Thursday, May 10, 2012

Five Classic Psychological Catch-22s

Yossarian, the protagonist of Joseph Heller's classic novel, Catch-22, wants to be excused from air combat. To be excused, he needs only to prove that he is mentally unstable, but there's a catch: the very act of asking to be excused would show that he is sane. In other words, there's no way out. The term "catch-22" has since been used to describe any situation where circular logic guarantees an undesired outcome, no matter what a person does. Although catch-22s are typically found in legal or bureaucratic contexts, they also turn up in psychology. Here are some notable examples. 

Catch 1: The Love Paradox. The first psychological catch-22 that caught my attention after reading the novel in high school was the disconnect between what I learned from all those teen magazines and movies about how to win over a crush (e.g., "Don't call him back!") and what I learned in college psychology courses about our fundamental human needs. On the one hand, I was supposed to keep my true feelings under wraps, maintaining a facade of coy indifference–and yes, some research does suggest that we tend to be more attracted to people when we are uncertain about how they feel about us, perhaps because we are more motivated to gain their approval. On the other hand, my psychology courses got me thinking that we need not only to be loved, but, most importantly, to be loved for who we are, not just for an idealized image of ourselves. At some point during the courting process, it becomes necessary to reveal authentic thoughts and feelings in order to develop a real connection, but such vulnerability carries with it a higher risk of rejection. Although this catch seems less relevant in emotionally mature relationships, there may be a kernel of truth to it even then, at least in the idea that maintaining a little bit of mystery can be a good thing (watch the last part of the This is 40 trailer for an example of what can happen when the mystery fades). 

Catch 2: The Eternal Outcast. Social rejection is a painful experience that signals to an individual that he or she is not valued by a group. Rejection should, in theory, prompt people to behave in ways that will increase the chance of future acceptance. In practice, however, rejection often leads to the exact types of behaviors that are likely to produce more rejection, such as hostility and aggression. Under some circumstances, rejection can trigger ingratiation, but people-pleasing is not always the the most effective means of gaining acceptance, and it can increase the risk of victimization. Why does rejection lead people to behave in such counter-productive ways? One perspective, supported by research conducted by Jean Twenge and colleagues, suggests that rejection produces a sense of meaninglessness and disrupts our ability to delay gratification. Attention training techniques such as cognitive bias modification and mindfulness meditation can help nip destructive reactions in the bud, as can taking a moment to reflect on your goals before reacting impulsively.

Catch 3: The Self-Esteem Gap. Increasing self-esteem is unfortunately not as simple as telling yourself that you're great. For those who tend not to think very highly of themselves, positive affirmations such as "I am a lovable person" have a tendency to backfire. In research conducted by Joanne Wood and colleagues, low self-esteem participants felt worse after repeating this statement to themselves, compared to those who did not repeat any self-statements, and compared to high self-esteem participants, who got a slight boost from the affirmation exercise. What was going on for these low self-esteem participants? The researchers hypothesized that being forced to think about their lovability might have simultaneously brought up thoughts related to their unlovability, and these rogue thoughts may have made them feel like they were failing the exercise. Interestingly, when low self-esteem participants were allowed to think about how the lovability statement was both true and untrue, they didn't feel worse (though they also didn't feel any better). To cross the self-esteem gap, it may be helpful to try more indirect approaches that the conscious mind can't argue with. Mark Baldwin and colleagues have developed some implicit self-esteem conditioning tasks that are meant to be both fun and effective–you can try them here.

Catch 4: The Unbearable Weight. Depressed individuals are often caught in a particularly paralyzing catch-22. In a 2002 Psychology Today article, Hara Estroff Marano explains that "the things a person needs to do to get well" –seeking treatment, getting exercise, participating in social activities, etc –"are the very things that the illness makes it difficult for any person to do," as depression can undermine motivation, energy, and optimism. Marano recommends starting with small commitments such as sleeping and eating, and then slowly adding new activities. She also notes that it only adds to the burden of depression when others incorrectly assume that depressed individuals should simply be able to "snap out of it." 

Catch 5: The Accidental Racist. Most people do not want to appear prejudiced. Unfortunately, research conducted by Nicole Shelton and colleagues suggests that people's efforts to appear unprejudiced can sometimes lead them to behave in ways that instead make them appear disengaged and unfriendly. Trying to appear unbiased can take up mental resources and increase anxiety, distracting people from the natural flow of an interaction. The solution, of course, is not to stop trying to combat prejudice–that just puts us back into the catch-22 trap. So what is a well-meaning person to do? Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton offers a wonderful list of suggestions in a series of Psychology Today posts

This is only the tip of the catch-22 iceberg. Human psychology is replete with conflict, contradiction, and paradox. We're prone to tying ourselves in knots and engaging in self-defeating behavior. Catch-22s can also be found in restrictive cultural expectations, such as those that require adolescent girls to be innocent but also sexually attractive, and to succeed in male-dominated contexts while retaining "feminine" qualities (see Stephen Hinshaw's The Triple Bind for more on this). Thankfully, unlike Yossarian's predicament, most of our catches can be remedied, if we're willing to work through them. 


Shelton, J., Richeson, J., Salvatore, J., & Trawalter, S. (2005). Ironic Effects of Racial Bias During Interracial Interactions Psychological Science, 16 (5), 397-402 DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.01547.x

Whitchurch ER, Wilson TD, & Gilbert DT (2011). "He loves me, he loves me not . . . ": uncertainty can increase romantic attraction. Psychological science, 22 (2), 172-5 PMID: 21169522

Wood, J., Elaine Perunovic, W., & Lee, J. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others Psychological Science, 20 (7), 860-866 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02370.x

This post first appeared on my Psychology Today blog.

1 comment:

  1. there are plenty of other similar traps like these, for example mental health patients are often called dangerous, unresponsible,unreliable,unmotivated, have thier kids taken away as they are 'too ill' to care for them yet when it comes to facing any legal or moral responsiblity they remain culpible in the eyes of people around them, INCLUDING so called mental health professionals. This is particularly damaging on thier already fragile physcology to my mind as it puts them in a very messed up place. They are being told that they can have nothing good (which of course is counter-productive to getting well/staying on track) and then also told anything bad they did is solely THIER fault even though they have been told they are too ill to be rsponsible. I beleive this needs to be addressed as it can cause much worse mental health problems for people already suffering