The term social trap was first introduced to the scientific community by John Platt's 1973 paper in American Psychologist, and developed in an interdisciplinary symposium held at the University of Michigan (Cross & Guyer, 1980). Building upon the concept of the "tragedy of the commons" in Garrett Hardin's pivotal article in Science (1968), Platt and others in the seminar applied behavioral psychology concepts to actions of people operating in social traps. Using a behavioral analysis based upon the work of B.F. Skinner (1938, 1948, 1953, 1957) and his colleagues (Keller and Schoenfeld, 1950), Platt recognized that individuals operating for short-term positive reinforcement had a tendency to over-exploit a resource, which led to a long-term overall loss to society.
The application of behavioral psychology terms to behaviors in the tragedy of the commons led to the realization that the same short-term/long-term cause-effect relationship also applied to other human traps, in addition to the exploitation of commonly held resources. Platt et al. also introduced the terms social fence and individual trap. Social fence refers to a short-term avoidance behavior by individuals that leads to a long-term loss to the entire group. An example is the anecdote of a mattress that falls from a vehicle on a two lane highway. Motorists tend to back up in a traffic jam behind the mattress, waiting for a break in the oncoming traffic to pass around the mattress. Each individual motorist avoids the opportunity to exit their stopped car and pull the mattress to the side of the road. The long-term consequence of this avoidance behavior is that all of the motorists (except for perhaps one) arrived at their destinations later than they would have if an individual had removed the mattress barrier.
An individual trap is similar to a social trap except that it involves the behavior of only a single person rather than a group of people. The basic concept is that an individual's behavior for short-term reinforcers leads to a long-term loss for the individual. Examples of individual traps are tobacco smoking leading to lung cancer or alcohol ingestion leading to cirrhosis of the liver.
In building the laboratory analogy of social traps, Brechner introduced the concept of "superimposed schedules of reinforcement". Skinner and Ferster (1957) had demonstrated that reinforcers could be delivered on schedules (schedule of reinforcement), and further that organisms behaved differently under different schedules. Rather than a reinforcer, such as food or water, being delivered every time as a consequence of some behavior, a reinforcer could be delivered after more than one instance of the behavior. For example, a pigeon may be required to peck a button switch five times before food is made available to the pigeon. This is called a "ratio schedule". Also, a reinforcer could be delivered after an interval of time passed following a target behavior. An example is a rat that is given a food pellet one minute after the rat pressed a lever. This is called an "interval schedule". In addition, ratio schedules can deliver reinforcement following fixed or variable number of behaviors by the individual organism. Likewise, interval schedules can deliver reinforcement following fixed or variable intervals of time following a single response by the organism. Individual behaviors tend to generate response rates that differ based upon how the reinforcement schedule is created. Much subsequent research in many labs examined the effects on behaviors of scheduling reinforcers.
When an organism is offered the opportunity to choose between or among two or more simple schedules of reinforcement at the same time, the reinforcement structures are called "concurrent schedules of reinforcement". In creating the laboratory analogy of social traps, Brechner created a situation where simple reinforcement schedules were superimposed upon each other. In other words, a single response or group of responses by an organism led to multiple consequences. Concurrent schedules of reinforcement can be thought of as "or" schedules, and superimposed schedules of reinforcement can be thought of as "and" schedules.
To simulate social traps a short-term positive reward is superimposed upon a long-term negative consequence. In the specific experiment, the short-term positive reinforcer was earning points that applied to class credits. The long-term negative consequence was that each point earned by a player also drained the pool of available points. Responding too rapidly for short-term gains led to the long-term loss of draining the resource pool. What makes the traps social is that any individual can respond in a way that the long-term consequence also comes to bear on the other individuals in the environment.
Superimposed schedules of reinforcement have many real-world applications in addition to generating social traps (Brechner and Linder, 1981; Brechner, 1987). Many different human individual and social situations can be created by superimposing simple reinforcement schedules. For example, a human being could have simultaneous tobacco and alcohol addictions. Even more complex situations can be created or simulated by superimposing two or more concurrent schedules. For example, a high school senior could have a choice between going to Stanford University or UCLA, and at the same time have the choice of going into the Army or the Air Force, and simultaneously the choice of taking a job with an internet company or a job with a software company. That would be a reinforcement structure of three superimposed concurrent schedules of reinforcement. An example of the use of superimposed schedules as a tool in the analysis of the contingencies of rent control can be found online in the website "Economic and Game Theory Forum", (Brechner, 2003).
From Platt et al's initial concept, social trap research has spread to laboratories all over the world and has expanded into the fields of Sociology and Economics. Summaries of the many other diverse studies of social traps can be found in Messick and McClelland (1983) and Rothstein (2005).