The Options Trap

one option is a trap,
two options is a dilemma,
three options is a choice.

I recall Jerry Weinberg saying this (or something very similar) during either an AYE conference or his Problem Solving Leadership course. I'm think I've also read it in one of Jerry's books, or was it Virginia Satir, but despite a reasonably thorough search I can't put my finger on it. (If you can locate the source in one of his books I'd appreciate an email).

I think software developers are prone to falling into options traps. If someone presents me with a choice between A and B I can easily be unknowingly coerced into thinking the only choices are A or B. And of course that's not true. I can choose A and B. Or maybe C. Or D. Or maybe make no choice at all. And of course, I often fall into the trap when presenting the options myself.

I was reminded of the options trap when watching The Princess Bride with my son Patrick the other day. There is a superb scene where the Man in Black arranges a battle of wits (to the death) with Vizzini. He shows Vizzini some iocane powder (iocane is odourless, tasteless, dissolves instantly in liquid, and is among the more deadly poisons known to man - in other words it's invisible just like software is, well except for the dissolving in liquid bit). But I digress. The Man in Black takes two goblets of wine and a full packet of iocane powder and turns his back on Vizinni. A moment later, he turns to face Vizzini again and the packet of iocane powder is empty. He says to Vizzini

All right: where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right and who is dead.

The Man in Black never explicitly says it (the wording is very precise), but Vizzini is unknowingly led (and so are you when you watch the film the first time) to believe that there are only two options; either the iocane powder is in Vizzini's goblet of wine, or the iocane powder is in the Man in Black's goblet of wine. If you've watched the film you know that there is a third option. I won't spoil the scene for you by telling you what the third option is - if you want to know I suggest googling Mithridates VI of Pontus. Or watching the film!