Psychological Traps. What Are They?
"Even when it no longer makes sense,we may step up our efforts to save a relationship or a career which is yielding diminishing returns. Not knowing when to cut our losses,we continue to pour money into an aging automobile, a risky investment or a doubtful poker hand. Caught in traps of our own devising we can only climb out by understanding how they work".
By: Jeffrey Z. Ruben
You place a phone call and are put on hold. You wait. And then you wait some more. Should you hang up? Perhaps. After all why waste another second of your valuable time? On the other hand if you do hang up you'll only have to call again to accomplish whatever business put you on the phone in the first place. Anyway, you have already spent all of this time on hold so why give up now? You wait some more. At some point you finally resign yourself to the likelihood you have been put on hold forever. Even as you hang up however, your ear remains glued to the receiver hoping to the bitter end you did not spend all of your time waiting in vain.
Almost all of us have spent too much time caught in little traps. Even when it no longer makes sense some of us continue to spend money on a failing automobile or washing machine, a risky stock investment or a dubious relationship. Some of us simply do not know when to cut our losses and get out. The same goes for more serious situations. Some of us remain longer then we should in a marriage or love relationship, a job or career, or a therapy which is yielding diminishing returns. On a larger scale, entrapment is part of the dynamics in political controversies: Iran-Contra, Watergate, the Meech Lake Accord.
A common set of psychological issues and motivations underlies all such situations. A process of entrapment which shares many of the characteristics of animal traps and con games has been studied in a variety of laboratory and natural settings. As researchers we are attempting to describe the properties of psychological traps; what they have in common, where they lurk, whom they tend to snare and how they can be avoided.
To grasp psychological entrapment we must first comprehend the simplest traps of all physical traps for animals. Animal traps are ingenious devices devilishly clever and efficient, and utterly sinister in their effect on their victims. What properties then make animal traps work?
First of all an effective animal trap must be able to lure or to distract the quarry into behaving in ways which threaten its self-preservation. Second, an effective animal trap permits traffic in one direction only. Third, an effective trap is often engineered so the quarry's very efforts to escape entrap it all the more. Finally, an effective trap must be suited to the particular attributes of the quarry it is designed to capture.
Some types of personal interactions are psychological traps for capturing people; they are remarkably similar to self-entrapment. Like animal traps, their effectiveness lies in the trapper's ability to lure the quarry into a course of action that leads to entrapment. The human motives leading to entrapment include greed, excessive ambition and the need to save face or to punish an adversary. Similarly, when our personal or professional life disappoints us and our efforts to achieve a turn-around do not pay off quickly enough, we may decide to justify the high cost by renewing our commitment and remain on the treadmill.