customers who were mainly Cambridge University students. He felt they were rough riders and to rotate the use of his horses and preserve their health he offered them the choice of either taking the horse in the stall nearest the door or taking none at all. That was the birth of ‘Hobson’s choice!’ The usage gained proverbial status within thirty years of Hobson’s death.

Henry Ford sold his popular Ford Model T cars applying ‘Hobson’s choice’ principle. He declared: The customers can have choice of “any colour... so long as it is black”. The rapid production of the model required quick-drying paint, which from 1915-1925 was available in only one colour — black. Other colours had to be ordered specially.

The classic phrase “your money or your life” in tales of crime and highway robberies, is another curious example of Hobson’s choice in action. In marketing, ‘dynamic salespersons’ employ the concept to push people into buying products and services they never intended to.

With a little reflection, we can recall any number of day-to-day contexts where Hobson’s choice comes into play. It would be a stimulating mental exercise to think of illustrations from home, workplace and social contexts. And then spare a thought for the horse rental agency and its enterprising owner who contributed such a colorful expression to the language.

l When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice. — William James
l Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions. — Author Unknown

- Oman Observer

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