Sunday, April 6, 2014


A fascinating puzzle came up yesterday in James Howard Kunstler’s talk at the Woodstock Writers Festival. Sometimes we can move ourselves from a comfortable situation to an uncomfortable situation but can’t manage to move back to the comfortable situation. Moving from situation A to situation B can be a lot easier than moving from situation B back to situation A. How does this directionality arise?

It ought to be possible to study this from a systems theory perspective, to look at various concrete examples and then abstract the general patterns involved. I propose calling the broad class of patterns traps. A trap is a system of states and actions where moving from happy state A to unhappy state B is much easier than moving from B back to A.

One general feature of traps must be that, to quote Mr. Kunstler, the move from A to B “seemed like a good idea at the time.” This is why a systems-theoretic analysis of traps is important. Falling into a trap is easy. To avoid falling into traps, we need to cultivate an awareness of what traps look like. The best way to escape a trap is not to fall into it in the first place.

The first step of this project is to compile a catalog of realistic traps, from which we might be able to abstract some general patterns.

Time Lock

A simple trap is where external conditions change so that the path you took simply disappears. For example, falling rock could seal off a mine passage.


To cross a desert one must take care to pack enough supplies to make it across. There is a point of no return where you don’t have enough supplies to get back where you started from. If you don’t have the resources to get to a resupply point, you’re stuck.

Slippery Slope

Sometimes moving from point A to point B doesn’t require any effort at all, but moving in the other direction is impossible. By the time you realize you’re moving, it’s too late to do anything about it.

The Ratchet

Many doors have some kind of asymmetrical triangular latch. When the door closes, a gradual ramp on the latch pushes the latch into a free position where the door movement is unimpeded. Then when the door is fully shut, the latch snaps closed. The ramp on the other side of the latch is vertical or perhaps even has a negative slope. Trying to push the door open won’t move that latch. Shutting the door is easy, but opening the door is difficult.

It seems that this pattern is based on inelastic collisions. The smooth ramp allows energy to be put into the latch, moving it to the free state. Then when the latch snaps shut, that energy is dissipated. The sharp reverse side of the ratchet doesn’t provide a way for energy to be put back into the latch.

Burning Bridges

It is possible to move forward in a way that actually destroys the path backwards. For example, one might be driving across a desert. Starvation, the previous pattern, is just running out of gas. But if one is somehow actively destroying the vehicle along the way, that adds an extra feature. Jettisoning supplies or equipment would be an example. Stepping on a mine would be another example. The damage done makes getting back impossible.

Getting Lost

Sometimes the path back to a comfortable state is easy enough but there are very many paths available and most of them don’t lead back. The problem is to figure out which is the right path to take and there just aren’t any clues.

Sunk Costs

An inability to find the path back to a comfortable state can arise because of perceptual distortions that arose as the path out of comfort was traversed. So, for example, each step along a path might strengthen one’s commitment to the correctness of the path. To turn around would be to admit one’s error, which could be too painfully shameful or embarrassing.


  1. Burning Bridges really needs to be split. One can destroy things deliberately, because it seems like a good idea. Or the destruction can happen as an unintended side effect, e.g. stepping on a mine. Probably addiction is an example of deliberate self-destruction. Of course self-destruction is usually not the intended effect. But getting messed up with drugs is not the same kind of surprise as getting messed up by a land mine.

  2. Maybe there are three major components to a trap.

    At the start, there can be some bait that tempts you to enter the trap, along with some camouflage so you won't recognize that it's a trap.

    Then there is the easy process of entering the trap.

    Then there are the difficulties involved in exiting the trap.

  3. A black hole is an interesting sort of slippery slope. In the abstract, the slope never ends! You just keep falling!

    A slippery slope trap is one where you don't have to exert any effort to enter the trap.

    What makes it difficult to exit a trap? Maybe it just takes too much energy, more than you would ever have under ideal circumstance. Or maybe part of the trap is something that injures you, so even though normally you might be able to exit, you have been weakened too much by your injuries.

  4. Another interesting sort of trap... it is always nice to escape the trap with as many intact resources as possible. So one naturally chooses what looks like the easiest path out. But it can be too easy to underestimate what that path actually requires. So after spending quite a bit on that escape plan, one is forced to switch to a cheaper less attractive alternative. This cheaper plan would have been achievable if pursued from the beginning, but now since so much was spent on the first failed plan, the second back-up plan is not such a sure thing. And indeed, one spends quite a bit on plan 2 and comes up short. So now the best of the remaining rotten options plan #3 is put into action. Etc. etc.

  5. Some wierd psychological traps. The steps to leave the trap can be too shameful or embarassing or just scary. What makes them seem that way?

    Of course the steps might really be dangerous. Not just physically dangerous but socially dangerous. A social trap isn't the same as a psychological trap. In some societies, for example, a woman can be trapped in an abusive marriage because if she leaves her husband she will become an outcaste, without resources, i.e. subject to violence or just starvation.

    A psychological trap somehow involves just the perception that exit is impossible or too expensive, even though it actually isn't.

    Maybe psychological traps can be divided into two types. It could be that the perception of the exit paths being infeasible could be a normal perception, one that would already be a typical response before the trap was entered. The other type is one where steps involved in entering the path set up the perceptual framework that makes exiting seem infeasible.

    As an example of the second type, sometimes people get stuck in some kind of ostentatious negative behavior. But to confess that this behavior is wrong, that would be too shameful. So to avoid that shame, the behavior is repeated or even amplified. "Yes, I meant that! I am a bold shocking person! I can get away with this!" A person sets themselves apart and then is trapped by the dread of the shame of admitting guilt, which would be the step needed to rejoin society.

  6. There is the famous monkey trap, the nut in a jar. The monkey grabs the nut. But the clenched fist is too fat to fit back out through the narrow neck of the jar. If the monkey would just let go of the nut, the relaxed hand with extended fingers could leave the jar as easily as it entered. But the monkey wants the nut and won't let go. So the monkey is trapped.

  7. The real existential trap is samsara: an uncomfortable situation stimulates emotional turmoil which then clouds perception and limits thinking, so that actions become ineffective and counter-productive, leading to even deeper discomfort.

  8. So here is one of my wildest ideas:

    1. samsara is a trap

    2. to be a sentient being is to be trapped in samsara

    3. types of sentient beings correspond to ways of being trapped in samsara

    4. so general systems theory model of traps, and in particular ways of being trapped in samsara, should yield a categorization of types of sentient beings.

  9. I need a calm mind to be able to study, but my mind is all agitated, so I can't study.

    I need to meditate to calm my mind, but I don't know how to meditate, so I can't calm my mind.

    I need to study to learn how to meditate, but my mind is too agitated to be able to study, so I can't meditate.

  10. We have to maintain our industrial productivity or we will lose our military power.

    We have to maintain our access to resources or we will lose our industrial productivity.

    We have to maintain our military power or we will lose our access to resources.

  11. So self-amplifying feedback loops are an important class of traps. Perhaps there are two classes of loops that are hard to escape. With one class, the struggle to escape amplifies the strength of the trap's bondage, and the increasing bondage in turn amplifies the struggle to escape. With the other class, the cycle of causes and effects doesn't even leave a gap for the struggle to escape.