Law 31: Control the Options – Get others to Play with the Cards you Deal


The best deceptions are the ones that seem to give the other person a choice: Your victims feel they are in control, but are actually your puppets. Give people options that come out in your favor whichever one they choose. Force them to make choices between the lesser of two evils, both of which serve your purpose. Put them on the horns of a dilemma: They are gored wherever they turn.

Words like "freedom," "options," and "choice" evoke a power of possibility far beyond the reality of the benefits they entail. When examined closely, the choices we have—in the marketplace, in elections, in our jobs—tend to have noticeable limitations:

  1. They are often a matter of a choice simply between A and B, with the rest of the alphabet out of the picture.
  2. As long as the faintest mirage of choice flickers on, we rarely focus on the missing options.
  3. We "choose" to believe that the game is fair, and that we have our freedom.
  4. We prefer not to think too much about the depth of our liberty to choose.
  5. We are unwilling to probe the smallness of our choices that stems from the fact that too much freedom creates a kind of anxiety.
  6. The phrase "unlimited options" sounds infinitely promising, but unlimited options would actually paralyze us and cloud our ability to choose.
  7. Our limited range of choices comforts us.

Seven most common forms of "controlling the options":

1. Color the Choices. As President Richard Nixon's secretary of state, Kissinger considered himself better informed than his boss, and believed that in most situations he could make the best decision on his own. Kissinger would propose three or four choices of action for each situation, and would present them in such a way that the one he. This is an excellent device to use on the insecure master.

2. Force the Resister. One of the main problems faced by Dr. Milton H. Erickson, a pioneer of hypnosis therapy in the 1950s, was the relapse. His patients would soon relapse into old habits, blame the doctor, and stop coming to see him. To avoid this, Erickson began ordering some patients to have a relapse, to make themselves feel as bad as when they first came in—to go back to square one. Faced with this option, the patients would usually "choose" to avoid the relapse— which, of course, was what Erickson really wanted.

3. Alter the Playing Field. In the 1860s, John D. Rockefeller set out to create an oil monopoly. He began secretly buying up the railway companies that transported the oil. When he then attempted to take over a particular company, he reminded them of their dependence on the rails. Refusing them shipping, or simply raising their fees, could ruin their business. Rockefeller altered the playing field so that the only options the small oil producers had were the ones he gave them.

4. The Shrinking Options The late-nineteenth-century art dealer Ambroise Vollard perfected this technique. Customers would come to Vollard's shop to see some Cézannes. He would show three paintings, neglect to mention a price, and pretend to doze off. The visitors would have to leave without deciding. They would usually come back again and again, and would be shown paintings of lesser value every time. Finally the buyers would realize they had better grab what he was showing them, because tomorrow they would have to settle for something worse, perhaps at even higher prices.

5. The Weak Man on the Precipice The weak are the easiest to maneuver by controlling their options. Cardinal de Retz, the great seventeenth-century provocateur, served as an unofficial assistant to the Duke of Orleans, who was notoriously indecisive. Retz discovered a way to handle him: He would describe all sorts of dangers, exaggerating them as much as possible, until the duke saw a yawning abyss in every direction except one: the one Retz was pushing him to take.

6. Brothers in Crime This is a classic con-artist technique: You attract your victims to some criminal scheme, creating a bond of blood and guilt between you. They participate in your deception, commit a crime and are easily manipulated. Serge Stavisky, the great French con artist of the 1920s, so entangled the government in his scams and swindles that the state did not dare to prosecute him, and "chose" to leave him alone.

7. The Horns of a Dilemma This idea was demonstrated by General William Sherman's infamous march through Georgia during the American Civil War. Although the Confederates knew what direction Sherman was heading in, they never knew if he would attack from the left or the right, for he divided his army into two wings—and if the rebels retreated from one wing they found themselves facing the other.


This tactic works best for those whose power is fragile, and who cannot operate too openly without incurring suspicion, resentment, and anger. As a rule, it is rarely wise to be seen as exerting power directly and forcefully. It is usually more elegant and more effective to give people the illusion of choice.

There are situations in which it is to your advantage to allow your rivals a large degree of freedom: As you watch them operate, you give yourself rich opportunities to spy, gather information, and plan your deceptions.