Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
What is morality? Why engage in conversation about moral behavior? Why are some people unable to cope with the normal challenges of life while others avoid self-destructive behavior? In their book, Social Traps, John Cross and Melvin Guyer suggest that many aspects of morality arise from weaknesses in the behavioral decision processes that we all normally employ.
Cross and Guyer write:
“The central thesis of this book is that a wide variety of recognized social problems can be regarded from a third view [Not stupidity; not corruption]. Drug use, air pollution, and international conflict are all instances of what we have called ‘social traps’. Put simply, a social trap is a situation characterized by multiple but conflicting rewards. Just as an ordinary trap entices its prey with the offer of an attractive bait and then punishes it by capture…’social traps’ draw their victims into certain patterns of behavior with promises of immediate rewards and then confront them with [longer term] consequences that the victim would rather avoid.” (3-4)
In other words, the normal learning process—do more of what feels good; do less of what feels bad—breaks down. Obvious examples of this problem include smoking, drug use, and sexual immorality. Cross and Guyer want to know what causes these deviations from rationality (7). Why do rational people engage in silly habits? (v)
At the time of this writing, John Cross was an economist and Melvin was a social psychologist who worked at the Mental Heal Research Institute at the University of Michigan. Their book is written in 8 chapters, including:
- Taxonomy of Traps;
- Time-Delay Traps;
- Ignorance Traps;
- Sliding Reinforcers;
- Who Got My Reinforcer;
- Stampedes; and
- Judicial and Legislative Escapes (vii).
These chapters are preceded by a brief preface and followed with a bibliography.
The example of smoking is instructive. Cross and Guyer write:
“The pleasures associated with smoking have a physical presence and immediacy that is entirely absent in the case of its other consequences. Moreover, any avoidance which might be induced through threats of future punishment is further reduced by the fact that the punishment by no means occurs with certainty, making it possible for the smoker to avoid even the anticipation of pain with the rationalization that that sort of thing only happens to other people.” (4)
Here we witness a breakdown in incentives to smoke or avoid smoking because the rewards and punishments of smoking are separated in time. The reward is immediate while the punishment is in the distance future (19). Consequently, if a behavioral decision process is employed—do more of what feels good and do less of what feels bad—people will decide to smoke and to suffer the consequences later.
Cross and Guyer see warnings of future problems less effective than structuring incentives—rewards and punishments—to fit the behavioral decision process (14). The heavy excise taxes on cigarettes are an example of this principle in practice because prospective smokers will be less likely to smoke if they have to pain a heavy tax today when purchasing the cigarettes. In an ideal world, the excise tax could be raised to the level of the present value of future social costs incurred through elevated lung cancer deaths (50).
Moral behavior starts with rational thinking and requires avoiding behavioral responses where short-term incentives lead to long-term negative outcomes . Morality is accordingly a sign-post that warns the individual of future consequences of choices in the present that carry uncertain risks. Removing present penalties for immoral choices (for example, removing excise taxes on cigarettes) simply raises the probability that errors in judgment will occur.
A socially-significant example of this breakdown in behavioral decision-making occurred in the recent housing crisis. In the 1990s and early millennial period, longstanding lending laws and regulations prohibiting lenders from making sub-prime home mortgages were relaxed. This change in law and regulation allowed lenders to earn high fees for selling mortgages to poor and minority individuals who had a high probability of not being able to repay the loans . The present incentive to do these deals was high for both borrower and lender. Yet, the prospect for future financial problems was also high.
Cross and Guyer’s analysis suggests that such risky lending choices should be limited because of the breakdown in normal incentives to behave prudently in making decisions about mortgages. This was the law before the changes and it became the law again after the financial crisis. Unfortunately, many people lost their life savings and many financial institutions were bankrupted during the crisis. For observers in the finance industry, the crisis was expected—the only uncertainty was when it would happen.
Traditional morality concerning drug use and human sexuality work much the same way. Drug users get hooked on the highs; later, they overdose trying to maintain the highs. Premarital sex or having multiple partners is fun short-term, but the result longer term can be unwanted pregnancy, social diseases, and bad choices in relationships. In a permissive society, the costs of poor decision-making are borne by those who lack discipline and fall into such traps. Unfortunately, others are hurt by their bad choices. What child wants to be borne with birth defects or without a father?
Traditional mortality is time tested—is 2,000 years enough of a test?—which is why it has not gone away in spite of the many attempts at technical fixes, like unnecessary medical interventions. Is it any wonder that Jesus warned against false teaching: “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin [that is, encourage people fall into social traps for the sake of their own personal freedom, money or political gain], it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matt 18:6 ESV)
Still, traditional morality and Christian morality overlap, but do not contain one another. Traditional morality, for example, includes revenge—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth—but Christian morality does not. Christian morality recognizes that pain is not limited to the body or even the mind. Our relationship with Christ is for us the tree of life—anything that cuts us off from Christ is a threat to our salvation. Social traps are not the only traps. Therefore, Christian morality is not necessarily subject to redefinition with changes in medical advances or social convention.
John Cross and Melvin Guyer’s book, Social Traps, changed my attitude about the question of moral instruction and the role of institutions, like the government and the church, in guiding society through difficult decisions. It is good read and well worth the time. The life you save may be your own.
“…lengthy time lags may prevent learning altogether.” (19)
 If a plus (+) is a benefit and a negative (-) is a cost, the structure of incentives over time for social trap can be illustrated as: ++++++++———-. The benefits convince one to get involved even if the costs are illusive or occur in the distant future. Debt works this way which is why a prudent borrower will focus borrowing on investments, not consumption. Borrowing to buy a house or to get an education (investments) within your means is prudent; living day to day off a credit card (consumption) is not prudent.
 After the Great Depression and other experiences, federal and state laws and regulations forbid the sale of sub-prime mortgages to borrowers if their financial capability to repay the loans was weak.