Social Trap: 15 Examples and Definition (Psychology)

social trap examples and types

In psychology, a social trap is a situation where individuals act in their own self-interest to the detriment of long-term interests. These may be either individual interests (individual traps) or collective interests (group traps).

The word trap is used to emphasize that making the decision that appears to benefit you most will, long-term, come back to bite.

Examples of individual social traps include choosing not to study for exams or choosing not to exercise leading to bad long-term results; while collective social trap examples include overfishing, pollution, deforestation, and overloaded energy grids.

Social Trap Definition and Overview

The term social trap was coined by Anatol Rapaport (1911-2007), an American mathematical psychologist, in the early 1960’s. However, it was psychologist John Platt, who brought it to the forefront in his 1973 publication of “Social Traps” in the American Psychologist Journal.

While concept of social trap itself has been used to explain a variety of phenomena, ranging from the breakdown of cooperative communities in society to the rise of extremist viewpoints, it can refer to a broad array of circumstances where a person (or group of people) act in accordance with their desire for a quickly obtained reward, despite the act leading to possibly negative results in the future.

Mlicki (1991) words the concept in a more technical manner calling social traps:

…emergent properties of social structure which occur when agent’s goals are incompatible and their interactions are of conflicting character” (p. 135).

Types of Social Traps

1. Group Traps

Group traps occur when decisions beneficial to individuals or groups in the short-term do damage to the entire social group in the long-run.

The concept of a group trap builds upon the concept of tragedy of the commons, which is a group trap.

In the tragedy of the commons (which happens to also be an example of a social dilemma), individuals exploit a shared resource to the point of depletion, even though doing so is not in the best interests of the group as a whole.

For example, if every man over-fishes in a pond, the pond runs out of fish, and the whole village starves.

Similarly, you may feel like throwing some rubbish out the window of your car won’t have any substantial effect on the environment. But if everyone thought that way and we all threw rubbish out the window, then soon enough, the waterways will be extremely polluted.

2. Individual Traps

Individual traps occur when you do something for short-term benefit that will have a long-term negative consequence for you personally.

For example, this occurs when eating fast food every day in the short-term leads to long-term illness. If you eat unhealthily right now (or even for a few weeks), you may not notice it. But before long, you will look down and realize you’ve put on a lot of weight. You put your own instant gratification ahead of your long-term health!

Brechner (1977) explains that:

…immediate gratification results in undesirable consequences which principally affect the responder. A coal miner is caught in a one-person trap: The miner works for the immediate personal gain of wages and fringe benefits, but each day a little more coal dust accumulates in the miner’s lungs leading to long-term health problems“(p. 553).

Mlinki’s Social Traps

Another way to categorize social traps is to use Mlinki’s four categories model. To Mlinki, social traps can be put into four buckets:

  1. Rational entrapment: This typically involves a Catch-22 situation where the short-term goal is logical and even necessary, but it also causes long-term pain. For example, when playing the game of chicken, you don’t want to flinch before your competitor, but if neither of you flinch, you run into one another. It’s both rational and irrational not to flinch. It’s a trap!
  2. Emotional entrapment: This occurs when you’re emotionally invested into something you shouldn’t be. An example is when you stay invested in a bad relationship because you devoted significant time into it (sunk cost fallacy).
  3. Entrapment of immorality: This occurs when temptation leads us into embracing an immediate behavior, knowing that it is immoral and will come back to bite. For example, lying may be a good idea in any given moment, but over time, you become known as a liar and lose your reputation.
  4. Social roles entrapment: This involves labeling people in a way that they feel they must live up to the specific label (Mlinki, 1991, pp. 136-140). This is based on labeling theory, where someone is labeled as (for example) a hard worker, so they feel they have to work hard to meet expectations. This becomes a social trap when your hard work leads to you getting hurt on the job!

Social Trap Examples

1. Climate Change

Type: Group Trap / Entrapment of Immorality

Climate change occurs because our world is pumping too much carbon dioxide into the sky, which heats up the atmosphere.

No individual’s actions alone can have an impact on preventing or causing climate change. But if we all keep pumping pollution into the atmosphere, our collective behaviors will cause global warming.

To address this, governments have tried to come together to put caps on carbon emissions and carbon taxes, but this is politically unpopular, meaning many nations such as the USA don’t have sufficient policies to overcome this trap.

We might consider this either rational entrapment because it makes sense for individuals to pollute for personal benefits now; or entrapment of immorality, if you believe our polluting is based on temptation and lack of willpower.

2. Overfishing

Type: Group Trap / Rational Entrapment

The typical example of a social trap is over-farming on common land or over-fishing in our shared oceans.

The tragedy of the commons is a phenomenon in which a shared resource (or resources) is overused by a group of people.

Originally coined by Garrett Hardin in 1968, he uses an example of a pasture to illustrate his point. In his scenario a group of people share a pasture, where they allow their animals to graze.

Each member of the group naturally wants to increase their herd size (a larger herd means a larger profit can be gained from the animals).

The problem, however, is if the pasture becomes too overgrazed, it will lead to a net loss for everyone (if the pasture is depleted, animals will not be able to eat).

Hardin (1968) states:

“The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle a possible on the commons. Such a n arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.” (p. 1244)

3. The Escalation Trap

Type: Rational Entrapment

An escalation trap occurs when two people or groups enter an endless cycle of escalating conflict.

An arms race can be seen as a social trap. A nation gets stuck in a trap where they feel like they need to buy more arms in order to keep up with their adversaries. In turn, the adversaries also feel like they need to buy more arms, and so on.

This is a social trap because, in the long run, the world becomes a much more dangerous place than if both nations decided not to amass arms at all.

Unfortunately, in the moment, this social trap feels like the right short-term decision, because if you don’t do it, you’ll lose ground to your adversary.

So, this feels like an unavoidable social trap dilemma. This is why we call it rational entrapment.

Costanza (1984) applies a social trap scenario known as the ‘dollar auction game’, to offer a possible solution to the nuclear question (p. 80-84).

Using a social trap psychological theory developed by Martin Shubik in 1971, Costanza (1984) explains:

“The dollar auction game is a useful model of the conflict escalation process in general, and the nuclear arms race in particular. The nuclear arms auction has come down to two superpowers bidding for the ‘prize’ of global political and economic domination and military security, but the cost of the bidding is now no doubt well above the value of the prize and the ‘irrationality’ of this result is evident to everyone, including the bidders” (p. 81).

4. The Democracy Dilemma

Type: Group Trap / Entrapment of Immorality

Politicians in true democracies tend to give out big cash splashes during election campaigns so they can get elected.

This leads to a situation where the population is promised a whole lot of great short-term benefits such as tax deductions and cash handouts. These handouts might not be in the nation’s best interests, but they help struggling people in the immediate term.

5. Coal Miner’s Dilemma

Type: Individual Trap / Rational Entrapment

The coal miner’s dilemma occurs because a coal miner will need to go to work to make money for their family this week.

But over time, going into the mine every day is extremely bad for their health.

In 20 years’ time, the coal miner might die from lung disease that they got from working in the coalmine. Then, the family you care so much about won’t have a father to take care of them in the long run!

So, this is a trap with a short-term gain for a long-term loss.

6. Misrepresentating yourself on a Dating App

Type: Individual Trap / Entrapment of Immorality

It may seem like a short-term way to get some dates: simply use an old photo of yourself that you love, then add some embellishments in your self-description.

But the downside is obvious: if you make it to the first date, you may find that your date is confronted that you’re not who you said you were. They will likely judge your values and personality poorly, and in the end, you’re back to square one.

7. Seeking Revenge

Type: Individual Trap / Emotional Entrapment

Seeking revenge sounds like a good idea in the moment. You’re angry and want to make sure the person who wronged you gets what they deserve!

But often, the desire for revenge is a huge social trap. By getting your revenge, you might end up violating your own standards, social mores, or even the law. You may end up looking petty or vindictive and lose face socially.

8. Traditional Masculinity

Type: Individual Trap / Social Roles Entrapment

Mlinki (1991) refers to a type of social trap called social roles entrapment. It happens when we act in a way that’s bad for us because we feel we’re expected to act that way.

A great example of social roles entrapment is when men learn through gender socialization that they’re not allowed to show weakness or emotions.

As a result, many men hold in their emotions, avoid therapy, and fail to communicate effectively with their spouse. In the long run, this leads to unhappy marriages and, sadly, high rates of men’s suicide within some cultures.

9. Playing Chicken

Type: Individual Trap / Rational Entrapment

The game of chicken goes like this: two people are in a contest not to give up. The person who gives up first loses. But, if neither person gives up, then both lose.

A typical example is two cars driving toward one another on a one-lane bridge. At some point, one of the cars has to brake or swerve to the sidewalk. You don’t want to be the person who gives up, but you know if neither of you give up, you’ll collide. Who will swerve first?

This is rational entrapment: if you give up, you lose. But if you don’t give up, you and your opponent lose.

In the short-term, the logic is to not give up and hope your opponent does. In the long-term, by not giving up, you may end up in a lot of danger!

10. Resisting Change

Type: Individual Trap / Emotional Entrapment

Resistance to change can be an example of the individual trap. Your reluctance to learn and evolve to meet changing circumstances makes sense to you right now. You’re avoiding immediate pain and frustration.

But by satisfying your immediate desire not to change, in the long run, you’ll find that the world around you have changed all too much, and you are now at a disadvantage.

For example, if a person resisted getting the internet when it first came out, and they continued to refuse to adapt to the internet, then today they may feel like they can’t even get by in a world so reliant on the web!

11. Lack of Exercise

Type: Individual Trap

Exercise often causes immediate discomfort. Our muscles become strained and we often become very tired after a big workout. So, we decide to skip exercising today, then tomorrow, then the next day, and so on.

Before we know it, we haven’t exercised in months.

Then, the time comes when we have to do something strenuous – a long walk, carrying heavy objects, or running from danger. We realize that the short-term gain of choosing not to exercise has led to a long-term mistake: you’re incredibly unfit!

12. Lying to your Parents

Type: Individual Trap / Entrapment of Immorality

Sometimes, lying is in our immediate interest. It may get us out of trouble or prevent social awkwardness.

But if we lie and get caught, we end up in more trouble than we would have if we’d just been honest.

But perhaps this isn’t the worst or most likely consequence.

The worst is reputational damage. If you lie and others suspect you were lying, you end up being seen as an untrustworthy person, and in the long run, you lose respect.

13. Working to Feed your Family (Role Conflict)

Type: Individual Trap / Social Role Entrapment

Like the coal miner example, this example involves a person who chooses to work extra shifts on the weekend instead of spending time with their children.

Millions of people make this decision every day. They may feel they need to stay back at work to gain advancement in their job, or simply not get fired.

This trap occurs as a result of role conflict. You have two conflicting roles: that of good employee, and that of good parent.

In the short term, it might be the right idea to stay at work and make sure you put in the hours for your company, but in the long term, your relationship with your children may be damaged.

14. Staying in a Bad Job or Relationship

Type: Individual Trap / Emotional Entrapment

Being stuck in a bad job or bad relationship are classic examples of emotional entrapment. Remember, this is the type of social trap where your short-term emotional wellbeing is upheld but causes long-term emotional pain.

For example, if you’re stuck in a bad workplace situation, it might be painful, but the idea of not having a job, or changing to a job that might even be worse, feels like it’s even more painful.

So you stick in the bad job.

But five years down the line, it’s likely you would have been better off going through that period of pain looking for a better job, so you’re not still stuck in the bad situation five years later. If you made that decision to leave, you’d have overcome the problem and been better off in the long run.

15. Ponzi Schemes

Type: Entrapment of Immorality

A Ponzi scheme occurs when a person promises money to investors, but that money doesn’t come from legitimate business practices. Instead, the money comes from recruiting other investors.

What ends up happening is the scheme needs more and more investors in order to stay afloat. The new investors subsidize the existing investors.

Inevitably, the Ponzi scheme will run out of gullible investors, and the whole house of cards will collapse!

Here, the short-term solution of getting more money by recruiting more investors leads to long-term financial loss to everyone when it all falls apart.

Conclusion

A social trap is a difficult dilemma to find yourself in. Sometimes, you’re really stuck and you have to do something in the short term that’s bad for you in the long term. Other times, people make silly decisions out of short-term self-interest that come back to damage either themselves of society overall in a few years’ time. These traps can be both on an individual scale or a group scale, such as with the famous tragedy of the commons.

References

Brechner, K. C. (1977). An experimental analysis of social traps. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology13(6), 552–564. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-1031(77)90054-3

Costanza, R. (1984). Review Essay: The Nuclear Arms Race and the Theory of Social Traps. Journal of Peace Research21(1), 79-86. https://doi.org/10.1177/002234338402100106

Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science162(3859), 1243-1248. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.162.3859.1243

Mlicki, M. K. (1991). Toward Broadening the Concept of Social Traps. The Polish Sociological Bulletin94, 135–142. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44816677

Weber, R. J., Mallue, M., & Conner, J. (1975). Smoking, social traps, and futuristics. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Societyhttps://doi.org/10.3758/bf03336653

Gregory
Gregory Paul C. (MA)
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Gregory Paul C. is a licensed social studies educator, and has been teaching the social sciences in some capacity for 13 years. He currently works at university in an international liberal arts department teaching cross-cultural studies in the Chuugoku Region of Japan. Additionally, he manages semester study abroad programs for Japanese students, and prepares them for the challenges they may face living in various countries short term.

Chris
Chris Drew (PhD)
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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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