Social Trap in Psychology

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  • 0:00 Social Traps
  • 1:10 Origins Of The Social…
  • 2:55 Social Fences
  • 3:40 Less Obvious Social Traps
  • 4:50 Solutions
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Social traps bring short-term gains for some but serious long-term consequences for many others. Through this lesson, you will learn how to define a social trap, explore the origin of the theory, and look at some examples of how they work in society.

Social Traps

Imagine an 18-year-old applying for and receiving his or her first credit card, which has a fairly high limit for one so young. Like many people that age might do, that 18-year-old spent that credit limit rather quickly on disposable and unimportant things with no regard for the consequences of his or her reckless spending. In this case, he or she learned quickly that the instant gratification wasn't worth the long-term consequences, but there are others that don't learn this lesson so easily. When groups engage in this kind of shortsighted behavior, it's what's known as a social trap.

In the social sciences, a social trap is a situation in which a group of people actively work to attain a short-term goal which will ultimately have long-term consequences for the larger population. For example, before laws and regulations were passed to prevent it, many chemical companies disposed of toxic and chemical waste by dumping it into the ocean or burying it underground. This solved their problem inasmuch as it made the waste disappear, but it created serious environmental and health hazards for future generations.

Origins of the Social Trap Theory

The concept of social traps emerged from the work of celebrated American physicist John Platt in the 1970s. According to Platt's observations, the term describes a group of people that 'get themselves started in some direction or some set of relationships that later prove to be unpleasant or lethal.' Very often, social traps involve the exploitation of natural resources for short-term gain - like overfishing or drilling for oil - that leaves future generations worse off than those before them.

It's important to note that one of the defining characteristics of the social trap is that the initial behavior is active and intentional. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, for example, was caused by, among other things, an active over-tilling of the land that caused the topsoil of farmland to become loose and very dry. In this case, Midwestern farmers likely had no idea that such over-farming and exhaustion of natural resources would have devastating consequences; rather, they were only thinking about the short-term financial gains from farming as much as possible at that particular point in time. However, their initial actions led to a period of devastating dust storms.

The most important criterion for a social trap is that the behavior is collective, like that of a community or a country. On a much smaller scale, such behavior is known as an individual trap. If you think back to the example of how our 18-year-old used a credit card, you can see how individual traps work. In that case, excessive use of a credit card, money that was being borrowed, led to short-term benefits like material possessions and entertainment, but those serious long-term consequences - like considerable debt and a lower credit score - affected only one individual.

Social Fences

In addition to his observation of social traps, Platt also identified a similar phenomenon that he called social fences. Unlike the active and intentional behavior that leads to social traps, social fences are the result of doing nothing in the interest of short-term gains.

For example, in the present day, there is some concern over the fragile and crumbling infrastructure around the United States. Roads and bridges, cracked and overdue for repair, are beginning to pose a serious risk to Americans who rely on them every day. The problem, however, is that efforts to make these badly-needed repairs would likely require a hike in taxes, but people oppose tax increases, and in doing so they allow the infrastructure to crumble.

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