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 LockA 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.
StarvationTo 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 SlopeSometimes 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 RatchetMany 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.