Escaping (Psycho-)Logic Traps for Better Solutions

mathias-sager-pschologic trap escape 2

Summary. Social traps are situations in which individuals take rational (and often egoist) short-term decisions that, however, lead to negative collective results in the long-term. Some psycho-(logic) traps involve an isolating and limiting view on available behavioral choices. Because everyone needs to feel competent to take future action, the failure trap lets people deny their potential for further learning and engage in task-irrelevant actionism. The sunk cost fallacy is such an example in which, due to already made investments, there is a reluctance to change the unsuccessful course of behavior. Most social issues are not unfortunate events; they have to do with whether we base our solution design on observations rather than assumptions, and whether we accept our duty to act as if we trusted others, although there is always evidence for peoples untrustworthiness. Rather than limiting our fight for survival on individual competition, we can act as institutional entrepreneurs, guiding groups, and societies towards a better future.

Social traps are situations in which individuals take rational (and often egoist) short-term decisions [1] that, however, lead to negative collective results in the long-term [2]. Environmental concerns are a good example. Taking the car is convenient, but causes air pollution for all, including oneself. Activists get demoralized after having invested sacrifices that led them to disappointing political setbacks. The feeling of being trapped in such a social dilemma is stronger when the hindrances are attributed to uncontrollable external circumstances. This is called an external locus of control as compared to an internal locus of control that grounds in the belief of the effectivity of one’s own actions [3].

R. E. Horn lists some logic traps. The “forever changeless” trap is most resembling the phenomenon of learned helplessness, involving an expectation that a current situation inevitably continues forever. The “independent self” trap is about the disregard for dependencies between the self and the (social) environment [4]. Such an isolated notion of identity might be unfavorable for social engagement. On the other hand, if an individual’s identity is too much depending on formal definitions and social conventions, it can limit personal choice too. This is especially true for members of minority groups that may be at risk of not being accurately identified except from an over-standardized political and commercial law perspective [5]. Similarly, lack of social appreciation of professional roles such as teachers can have detrimental effects on their (and their students’) self-esteem and motivation [6].

Everybody needs to feel competent to approach future challenges confidently. By avoiding to see failure as related to one’s ability, failure-trapped individuals resort to illusionary optimism and task-irrelevant behavior that distracts from their unsuccessful activities. Such self-handicapping learned helplessness increasingly applies to populations of unemployed young adults [7]. As another example, the sunk cost fallacy causes people, especially those with a strong action-orientation, to continue a behavior despite its negative outcomes because they don’t want to write off already made investments [8].

Poverty and other social issues are not unfortunate events; they are man-made. The human psychological inability to trust is no legitimization for not acting as if others could be trusted, whether this is supported by societal evidence (e.g., by relative income equality ([9]) or not [10]. Ideally, we see it as our duty to not too quickly make assumptions and give up when facing learning challenges. Resisting learned helplessness and related traps requires an extra portion of irrationality [11]. Humans learn through observation and imitation. Children tend to copy models regardless of their success. Therefore, observation skills are the basis for escaping social and logic traps [12].

Evolution is more than Darwin’s survival of the strongest individual. Modern evolution theories (e.g., Eisenstaedt) take into account the powerful forces of competing collectives, which can lead societies, on an increasingly global level, towards unpredicted directions. Most importantly, any individual can be a leader who provides a group the vision for a new belief system and a changed future of the world [13].


[1] Macy, M. W. (1991). Learning to Cooperate: Stochastic and Tacit Collusion in Social Exchange. American Journal Of Sociology, 97(3), 808.

[2] Urlacher, B. R. (2008). Walking out of two-level social traps (with a little help from my friends). Simulation & Gaming, 39(4), 453-464. doi:10.1177/1046878107311379

[3] Huebner, R. B., & Lipsey, M. W. (1981). The Relationship of Three Measures of Locus of Control to Environment Activism. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 2(1), 45-58.

[4] Tidball, K. (2016). Traps in and of our minds: relationships between human logic, dialectical traps and social-ecological traps. Sustainability Science, 11(6), 867-876. doi:10.1007/s11625-016-0396-y

[5] Clarke, J. A. (2015). Identity and Form. California Law Review, 103(4), 747-839.

[6] Yaghoubinejad, H., Zarrinabadi, N., & Nejadansari, D. (2017). Culture-specificity of teacher demotivation: Iranian junior high school teachers caught in the newly-introduced CLT trap!. Teachers & Teaching, 23(2), 127-140. doi:10.1080/13540602.2016.1205015


[8] Marijke van, P., Marcel, Z., & Eric van, D. (2010). Who throws good money after bad? Action vs. state orientation moderates the sunk cost fallacy. Judgment And Decision Making, Vol 5, Iss 1, Pp 33-36 (2010), (1), 33.

[9] Gärtner, S., & Prado, S. (2016). Unlocking the social trap: Inequality, trust and the Scandinavian welfare state. Social Science History, 40(1), 33-62. doi:10.1017/ssh.2015.80

[10] Chahboun, N. (2015). Nonideal theory and compliance—A clarification. European Journal Of Political Theory, 14(2), 229. doi:10.1177/1474885114559040


[12] Horner, V., & Whiten, A. (2007). Learning from others’ mistakes? Limits on understanding a trap-tube task by young chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and children (Homo sapiens). Journal Of Comparative Psychology, 121(1), 12-21. doi:10.1037/0735-7036.121.1.12

[13] Abrutyn, S., Van Ness, J., & Taylor, M. A. (2016). Collective action and cultural change: Revisiting Eisenstadt’s evolutionary theory. Journal Of Classical Sociology, 16(4), 369-395. doi:10.1177/1468795X16656269