Social trap
Social trap is a term used by psychologists to describe a situation in which a group of people act to obtain short-term individual gains, which in the long run leads to a loss for the group as a whole. Examples of social traps include overfishing
Overfishing occurs when fishing activities reduce fish stocks below an acceptable level. This can occur in any body of water from a pond to the oceans....

, the near-extinction
In biology and ecology, extinction is the end of an organism or of a group of organisms , normally a species. The moment of extinction is generally considered to be the death of the last individual of the species, although the capacity to breed and recover may have been lost before this point...

 of the American bison
American Bison
The American bison , also commonly known as the American buffalo, is a North American species of bison that once roamed the grasslands of North America in massive herds...

, energy "brownout" and "blackout" power outage
Power outage
A power outage is a short- or long-term loss of the electric power to an area.There are many causes of power failures in an electricity network...

s during periods of extreme temperatures, the overgrazing
Overgrazing occurs when plants are exposed to intensive grazing for extended periods of time, or without sufficient recovery periods. It can be caused by either livestock in poorly managed agricultural applications, or by overpopulations of native or non-native wild animals.Overgrazing reduces the...

 of cattle on the Sahel
The Sahel is the ecoclimatic and biogeographic zone of transition between the Sahara desert in the North and the Sudanian Savannas in the south.It stretches across the North African continent between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea....

ian Desert, and the destruction of the rainforest
Rainforests are forests characterized by high rainfall, with definitions based on a minimum normal annual rainfall of 1750-2000 mm...

 by logging
Logging is the cutting, skidding, on-site processing, and loading of trees or logs onto trucks.In forestry, the term logging is sometimes used in a narrow sense concerning the logistics of moving wood from the stump to somewhere outside the forest, usually a sawmill or a lumber yard...

 interests and agriculture
Agriculture is the cultivation of animals, plants, fungi and other life forms for food, fiber, and other products used to sustain life. Agriculture was the key implement in the rise of sedentary human civilization, whereby farming of domesticated species created food surpluses that nurtured the...


Origin of the concept

The term social trap was first introduced to the scientific community by John Platt's 1973 paper in American Psychologist
American Psychologist
The American Psychologist is the official academic journal of the American Psychological Association. It contains archival documents and articles covering current issues in psychology, the science and practice of psychology, and psychology's contribution to public policy...

, and in a book developed in an interdisciplinary symposium held at the University of Michigan
University of Michigan
The University of Michigan is a public research university located in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the United States. It is the state's oldest university and the flagship campus of the University of Michigan...

. Building upon the concept of the "tragedy of the commons
Tragedy of the commons
The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this...

" in Garrett Hardin
Garrett Hardin
Garrett James Hardin was an American ecologist who warned of the dangers of overpopulation and whose concept of the tragedy of the commons brought attention to "the damage that innocent actions by individuals can inflict on the environment"...

's pivotal article in Science
Science (journal)
Science is the academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is one of the world's top scientific journals....

(1968), Platt and others in the seminar applied behavioral psychology
Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Its immediate goal is to understand individuals and groups by both establishing general principles and researching specific cases. For many, the ultimate goal of psychology is to benefit society...

 concepts to actions of people operating in social traps. By applying the findings of basic research on "schedules of operant reinforcement" (B.F. Skinner 1938, 1948, 1953, 1957; Keller and Schoenfeld, 1950), Platt recognized that individuals operating for short-term positive gain ("reinforcement
Reinforcement is a term in operant conditioning and behavior analysis for the process of increasing the rate or probability of a behavior in the form of a "response" by the delivery or emergence of a stimulus Reinforcement is a term in operant conditioning and behavior analysis for the process of...

") had a tendency to over-exploit a resource, which led to a long-term overall loss to society.

The application of behavioral psychology terms to behaviors in the tragedy of the commons led to the realization that the same short-term/long-term cause-effect relationship also applied to other human traps, in addition to the exploitation of commonly held resources. Platt et al. also introduced the terms social fence and individual trap. Social fence refers to a short-term avoidance behavior by individuals that leads to a long-term loss to the entire group. An example is the anecdote of a mattress that falls from a vehicle on a two lane highway. Motorists tend to back up in a traffic jam behind the mattress, waiting for a break in the oncoming traffic to pass around the mattress. Each individual motorist avoids the opportunity to exit their stopped car and pull the mattress to the side of the road. The long-term consequence of this avoidance behavior is that all of the motorists (except for perhaps one) arrived at their destinations later than they would have if an individual had removed the mattress barrier.

An individual trap is similar to a social trap except that it involves the behavior of only a single person rather than a group of people. The basic concept is that an individual's behavior for short-term reinforcers leads to a long-term loss for the individual. Examples of individual traps are tobacco smoking
Tobacco smoking
Tobacco smoking is the practice where tobacco is burned and the resulting smoke is inhaled. The practice may have begun as early as 5000–3000 BCE. Tobacco was introduced to Eurasia in the late 16th century where it followed common trade routes...

 leading to lung cancer
Lung cancer
Lung cancer is a disease characterized by uncontrolled cell growth in tissues of the lung. If left untreated, this growth can spread beyond the lung in a process called metastasis into nearby tissue and, eventually, into other parts of the body. Most cancers that start in lung, known as primary...

 or alcohol
In chemistry, an alcohol is an organic compound in which the hydroxy functional group is bound to a carbon atom. In particular, this carbon center should be saturated, having single bonds to three other atoms....

 ingestion leading to cirrhosis
Cirrhosis is a consequence of chronic liver disease characterized by replacement of liver tissue by fibrosis, scar tissue and regenerative nodules , leading to loss of liver function...

 of the liver.

First empirical test and the use of superimposed schedules of reinforcement

The first empirical test of the concept of social traps was by Brechner at Arizona State University
Arizona State University
Arizona State University is a public research university located in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area of the State of Arizona...

, who operationalized
In humanities, operationalization is the process of defining a fuzzy concept so as to make the concept clearly distinguishable or measurable and to understand it in terms of empirical observations...

 the concepts underlying Platt et al.'s theoretical analysis. By creating a laboratory game, Brechner had groups of college students playing a game where they could accumulate points by pressing buttons for the individual short-term positive rewards of experimental credit in their introductory psychology classes. Players could see a lighted display that indicated the total quantity of points available at any given time in the experiment. Players were told that if they completely drained the pool of points, the game was over and they could not accumulate more points. By responding for points at a moderate rate all the players in the group could accumulate enough points to fulfill their entire semester's experimental requirements. But if one or more players took points for themselves at too fast a rate, the pool would be drained of points and none of the players would achieve the maximum potential experimental credit.

In building the laboratory analogy of social traps, Brechner introduced the concept of "superimposed schedules of reinforcement". Skinner
A skinner is a person who makes a living by working with animal skins or driving mules, similar to a muleteer.A common surname for numerous notable individuals:-Historical:*Charles Montgomery Skinner , American writer...

 and Ferster (1957) had demonstrated that reinforcers could be delivered on schedules (schedule of reinforcement), and further that organisms behaved differently under different schedules. Rather than a reinforcer, such as food or water, being delivered every time as a consequence of some behavior, a reinforcer could be delivered after more than one instance of the behavior. For example, a pigeon may be required to peck a button switch five times before food is made available to the pigeon. This is called a "ratio schedule". Also, a reinforcer could be delivered after an interval of time passed following a target behavior. An example is a rat
Rats are various medium-sized, long-tailed rodents of the superfamily Muroidea. "True rats" are members of the genus Rattus, the most important of which to humans are the black rat, Rattus rattus, and the brown rat, Rattus norvegicus...

 that is given a food pellet one minute after the rat pressed a lever. This is called an "interval schedule". In addition, ratio schedules can deliver reinforcement following fixed or variable number of behaviors by the individual organism. Likewise, interval schedules can deliver reinforcement following fixed or variable intervals of time following a single response by the organism. Individual behaviors tend to generate response rates that differ based upon how the reinforcement schedule is created. Much subsequent research in many labs examined the effects on behaviors of scheduling reinforcers.

When an organism is offered the opportunity to choose between or among two or more simple schedules of reinforcement at the same time, the reinforcement structures are called "concurrent schedules of reinforcement". In creating the laboratory analogy of social traps, Brechner created a situation where simple reinforcement schedules were superimposed upon each other. In other words, a single response or group of responses by an organism led to multiple consequences. Concurrent schedules of reinforcement can be thought of as "or" schedules, and superimposed schedules of reinforcement can be thought of as "and" schedules.

To simulate social traps a short-term positive reward is superimposed upon a long-term negative consequence. In the specific experiment, the short-term positive reinforcer was earning points that applied to class credits. The long-term negative consequence was that each point earned by a player also drained the pool of available points. Responding too rapidly for short-term gains led to the long-term loss of draining the resource pool. What makes the traps social is that any individual can respond in a way that the long-term consequence also comes to bear on the other individuals in the environment.

Superimposed schedules of reinforcement have many real-world applications in addition to generating social traps (Brechner and Linder, 1981; Brechner, 1987; Brechner, 2010). Many different human individual and social situations can be created by superimposing simple reinforcement schedules. For example, a human being could have simultaneous tobacco and alcohol addictions. Even more complex situations can be created or simulated by superimposing two or more concurrent schedules. For example, a high school senior could have a choice between going to Stanford University or UCLA, and at the same time have the choice of going into the Army or the Air Force, and simultaneously the choice of taking a job with an internet company or a job with a software company. That would be a reinforcement structure of three superimposed concurrent schedules of reinforcement. An example of the use of superimposed schedules as a tool in the analysis of the contingencies of rent control can be found online in the website "Economic and Game Theory Forum", (Brechner, 2003).

Subsequent experimentation

Subsequent empirical studies by other researchers explored aspects of social traps other than the underlying reinforcement structure. Studies tended to concentrate on manipulating social and cognitive variables. Cass and Edney (1978) created a simpler game using a bowl of nuts to simulate a commonly held resource. The Nuts Game as they called it had some distinct advantages over Brechner's electronically wired laboratory simulation. The Nuts Game could be transported easily to any environment in or out of the laboratory. It was simple and required no electronics. The reinforcers used were primary food rewards rather than the secondary conditioned reinforcers of class credit used in the earlier study.

From Platt et al.'s initial concept, social trap research has spread to laboratories all over the world and has expanded into the fields of sociology, economics, institutional design, and the nuclear arms race. Summaries of the many other diverse studies of social traps can be found in Messick and McClelland (1983), Costanza (1984), Komorita and Parks (1996), and Rothstein (2005).

Social trap research continues to be an active area. Urlacher (2008) devised an iterated version of the prisoner's dilemma
Prisoner's dilemma
The prisoner’s dilemma is a canonical example of a game, analyzed in game theory that shows why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interest to do so. It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950. Albert W...

 game using groups of people, or "agents", pitted against other groups of agents, in a variation he termed a "two-level social trap". He reported that when using a democratic decision rule, larger groups behaved more cooperatively than smaller groups. Chuang, Rivoire, and Liebler (2009) constructed a non-mammalian commons dilemma using colonies of the bacteria
Bacteria are a large domain of prokaryotic microorganisms. Typically a few micrometres in length, bacteria have a wide range of shapes, ranging from spheres to rods and spirals...

 Escherichia coli
Escherichia coli
Escherichia coli is a Gram-negative, rod-shaped bacterium that is commonly found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded organisms . Most E. coli strains are harmless, but some serotypes can cause serious food poisoning in humans, and are occasionally responsible for product recalls...

composed of strains of producer and nonproducer microbes that contribute (or do not contribute) to the common resource in an examination of the statistical concept of Simpson's paradox
Simpson's paradox
In probability and statistics, Simpson's paradox is a paradox in which a correlation present in different groups is reversed when the groups are combined. This result is often encountered in social-science and medical-science statistics, and it occurs when frequencydata are hastily given causal...


In 2010, Shaimaa Lazem and Denis Gračanin, in the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech, took social traps to a new level: Into cyberspace
Cyberspace is the electronic medium of computer networks, in which online communication takes place.The term "cyberspace" was first used by the cyberpunk science fiction author William Gibson, though the concept was described somewhat earlier, for example in the Vernor Vinge short story "True...

. They performed a replication of the original social trap experiment, but created the social trap in the internet virtual world known as Second Life
Second Life
Second Life is an online virtual world developed by Linden Lab. It was launched on June 23, 2003. A number of free client programs, or Viewers, enable Second Life users, called Residents, to interact with each other through avatars...

 (Lazem and Gračanin, 2010). They constructed a virtual experimental laboratory with the subjects responding through avatar
Avatar (computing)
In computing, an avatar is the graphical representation of the user or the user's alter ego or character. It may take either a three-dimensional form, as in games or virtual worlds, or a two-dimensional form as an icon in Internet forums and other online communities. It can also refer to a text...

s. The findings mirrored the original study, by finding that the ability to communicate led to greater replenishment of common resources.

See also

  • Overexploitation
    Overexploitation, also called overharvesting, refers to harvesting a renewable resource to the point of diminishing returns. Sustained overexploitation can lead to the destruction of the resource...

  • Overfishing
    Overfishing occurs when fishing activities reduce fish stocks below an acceptable level. This can occur in any body of water from a pond to the oceans....

  • Overgrazing
    Overgrazing occurs when plants are exposed to intensive grazing for extended periods of time, or without sufficient recovery periods. It can be caused by either livestock in poorly managed agricultural applications, or by overpopulations of native or non-native wild animals.Overgrazing reduces the...

  • Paradox of thrift
    Paradox of thrift
    The paradox of thrift is a paradox of economics, popularized by John Maynard Keynes, though it had been stated as early as 1714 in The Fable of the Bees, and similar sentiments date to antiquity...

  • Social dilemma
    Social dilemma
    Social dilemmas are situations in which collective interests are at odds with private interests. Such situations arise when faced with prioritizing either short-term selfish interests or the long-term interests of a group, organization, or society. Many of the most challenging issues, from the...

  • Tragedy of the commons
    Tragedy of the commons
    The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this...

  • Trigger strategy
    Trigger strategy
    In game theory, a trigger strategy is any of a class of strategies employed in a repeated non-cooperative game. A player using a trigger strategy initially cooperates but punishes the opponent if a certain level of defection is observed...

  • Tyranny of small decisions
    Tyranny of small decisions
    The tyranny of small decisions refers to a phenomenon explored in an essay by that name, published in 1966 by the American economist Alfred E. Kahn. The article describes a situation where a number of decisions, individually small in size and time perspective, cumulatively result in an outcome...

  • War of attrition
    War of attrition (game)
    In game theory, the war of attrition is a model of aggression in which two contestants compete for a resource of value V by persisting while constantly accumulating costs over the time t that the contest lasts. The model was originally formulated by John Maynard Smith, a mixed evolutionary stable...

  • Welfare trap
    Welfare trap
    The welfare trap theory asserts that taxation and welfare systems can jointly contribute to keep people on social insurance because the withdrawal of means tested benefits that comes with entering low-paid work causes there to be no significant increase in total income...

  • Zero-sum
    In game theory and economic theory, a zero-sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which a participant's gain of utility is exactly balanced by the losses of the utility of other participant. If the total gains of the participants are added up, and the total losses are...

External links

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