Different Kinds of Social Traps

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Psychologist John Platt first asserted the idea of social traps in a 1973 paper titled after the concept. A social trap is any scenario in which an option yields immediate rewards, but future undesired consequences. As Platt theorized, an individual’s actions could bring eventual harm to himself (one-person trap) -- or, groups of people acting separately, yet similarly, could bring eventual harm for the group as a whole (collective trap).

Time Delay

Time delay social traps are characterized by shifts from positive to negative consequences after the passage of time. One example of a time delay trap would be the unhealthy combination of eating excessively and avoiding exercise. Immediately, you feel gratified by the taste of scrumptious food and by the avoidance of physically demanding activity -- but once more time passes, the negative results of weight gain and energy depletion surface as consequences for the poor regimen.

Sliding Reinforcer

Sliding reinforcers begin with positive outcomes, but yield progressively more negative outcomes each time the action is repeated. An initial experience using drugs may yield an ecstatic high, but tolerance, dependency and addiction increase each time the user comes down from his high. To satisfy the addiction, more and more of the drug is needed, and its harmful physiological and psychological effects compound with each use.


Social traps of ignorance result from an individual’s total lack of awareness regarding the risks and potential outcomes of a relatively harmless action. Telling a personal secret to a confidant without realizing someone else is in hearing range, for instance, would qualify as a social trap of ignorance.

Missing Hero

Missing hero social traps involve scenarios in which each individual in proximity to a negative occurrence fails to provide a remedy because doing so is not to his immediate benefit. Since no one addresses the issue, all suffer. Platt’s example involved traffic delays due to an obstruction in the road. No one close enough to see the obstruction wants to cause himself further delay by getting out of his car and removing the obstruction himself. By the time drivers farther back are finally near enough to see the obstruction, they’ve been held up so long themselves that they certainly won’t cause themselves further delay by getting out to remove the obstruction -- so traffic delays continue.

Tragedy of the Commons

Tragedy of the commons describes a social trap in which no individual acts directly against a group’s interests by acting to benefit himself -- but when several individuals act in the same manner, a detriment results. For instance, most people understand the need to conserve natural resources like water -- yet many figure that the extra-long shower they take daily, or they sprinklers they have on each night, won’t use up enough water to make any real difference to the water supply. They would be right, if several others did not think the same way -- thus, collectively, draining a much more significant share of limited resources than they realize.