31+ Ultimatum Examples (Definition + Experiment)

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Practical Psychology

Have you ever heard the word "ultimatum" and wondered what it means? Maybe you've heard it in a movie or read it in a book. It sounds pretty serious, doesn't it?

An ultimatum is a final demand or statement of terms, and if you don't agree to it, there will be consequences.

In this article, we're diving into the world of ultimatums. We're going to find out what they are, why it's important to understand them, and how they've played a big role in history.

But that's not all! We're also going to explore some fun brain games that involve ultimatums. Plus, you'll learn how ultimatums show up in your everyday life—like between friends, in families, and even at work or school.

What Is An Ultimatum?

So now that you know an ultimatum is a final demand that comes with consequences if ignored, let's dig a little deeper. Imagine you're playing a game of chess. You move your queen, and it's clear that on your next turn, you could take your opponent's king. Your opponent is stuck. They have to make a move that gets them out of "check," or else they lose the game. That's sort of like an ultimatum in chess form—you're saying, "Move your king to a safe spot, or the game's over."

How Ultimatums Are Used

Ultimatums aren't just for games or movies where someone dramatically says, "Do this, or else!" They show up in real life too, and they can be serious business. Parents might give them to their kids, like, "Clean your room by Saturday, or you're grounded." Bosses can give them to employees, such as, "Finish this project by the deadline, or you could lose your job."

In these examples, the person giving the ultimatum has some power or control. They're basically setting up a choice: "Do what I'm asking, and things will be fine. Don't, and there will be consequences."

Types of Ultimatums

So, there are different kinds of ultimatums, each with its own flavor:

  1. Personal Ultimatums: These happen in friendships, families, and relationships. Like when a friend says, "Stop gossiping about me, or we can't be friends anymore."
  2. Business Ultimatums: These are common in the workplace or in business deals. Imagine a company saying to another, "Lower your prices, or we'll take our business elsewhere."
  3. Political and Diplomatic Ultimatums: These are the big ones, often between countries. They can be about anything from trade to peace treaties, and sometimes they even lead to wars.
illustration of chess pieces

The Power Balance

Here's something to think about: Ultimatums often involve a power balance. That means one person or group has something the other wants or needs. In a friendship, both friends value each other's company. In business, the boss has the power to give raises or promotions. In politics, one country might have military or economic power over another.

Ultimatums can tip the scales in this balance of power, for better or for worse. They can solve problems quickly, but they can also make things tense or even lead to a showdown.

Where Do They Come From?

The word "ultimatum" itself is pretty cool. It comes from the Latin word "ultimatus," which means "final." So, when you give an ultimatum, you're basically saying, "This is my final offer, take it or leave it."

Examples from History

History is full of moments where ultimatums played a big role. Sometimes they led to peace, and other times they kicked off huge events like wars. Let's take a look at some key moments.

The Zimmerman Telegram (1917)

First up is the Zimmerman Telegram, a secret message sent during World War I. The German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a telegram to Mexico with a pretty shocking ultimatum: If the United States entered the war against Germany, Mexico should attack the U.S. In return, Germany would help Mexico get back some land they lost to the U.S. years before. Sounds like a movie plot, right?

Here's the twist: British spies intercepted the message and showed it to the U.S. government. The result? Americans were furious, and the Zimmerman Telegram became one reason the U.S. decided to join the war against Germany.

Cuban Missile Crisis (1962)

Next, let's jump to the 1960s. The world was a tense place because of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1962, U.S. spy planes found out that the Soviet Union was putting missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from the U.S. coast. President John F. Kennedy gave the Soviet Union an ultimatum: Remove those missiles, or face military action.

It was a super tense 13 days, with the world watching and worrying about a nuclear war. Finally, the Soviet Union agreed to remove the missiles, and the U.S. promised not to invade Cuba. This ultimatum helped to defuse a situation that could have ended very, very badly.

Napoleon and the Continental System (1806)

Way back in the early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France and was pretty much trying to conquer all of Europe. He set up something called the Continental System, which was like a trade blockade against British goods. Napoleon gave European countries an ultimatum: Stop trading with Britain, or face military invasion.

Some countries didn't like being told what to do and defied the ultimatum. One of those countries was Portugal, which led Napoleon to invade them, kicking off the Peninsular War. This ultimatum didn't work out too well for Napoleon in the long run and was one of the reasons for his downfall.

The Ultimatum Game Experiment

Ever thought you could play a game to understand human behavior and decisions? Welcome to the Ultimatum Game, a super interesting experiment that psychologists and economists love to use. This game gives us a peek into how people think and act when given an ultimatum.

How the Game Works

Here's how you play. You need two players: one is the "Proposer" and the other is the "Responder." The Proposer gets a certain amount of money, let's say $10. They have to offer some of this money to the Responder. The catch? The Responder can either accept the offer or reject it. If they reject it, neither player gets anything. Yep, it's all or nothing!

What It Teaches Us

So what can a simple game tell us about human behavior? A lot, actually! The game shows that people don't always act in a way that makes the most sense money-wise. You'd think the Responder would accept any amount because getting something is better than nothing, right? But that's not what happens. Responders often reject offers if they feel they're unfair, even if it means losing out.

Why? Well, it has to do with emotions like pride and fairness. People don't like to feel they're being taken advantage of, and they're willing to lose something to stand up for that.

Play It At Home or In Class

Want to try it out yourself? You can play this game at home with family or friends, or even in class as a fun activity. All you need is some fake money or tokens, and you're good to go! Try different offers and see how people react. You might be surprised at what you discover.

Real-Life Examples

Ultimatums are found in various aspects of our daily lives. From the personal sphere to the world of business and beyond into politics, here are more examples to help you understand the role of ultimatums better.

Personal Ultimatums

  1. Homework Time: Parents often say, "Finish your homework before dinner, or no video games tonight." This sets a clear rule and motivates kids to prioritize homework over playtime.
  2. Sibling Rivalry: "Stop borrowing my clothes without asking, or I'll tell Mom and Dad." This ultimatum is a way for siblings to set boundaries and respect personal belongings.
  3. Relationship Boundaries: In romantic relationships, one might say, "If you keep breaking promises, I'll have to end this relationship." This communicates the importance of trust and accountability.
  4. Roommate Rules: "Clean up your dishes by the end of the day, or you can't use the kitchen for a week." This ensures that communal spaces are kept clean and functional for everyone.
  5. Friendship and Trust: "If you keep lying to me, I can't be friends with you anymore." An ultimatum like this emphasizes the role of honesty in maintaining a friendship.
  6. School Participation: Teachers might say, "Turn in your permission slip by Friday, or you can't go on the field trip." This enforces deadlines and teaches students responsibility.
  7. Team Sports: Coaches may say, "Show up to practice on time, or you'll be benched for the next game." This reinforces the importance of punctuality and team commitment.
  8. Pet Responsibilities: "Feed the dog every day, or you can't go to the sleepover this weekend." This ultimatum teaches kids about responsibility and the importance of caring for pets.
  9. Library Rules: "Return the book by its due date, or you'll get a fine." Libraries use this ultimatum to ensure that books are returned on time for others to use.
  10. Public Transport: "Pay the fare, or you'll have to leave the bus." This is a basic rule that ensures that public services are paid for and sustainable.

Business Ultimatums

  1. Performance Reviews: Managers might say, "Improve your sales numbers this month, or you'll be let go." This sets clear performance expectations for employees.
  2. Client Demands: "Deliver the product by the agreed date, or we'll cancel the contract." This ultimatum pressures suppliers to meet deadlines and uphold their end of a deal.
  3. Supplier Terms: "Provide the quality we agreed on, or we'll find another supplier." This assures that quality standards are met, which is crucial for business reputation.
  4. Union Strikes: Workers could say, "Meet our demands for better wages, or we'll go on strike." Unions use this tactic to negotiate better conditions for their members.
  5. Employee Contracts: "Sign the non-compete agreement, or the job offer is off the table." Employers use this to protect their business interests.
  6. Investment Deals: "Match our valuation, or the investment deal is off." This sets the stage for negotiations and shows that both parties must find mutual value.
  7. Product Recalls: "Return the faulty product by a certain date, or you won't get a refund." This is an essential step for companies to correct mistakes and protect consumers.
  8. Store Policies: "Buy one, get one free—but only if you make the purchase by the end of the month." This is a marketing tactic to encourage sales within a specific time frame.
  9. Team Deadlines: "Complete your part of the project by Tuesday, or you'll be removed from the team." This stresses the importance of each team member's contribution to a project.
  10. Retail Returns: "Return the item within 30 days, or you won't get a refund." This informs customers of their window for returns, encouraging timely action.

Diplomatic and Political Ultimatums

  1. Sanctions: "Cease nuclear testing, or face international sanctions." Nations use this to discourage harmful or dangerous behavior on a global scale.
  2. Environmental Policies: "Cut carbon emissions by 2030, or face heavy fines." This aims to incentivize countries to act responsibly toward the environment.
  3. Immigration Rules: "Secure your borders, or we'll withhold foreign aid." This sets conditions for aid and encourages nations to control immigration.
  4. Disarmament: "Destroy your weapons of mass destruction, or we'll take military action." This ultimatum is often a last resort to prevent the proliferation of dangerous weapons.
  5. Human Rights: "Improve your human rights record, or we'll break off diplomatic relations." This aims to push countries to better adhere to international human rights standards.
  6. Territorial Disputes: "Withdraw your troops, or we'll consider it an act of war." This ultimatum seeks to resolve territorial conflicts without resorting to military action.
  7. Treaty Compliance: "Adhere to the treaty terms, or face legal consequences." This ensures that countries abide by agreements, reinforcing international law.
  8. Election Monitoring: "Allow international observers, or risk losing foreign aid." This promotes free and fair elections by adding accountability.
  9. Trade Quotas: Countries might give each other ultimatums to open up trade or face tariffs (extra charges on imported goods). "Limit your steel exports to us, or we'll impose tariffs." This balances trade and protects domestic industries from being overwhelmed by imports.
  10. Debt Repayment: "Repay the loan by the agreed date, or default and face financial penalties." This sets clear financial expectations between countries or organizations.

The Pros of Ultimatums

One of the most compelling advantages of using an ultimatum is the clarity it brings. Ultimatums offer a clear choice between two options, reducing ambiguity and making expectations straightforward.

For example, when parents say, "Finish your homework before dinner, or no video games tonight," the child knows exactly what is expected and what the consequences will be for non-compliance.

Ultimatums can also prompt swift action. In a business setting, this could mean accelerating decision-making processes. Suppose a manager tells a team, "Complete your part of the project by Tuesday, or you'll be removed from the team." Such a clear-cut deadline will generally motivate team members to prioritize their tasks and get things done.

Another positive aspect is the establishment of boundaries. In a healthy relationship, clear boundaries help to foster mutual respect and understanding. For instance, a person might tell their partner, "If you keep breaking promises, I'll have to end this relationship." Here, the ultimatum serves as a means to enforce emotional boundaries and protect one's well-being.

Finally, ultimatums can bring resolution and accountability. They force the issue at hand to be addressed, essentially serving as a catalyst for action. In international politics, a country may say, "Cease nuclear testing, or face international sanctions," bringing global attention to a serious issue and forcing a resolution.

The Cons of Ultimatums

While ultimatums have their benefits, they also come with substantial risks.

For one, they can strain relationships significantly. When one party feels cornered or trapped, it can result in defensive behavior, breeding resentment and potential conflict. For instance, a parent giving too many ultimatums can make a child feel oppressed and less willing to communicate openly.

Another downside is that ultimatums often shut down dialogue. While they force a decision, they don't allow space for discussion or compromise.

This is especially problematic in complicated situations where a nuanced approach is required. Imagine a union saying, "Meet our demands for better wages, or we'll go on strike." While the ultimatum may bring attention to the issue, it may also close the door on constructive negotiations.

Ultimatums can also backfire dramatically. If the other party calls your bluff or chooses the option you were hoping they'd avoid, you must be ready to follow through with the stated consequences.

For example, if a country issues an ultimatum to another to withdraw troops and it's not heeded, the issuing country needs to be prepared for the possibility of conflict.

In addition, overusing ultimatums can create a negative perception of you. People might start seeing you as authoritarian or domineering, rather than as a reasonable person who's open to discussion. Using ultimatums too often can erode your credibility and influence over time.

Lastly, the nature of ultimatums is such that they often focus on short-term solutions and may ignore underlying problems. While you might resolve one issue, failing to address the root cause can result in recurring challenges down the line.

For example, a teacher might successfully enforce homework completion with ultimatums, but this won't address why students are struggling with their assignments in the first place.

two-faced man

When are Ultimatums Healthy Or Abusive?

Sometimes, ultimatums aren't about healthy boundaries or making choices clear; they can be used in harmful ways too. In abusive relationships, ultimatums can become a tool for control and manipulation.

For example, an abuser might say, "If you leave me, no one else will ever love you," trying to make the other person feel trapped and without options. This kind of ultimatum is very different from one that is used to set healthy boundaries; it's meant to take away someone's freedom and choices.

Narcissists also use ultimatums as a way to get what they want, not just in personal relationships but in all interactions. There are ways you can deal with a narcissist, but if you notice someone is giving ultimatums a lot, it might be a sign you should cut them out of your life.

Research has shown that control and manipulation tactics like this are red flags for emotional abuse. Studies from organizations like the American Psychological Association point out that using threats and ultimatums to control someone can be a sign of an unhealthy relationship.

If you ever find yourself in a situation where ultimatums make you feel scared or controlled, it's important to talk to someone you trust or seek professional help. No one should use an ultimatum to make you feel small or powerless.

Ultimatums can be used to help set healthy boundaries too, though. If someone you know is actin gin potentially harmful or dangerous ways, sometimes giving them an ultimatum will help them realize what they are doing.

A few examples of healthy ultimatums are if your partner or friend is gambling, using drugs or alcohol, or stealing. Sometimes, giving them an ultimatum like "if you don't stop this behavior, I won't let you back into my house."

This can be a really hard decision for you to make, but if you have already tried other kinds of support and it isn't working, an ultimatum like this might be a last option.

If you or someone you know is struggling with abuse, you can reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. If you or someone you know is dealing with substance abuse, you can reach out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Helpline.

Additional Resources About Ultimatums

If you're keen to dive deeper into the fascinating world of ultimatums, here are some resources that can help you explore further:

  1. Books
    • "Getting to Yes" by Roger Fisher and William Ury: This classic book on negotiation discusses the importance of creating 'win-win' situations, rather than resorting to ultimatums.
    • "Boundaries" by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend: This book offers insights into setting healthy boundaries in different types of relationships.
  2. Online Courses
  3. Videos


Ultimatums are like a double-edged sword—they can be incredibly useful or potentially dangerous. On one side, they can provide clarity, prompt action, help establish boundaries, and force a resolution to a problem. They can be used responsibly to ensure that everyone understands what's at stake, whether it's finishing your homework on time or making important decisions in international politics.

On the other side, ultimatums have their risks. They can strain relationships, shut down open dialogue, and focus only on short-term solutions. Even worse, in the hands of someone who wants to control or manipulate, ultimatums can become a tool for abuse.

The key is to understand the power that an ultimatum carries and to use it responsibly. Remember, the best ultimatums are those that set healthy boundaries and come from a place of mutual respect. If you ever feel cornered or controlled by an ultimatum, it might be a sign that something isn't right, and you should seek advice from a trusted adult or professional.

Knowing when and how to use an ultimatum—or when to avoid one—can help you navigate the complexities of relationships, negotiations, and decisions both big and small.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2023, August). 31+ Ultimatum Examples (Definition + Experiment). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/ultimatum-examples/.

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