Catch 22 refers to a logical paradox in which no solutions can be engaged due to contradictory rules.
During a Catch-22, the individual finds themselves in a situation that offers no escape. The satisfaction of one condition requires fulfilling a prerequisite condition, which is actually contingent upon satisfying the initial condition.
An example of a Catch-22 is needing a car for employment. But, you need a job to afford a car. You’re stuck in an impossible situation!
The problem is that there is no resolution to the predicament due to the dependent conditions. Today the term is used to describe frustrating situations in which an individual sees no acceptable recourse to a dilemma.
It is often used to portray bureaucratic circumstances in which various government regulations disallow progress or in social situation in which a person perceives being trapped in a circumstance that has no resolution.
Origins of Catch-22
Catch-22 is the name of a book by Joseph Heller, published in 1961.
The book is a satire on war set in World War II as it follows the life of a fictitious character, Captain John Yossarian.
He is portrayed as a U. S. Army Air Force bombardier who became disillusioned with the war and the callousness of commanding officers. They repeatedly showed complete disregard for the safety of their troops, often for the sole purpose of possibility forwarding their own careers.
The meaning of the term catch-22 is explained during a conversation Yossarian has with the army psychiatrist, Doc Daneeka.
Yossarian is inquiring about how a fellow airman could be disqualified for duty. The doctor explains that all he has to do is ask, per military rules regarding sanity. The conversation unfolds on page 45:
Later, Yossarian ponders the conversation and describes the reasoning of catch-22 as possessing “an elliptical precision” which as “graceful and shocking, like good modern art” (p. 45).
Catch 22 Examples
- Needing a Car for Employment: A high school student has just received their driver’s license and wants to make some money to buy a car. But, every application they fill out asks if they have a car to get to and from work. They can’t save enough money to buy a car without a job, but they can’t get a job without owning a car.
- Building Good Credit: One way to establish a good credit rating is to use your credit card and make regular payments. Unfortunately, unless you already have a credit card, it can be very difficult to get one.
- Establishing a Trusting Romantic Relationship: In order for one partner to feel that they can trust the other, they are constantly checking on them; asking about where they went, what they did, and who they did it with. This makes it impossible for the partner to demonstrate they are trustworthy.
- Making Ends Meet: In order to make ends meet, one spouse takes a minimum-wage job. But, they need a car so they can travel to and from work. After adding up all the expenses of buying a new car, insurance, fuel, and maintenance, it turns out that there is virtually no extra money to apply towards regular bills.
- It Takes Money to Make Money: This is a common saying. Unfortunately, it means that if you don’t have money to start with, then you will never be able to make money.
- Accumulating YouTube Subscribers: To accumulate subscribers on YouTube, your videos have to appear at the top of search lists. But to get at the top of a search list, you have to have lots of viewers.
- Publicizing Corporate Responsibility: A company that engages in extensive corporate responsibility initiatives involving sustainability and social causes gets a lot of publicity. However, all of that attention leads to greater scrutiny, which then results in cynics finding more failings of the company’s efforts.
- New Graduates Seeking Employment: So many job ads state that only experienced professionals need to apply. But, how can a new graduate get experience if every employer requires new hires to already possess experience?
- Teenage Responsibility: A teenager wants their parents to believe they are responsible enough to go to a party with friends. But the parents say that they have to demonstrate they are responsible first.
- Dressing to Prove Individuality: A person can put in a lot of effort into wearing clothes and altering their hairstyle to set themselves apart from the norm. But, the more effort they put into being unique, the more they begin to look like others who are also trying to create persona of individualism.
- Gaining Knowledge through Experience: To gain knowledge and become an expert in a certain field, you need experience (for instance, as a successful investor). However, to get that initial experience, you often need significant knowledge and expertise to start with.
- Improving Financial Aid: A student’s family struggles financially and needs increased financial aid. However, agreeing to work more hours to be eligible for financial aid might disqualify their eligibility due to increased income (similar to families requiring food stamps).
- Acquiring Professional Connections: To have valuable professional connections can help you get jobs, investments, or opportunities. But to build such network, it often requires you to already hold prestigious positions or opportunities (like Ivy League alumni networks).
- Starting a Small Business: In order to qualify for a business loan, a small business often needs to prove it’s profitable. However, to become profitable, they typically need that initial investment (like the struggling bakery needing an oven).
- Realizing Sustainable Development: A developing country is urged to shift to sustainable development. But it can’t afford the investment without exploiting its natural resources, which is unsustainable (as seen in the deforestation-inducing economies).
- Evidence for Aliens: Scientists need concrete signs or signals to prove the existence of extraterrestrial life. Yet, to intercept or perceive such signals, they need to know where to look – an impossible feat without already knowing where these extraterrestrial beings might be (as illustrated by SETI’s search challenges).
- Pursuing Physical Fitness: To gain the motivation to exercise regularly and maintain your physical fitness, seeing noticeable results in your body often helps. However, to see such results, it requires consistent exercise over a long period of time (as demonstrated by the struggle of new gym-goers).
- Coping with Anxiety Disorders: To reduce your anxiety, you are encouraged to engage more in social settings. But the anxiety itself often makes it extremely difficult to put yourself in those situations (as shown in social anxiety disorder cases).
- Writing a Novel: To get your novel published, most literary agents and publishers want you to have had previous publishing success. Unfortunately, to have previous success, you need to have been published already (as numerous first-time authors discover).
- Online Selling Platforms: You want to sell products on an online platform, like eBay. However, buyers are more likely to purchase from sellers with positive feedback. How do you sell your first product if all the buyers are looking for experienced sellers (much like a fled eling Etsy store)?
- Getting a Promotion at Work: You want to get promoted at your job to take on more significant roles. But you can’t get a promotion without demonstrating the skills and abilities required by those roles beforehand (as in the case of a junior accountant aspiring for managerial positions).
- Establishing a Healthy Sleep Schedule: Insomnia sufferers are often told that engaging in regular exercise can help improve their sleep quality. However, due to chronic fatigue caused by their sleepless nights, they find it extremely difficult to summon the energy to exercise (like the struggles faced by people with sleep apnea).
- Securing a Mortgage: Many young people connected to unstable jobs and fluctuating income struggle to secure a residential property mortgage. Without steady income and a hefty deposit, most banks refuse to provide a loan. But without a loan, they can’t buy a house and improve their financial stability (the plight many millennials face).
- Reducing Homelessness: You can’t get a job without an address. But you can’t get an address without a job to pay for it (an example seen in large metropolitan areas worldwide).
- Saving Endangered Species: To save an endangered species, a large healthy population is often needed for breeding. But to have a large healthy population, the species need to be far from endangered (like the battle faced in panda conservation).
Applications of Catch-22
1. In Luxury Brands
Janssen et al. (2014) point out that the concept of “responsible luxury” may seem to be a contradiction of terms. The dilemma is created by two competing conditions.
On the one hand, there is growing attention directed toward the unethical practices of the fashion industry. For instance, international news stories have revealed various unethical practices by Gucci (Caixiong, 2011), Prada and Dolce & Gabbana (Wilkinson, 2008).
On the other hance, research by Davies et al., 2012) indicate that consumers of luxury goods may be less concerned about ethics as a factor in their purchase decisions.
Moreover, Torelli et al. (2012) conducted four studies and found that when a luxury brand communicates its efforts regarding corporate social responsibility (CSR), it can actually cause a decline in consumer evaluations.
As the authors explain, part of the motive to purchase a luxury brand is its effect on self-enhancement (superiority over others). However, CSR efforts are in conflict with that motive.
This presents a catch-22 for luxury brands; the goal of social responsibility can result in a depreciation of the brand’s reputation.
2. In Medical Training and Nutrition
Blunt and Kafatos (2019) argue that there is a catch-22 situation involving the ill effects of malnutrition and the lack of training of medical doctors regarding nutrition and disease.
According to the WHO (2017), malnutrition is one of the largest health issues of the 21st century. In fact, Obesity-malnutrition, smoking, excess alcohol, and insufficient exercise are involved in 80% of cardiovascular diseases, 90% of type 2 diabetes, and 35–70% of cancers (WHO, 2000, 2017).
Although this trend is getting steadily worse in most countries, the catch-22 exists because medical school training in nutrition has actually declined in recent years (Blunt & Kafatos, 2019).
Despite the substantial role nutrition plays in disease, most medical schools fail to provide adequate training in nutrition and lack qualified faculty (Schulman, 1999; Adams et al., 2015; Chung et al., 2014).
Medical schools desperately need to provide training in nutrition, but cannot do so until they train more students to qualified standards in nutritional care.
A catch-22 is a situation in which fulfilling the requirements of condition X depends on fulfilling the requirements of condition Y, which stipulates that condition X must be met first.
It’s a circular arrangement of required conditions that is impossible to satisfy.
The term originally appeared as a satire on war, but quickly became part of popular culture. Today the term is applied to all kinds of situations that seem impossible to satisfy, of which there are many.
Luxury brands that publicize their efforts in social responsibility actually end up jeopardizing their appeal as being exclusive and sophisticated.
On a more serious note, medical schools cannot offer much-needed training in nutrition until they have doctors with sufficient training in nutrition.
The catch-22 is a timeless paradox which has no simple solution.
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Blunt, S. B., & Kafatos, A. (2019). Clinical nutrition education of doctors and medical students: solving the catch 22. Advances in Nutrition, 10(2), 345-350.
Caixiong, Z. (2011). Letter calls Gucci stores sweatshops. The China Daily News, October 11. Retrieved from https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2011-10/11/content_13865398.htm (accessed July, 13, 2023).
Chung, M., Van Buul, V. J., Wilms, E., Nellessen, N., & Brouns, F. J. P. H. (2014). Nutrition education in European medical schools: results of an international survey. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 68(7), 844-846.
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Wilkinson, T. (2008). Slaving in the lap of luxury. Los Angeles Times, February 20. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2008-feb-20-fg-madeinitaly20-story.html (accessed July 13, 2023).
WHO, C. (2000). Obesity: preventing and managing the global epidemic. World Health Organ Technical Report Series, 894(i-xii), 1-253.
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