Platt, J. Social Traps, American Psychologist, 1973, 28, 641-651.

Social traps are negative situations where people, organizations, or societies get caught in a direction or relationship that later prove to be unpleasant or lethal and they see no easy way to back out of or avoid.

One example is the "Tragedy of the Commons", where in New England herd owners could graze in the common ground. But an individual advantage of more cows would deplete the grass, and excessive herds and overgrazing can destroy the field and result in a collective loss for everyone.

Another trap is the social inaction seen in the Kitty Genovese murders. The railroads are another example where people prefer cars causing passenger rail service to go away at the same time traffic jams get so bad people want to start using trains again.

Reinforcements and Behavior.
According to Skinner, a stimulus from an experimenter or the environment to which a subject emits behavior, causing a reinforcement or result. This is known symbolically as S-B-R, and would repeat in endless cycles. A positive reinforcement R+ will make B more prevalent the next time, and a R- will make it less prevelant next time.

This is the same as a feedback loop -- the R serves as a "signal error" that causes the system to modify itself based on the feedback. Skinner also sees a Darwinian behavior selection process as learning and experience eliminate unwanted behaviors in favor of desired ones.

However, most behavior modification occurs with short-term person-oriented reinforcements of one to a few seconds, not group-oriented long-term reinforcements of days, months, or years. Long term reinforcements are ambigous, because it's tough to assign a reinforcement to a specific behavior.

A social trap occurs when there is opposition between a highly-motivating short term reward or punishment and a long-term negative consequence. A fence would be a immediate punishment that restricts movement of behavior toward an ultimately positive reward.

One could also have situations where the personal reward and the group reward are in opposition.

Types of Traps

One-Person Traps

Most of these traps involve the shift from a positive R to a negative R after a delay. Smoking and overeating are good examples. Countertraps could be saving for retirement.

Another trap is caused by ignorance of the future reversed outcome.

Another subgroup is sliding reinforcers that begin positive and slowly change to negative, such as drug addiction. The reward for lots of children has changed over time. Consumption of natural resources was one a good but now is seen as having a negative impact on the earth.

The Missing Hero
When group profit Rg+ is blocked by Rp-, we have the missing hero trap. One example is the "mattress" problem, where a mattress in the road causes a traffic jam because people near the mattress don't want to be delayed any more and go by, while people far behind don't know what the problem is. As a result, no one moves the mattress.

Individual Goods and Collective Bads
Collective traps, like the "Tradegy of the Commons", occurs because Rg- occurs because of excessive Rp+ behavior. The Prisoner's Dilemma is another hypthetical example. In this payoff matrix, individual rationality is at odds with collective rationality.

Another example is Sell-a-Dollar, where auctioning off a dollar with a unique payoff matrix causes collective trouble. These examples have similarities with drug addictions and the arms race.

Locked-In Aspects of Collective Behavior
There are three distinct patterns of collective behavior:
1. Invisible hand -- where behavior (or prices) stabilize around a median value without over manipulation by anybody.
2. Invisible fist- where behavior (or prices ) spiral out of control without overt manipulation
3. Invisible Chain -- repetive interlocked behavior between individuals or groups (a feuding married couple, an alcoholic and their spouse, friend, and bartender).

Ways Out
In these problems stemming from differences between short and long-term rewards and punishements, there are some options:

1. Change the delay -- make the long-term consequences more immediate (warning labels, toll roads to pay for long-term investments via short-term, small tolls.,

2. Add counterreinforcers -- add social incentives to discourage short-term behaviors (laws,

3. Change the nature of the long-term consquence --

4. Add Rs+ for competing behavior which will not lead to such bad long-term consequences. Examples are diet cola instead of regular cola, coffee instead of cigarettes,

5. Get outside help in changing the reinforcement patterns. Sometimes the reinforcing behavior is hard to see from the inside.

6. Set up a superordinate authority to reflect immediate reinforcement toward long-range goals.

Nested Traps
Areas like violence in the media or gangs in the cities are complex phenomena involving many feedback loops.

Basically, viewing recurring problems as the result of differences in feedback mechanisms can help one understand situations and possibly develop suitable "ways out".