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Social Traps and Beyond: The Situation is Hopeless But Not Serious

Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

The Nonsensical Ineffectiveness of Win-Loss / Zero-Sum Games & the Eloquent Adaptiveness of Win-Win / Non-Zero-Sum Games

Self-interest is the enemy of all true affection.
-Franklin D. Roosevelt

Being preoccupied with short-term personal gains to our collective long-term detriment is an old, old story on this planet. We’ll be sure to fix the dam that has been leaking for years as soon as it collapses, there is 100 million dollars of damage, and hundreds of people have perished. We’ll be sure to pass the legislation to retrofit freeways for earthquake safety in California, voted down yearly for over two decades, within six months of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake when people graphically saw on television cars falling off the broken ends of freeway to their ruin. Do we ever learn from any of this?

What can be said to help us understand such behavior? Some call it unenlightened self-interest, while others call it selfish greed, while still others simply chalk it up to human nature. Possibly it is a survival remnant from our evolutionary past that keeps exerting its influence. It may also be the dominance of the tangible thing-in-front-of us over the non-tangible consequences down-the road. In Social Psychology these situations are called “social traps,” defined as any situation that tends to reward immediate actions that will have undesired effects over time. A few stories help set the context for exploring this all-pervasive, self-defeating pattern.

Scylla and Charybdis are described by Homer as two sea monsters of Greek mythology that were located on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Magna Græcia in Southern Italy and Sicily. They were located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to sailors passing by; avoiding Scylla meant passing too closely to Charybdis and vice versa. Charybdis is depicted as a single huge gaping mouth that sucked in huge quantities of water, belched them out three times daily, thereby creating whirlpools, while Scylla is described as having six heads on long twelve foot necks. In Homer’s The Odyssey Odysseus was forced to choose which monster to confront in sailing through the strait and he picked to fight Charybdis as a better bet in losing only a few sailors instead of risking losing his entire ship in a whirlpool. As it turns out, Odysseus did lose his ship in Charybdis, yet managed to save himself by clinging to a tree overhanging the water. The whirlpool later spat up the ship and Odysseus dropped to safety on it deck. The mythic legend gave birth to the phrase “being torn between Scylla and Charybdis,” meaning a situation in which one has to choose between two equally unattractive options.

Similarly, author Joseph Heller in his novel Catch-22 coined the phrase “Catch-22” to stand for a logical paradox arising from any situation in which someone needs something that can only be acquired by not being in that very situation; thus, the acquisition of this thing became logically impossible. In the military novel, catch-22s are spoken with regard to rules, regulations, procedures, or situations in which one has knowledge of being or becoming a victim but has no control over it occurring. Catch-22 logic (or more accurately illogic) is seen with not being able to rent an apartment because you have never rented an apartment, or having no choice but to be admitted to a psychiatric mental hospital suffering from a mental disorder given you presented yourself at their admissions desk.

Both the plight of Odysseus navigating by the sea monsters of Scylla and Charybdis and the illogic of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 sound similar to the popular notion of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” and illustrate the conclusion author Paul Watzlawick offered in the book title: The situation is hopeless, but not serious. The “hopeless” part of this title is thinking, believing and expecting to gain happiness or anything else at the expense of another, what is called a “zero-sum game” in both economic theory and game theory, in which a person’s winning comes at the expense of another person losing because of the belief that there is only a very limited and finite amount of “stuff” available. What makes it “hopeless” is that it is doomed to failure over the long haul since it is a failing strategy. Besides this, consider that “hope” is only a delusion with a positive spin on an event being projected into the so-called future that is both unknown and non-existent. Similarly, “fear” is only a delusion with a negative spin on an event being projected into some sort of futureland that again is both unknown and non-existent.

The “not serious” part of the Watzlawick’s title is that the resolving of such impossible and illogical situations is hopelessly simply: have both win in a win-win format, a non-zero-sum game. Thus, in Watzlawick’s view, zero-sum games are inherently unworkable and “hopeless” for the collective whole, while non-zero sum games simply are “not serious” given they are designed to work for everyone, even when the situation appears to be a no-win situation, commonly describe as “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” In a win-win or non-zero-sum game, neither hopes nor fears are necessary or particularly helpful in making the apparent choices that can work well for everyone.

Both the Buddha and philosopher Aristotle recognized that for every action there is a reaction. Given that all philosophical discussions of ethics began with Aristotle, what exactly is Aristotle’s starting point? His starting point is the assumption that everything humans do is aimed at some good, and further that some good is higher than others. He referred to happiness or “eudaimonia” (often translated as “living well”) as the highest human good people can aim for. It would seem that Aristotle premised his entire system of ethics upon a hierarchical structure with happiness or living well as the criterion to be used in judging this. Aristotle did not even conceive of the possibility that such a win-loss format almost inevitably devolves into a lose-lose game or situation that is hardly attractive to anyone.

Aristotle employed this core structure in describing ethics, which appears to equally apply to win-loss situations, another version of the zero-sum game. It is not a wild surmise or conjecture to consider that Aristotle’s ethics only perceived one party winning, while the other party or parties must lose in obtaining happiness. Take the illustration of any argument or debate, any battle or war. The two opponents match their wits, brawn and firepower on the field of battle with the result of one being the victor and the other being the defeated. A classic example is a beauty contest. There can be only one winner and every one else loses. A modern equivalent is football’s annual Super Bowl between the two best professional teams in their league. Again, there can be only one winning team and one losing team.

Has there ever been a “winner” in any argument, debate, battle or war? Is the so-called winner of a beauty contest the only real beauty? Is there any team or player in any Super Bowl who wasn’t a winner, no matter how well their team played on that particular day? The questions are as rhetorical as the answers are obvious. Everyone loses in a war. Possible daters can so intimidate themselves over the winner of a beauty contest that they don’t dare ask her out so she can end up being lonely, while other contestants may feel animosity, resentment and envy over not winning themselves. Aristotle apparently also did not ever imagine lose-lose or win-win formats, so how could he ever address them?

Zero-sum describes situations in which a participant’s outcomes, whether benefits or losses, are exactly proportional and balanced by the other participant(s)’ outcomes, whether benefits or losses. In zero-sum contexts, there is a set or constant sum in which the gains and losses to all participants total the same value of money, merchandise or utility. In a zero-sum situation, one participant’s gain creates the other participant’s losses. Thus, zero-sum games clearly can be highly competitive, vicious and cutthroat.

Paradoxically, the very nature of a zero-sum game is that of being obsessed with the need to defeat the opponent to prevent being defeated by him, defeats everyone. One classic version of the zero-sum game is “special interests” in which one organization campaigns and lobbies for a bigger slice of the pie of resources, money, power or influence at the expense of other special interests and, in fact, everyone else. The gain of any special interest comes at the expense of all others receiving less. The underlying theme song remains the same across all zero-sum games: our blithely following the imaginary psychological self or separate false ego, without first being aware of it, questioning its assumptions, playing out its conclusions and challenging its very existence. At root, illusions still are illusions at root.

Alternatively, non-zero-sum games or win-win situations with two-person systems (i.e., dyads) or win-win-win in companies (multi-player systems) for employees, shareholders and customers are available once you release and surrender blindly obeying and following the ego’s attachment to winning and not losing at any expense. Given the fictive ego’s highly tenacious, clinging and fearful means of operating, it is no mean feat to carve out a space to first see the possibility of someone else benefiting not at your expense, but further challenge, deconstruct and let go the tightly held and unquestioned belief that releasing the win-loss, zero-sum game format, will irrevocably hurt you. Even if these hurdles are eclipsed, there still remains the releasing of the imaginary ego-mind which possesses no ability to surrender anything, at least suspending belief in it long enough, to thoroughly let go of the win-loss format to honestly give a win-win, win-win-win or all-win format a fair trial.

Be forewarned that essentially no amount of talking and especially thinking will help elucidate, clarify or empower you into action. This is the ego-mind’s realm and, in all honestly, you have no idea what you are dealing with or up against using all forms of conceptualizing. At the same time, the ego is even weaker than malformed cancer cells since the ego-mind as a separate psychological false self does not even exist. It only has what you give it; otherwise it has nothing whatsoever to work with. Give it lots of energy, attention, importance and activity, especially mental activity, and lo it seems invincible. Alternatively, give it virtually nothing in all these ways, and it has nothing, is nothing and can do nothing. Stop to see the ego getting activated-ego-ing-and see just how ridiculous, stark raving mad, and illusory its musings actually are. Engage in witnessing and observing the ego-mind in presence, naturally releasing and surrendering who you never were and surely are not now, and you are free. You are free to really consider honoring a win-win way of being through life without all the ego’s nonsense.

What is a non-zero-sum game? Non-zero-sum games describe situations in which participants can all make gains and can all lose or suffer. For example, I have a field producing an excess of almonds and you have a field producing an excess of apples. We both benefit by engaging in a trade. It is the same with trades between people, communities, states and countries. So long as the sum of assets and liabilities, benefits and losses, remain close to what each began with, this is a non-zero sum game.

A relevant perspective worth exploring are social traps. “Social traps” are a phenomenon in Social Psychology that describes a situation in which an individual or group of individuals act or operate for short-term gains or reinforcement, but have a tendency to over-exploit a resource that in the long run leads to a loss for the group as a whole and to society. The original article named “Social Traps” by John Platt (1973) set the stage for this concept and subsequent interest. Plat described the phenomenon: “The term refers to situations in society that contain traps formally like a fish trap, where men or organizations or whole societies get themselves started in some direction or some set of relationships that later prove to be unpleasant or lethal and that they see no easy way to back out of or to avoid.”

Platt offered two descriptions of social traps in which individual advantage is collectively damaging: 1) Garrett Hardin’s (1968) article “The Tragedy of the Commons” that looked at the Commons or public grass lands where anyone can grace his cows freely, yet with every cow owner gracing his cows and increasing their herd and monies therein, the grass gets scarcer and is finally destroyed completely, with owners subsequently having a loss instead of a gain; and 2) the Kitty Genovese murder in New York City in the mid-1960’s in which a girl was raped and killed while thirty plus neighbors watched out their windows without calling police, illustrating some barrier for individuals in acting to protect another’s well being at the risk of individual risk in reporting and testifying over the crime and a chance of being hunted down by the perpetrators.

Everyday examples of “one person traps” are smoking cigarettes, overeating, drinking beyond one’s limits at a party and paying for it with a hangover the morning after, buying products and going into debt and then agonizing when the credit card bill comes in the mail, and teenagers and adults of any age enjoying the thrills of sexual intimacy only to pay the price of unwanted pregnancies, shot-gun or forced marriages, postponed education/career advancement, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), early divorce, poorly supported children and broken families. Illustrations of collective social traps in which no individual acts in opposition to group interest are ubiquitous. One example is everyone going to work at the same time and leaving work at the same time so all experience traffic jams that make everyone late.

A great many social problems can accurately be considered social traps. Take environmental challenges, including environmental pollution, overfishing, the destruction of the rainforest by agriculture and logging interests, the near-extinction of the American Bald eagle and the American bison and the overgrazing of cattle in the Sahelian and Sahara Deserts. Look at farmers who year after year apply pesticides to protect crops from pest damage and over time these pesticides may have permanently polluted the water system. Consider energy shortages, including energy brownout and blackout power outages during periods of extreme temperatures. Focus on railroad transportation in which people prefer cars to trains causing curtailment of passenger rail travel, and later people want the return of passenger train travel given traffic congestion. Feature medical doctors over-prescribing antibiotics for years to aid their patients in fighting diseases and now find that these same medications are becoming less and less effective as hybrid bacteria have evolved resistance to the antibiotics. On an international basis, look at the stockpiling of nuclear weapons to aid countries to feel secure in their national interest that only increase the chance of a nuclear holocaust given human error, power attachment, hate or stupidity.

A number of strategies have been proposed to dissolve social traps. Seminal theoretician John Platt (1973) proposes the following to help remedy “social traps”: 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 counter-reinforcers-add social incentives to discourage short-term behaviors such as laws; 3) Change the nature of the long-term consquence; 4) Add positive reinforcement for competing behavior which will not lead to such bad long-term consequences, such as diet cola instead of regular cola or coffee instead of cigarettes; 5) Get outside help in changing the reinforcement patterns given that sometimes the reinforcing behavior is hard to see from the inside; and 6) Set up a superordinate authority to reflect immediate reinforcement toward long-range goals. Other proposed solutions include some form of federation or authority to solve the collective problem by establishing structures/limits with enforcement legislation, converting common good into private property to provide an incentive to enforce greater care and sustainability, and privatizing common resources. However each has its critics. If you would like to hear more, please scroll down to the next HEAR button.

Transforming social traps into beneficial social structures in both the public and private sector is the topic explored by authors Thaler and Sunstein (2008) in their book Nudge. These authors propose designing choice environments they call “choice architecture” to nudge us in beneficial directions without forcing people to do anything or putting any restriction on our freedom of choice. By “nudge” the authors refer to anything that helps influence our choices and make significant improvements in the decisions people make.

Thaler and Sustein give examples using the nudge principles that can make a difference, including putting more savings for retirement, make better investments in retirement plans, less obesity, an improved educational system, choose good credit card plans, reduce harmful pollution in creating a cleaner planet and more charitable giving. For these authors it is all about making better decisions with a wide range of situations, such as picking a good mortgage, improving the environment and saving on utility bills. One illustration using the Nudge principles is putting the healthiest foods in front at a school cafeteria to help nudge kids toward a healthier diet. Another example is the program Save More Tomorrow in which companies offer employees who are not saving much for retirement to join a program that allows their saving rates to automatically increase whenever the employee receives a raise. Apparently this program has more than tripled savings rates in some firms. The authors see that using the principles of nudge can make a powerful positive difference in the realm of public policy and with choice architects, including parents, employers, doctors, banks and credit card companies to name a few.

The notion of “social traps” is illustrative of the power of zero-sum and non-zero-sum situations. It’s the difference between participants choosing to pursue mutually destructive behavior for immediate or short-term selfish ends, or showing prudence, restraint and fine judgment by carefully choosing actions that serve personal objectives in the short-term while, at the same time, to fully see the long-term consequences by “playing the tape all the way through” to honor collective interests and goals. Yes, the situation still remains hopeless but not serious. Pause, watch and see for yourself the nonsensical ineffectiveness of win-loss / zero-sum games and the eloquent adaptiveness of win-win / non-zero-sum games. Choose well, for the stakes are high-nothing less than the quality of your life and life itself.


Aristotle. (2010)

Hardin, G. (1968) “The tragedy of the commons.” Science, 162, 1243-1248.

Platt, J. (1973) “Social traps.” American Psychologist, 28, August 1973, 641-651, quote: 641; remedies: pp. 648-650.

Thaler, R. H. & Sunstein, C. R. (2008) Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Watzlawick, P. (1983) The situation is hopeless, but not serious: The pursuit of unhappiness. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Keep Reading By Author Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D.
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