Hobbesian trap

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The Hobbesian trap (or Schelling's dilemma) is a theory that explains why preemptive strikes occur between two groups, out of bilateral fear of an imminent attack. Without outside influences this situation will lead to a fear spiral (catch-22, vicious circle, Nash equilibrium) in which fear will lead to an arms race which in turn will lead to increasing fear. The Hobbesian trap can be explained in terms of game theory. Although cooperation would be the better outcome for both sides, mutual distrust leads to the adoption of strategies that have negative outcomes for individual players and all players combined.[1] The theory has been used to explain outbreaks of conflicts and violence, spanning from individuals to states.[2]


The theory is most commonly associated with Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Schelling.[citation needed]


Steven Pinker is a proponent of the theory of the Hobbesian trap and has applied the theory to many conflicts and outbreaks of violence between people, groups, tribes, societies and states.[2][3] Issues of gun control have been described as a Hobbesian trap.[4] A common example is the dilemma that both the armed burglar and the armed homeowner face when they meet each other. Neither side may want to shoot, but both are afraid of the other party shooting first so they may be inclined to fire pre-emptively, although the favorable outcome for both parties would be that nobody be shot.[5][6]

A similar example between two states is the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fear and mutual distrust between the actors increased the likelihood of a preemptive strike.[5] Hobbesian traps in nuclear weapons' case can be defused if both sides can threaten second strike, which is the capacity to retaliate with nuclear force after the first attack. This is the basis of Mutual assured destruction.[7]

A form of the Hobbesian trap has been used to answer the Fermi Paradox by arguing that any two advanced space-faring civilizations will inevitably seek to destroy each other rather than risk being destroyed.


The Hobbesian trap can be avoided by influences that increase the trust between the two parties.[1] In Hobbes' case, the hobbesian trap would be present in the state of nature where, in the absence of law and law enforcement, the credible threat of violence from others may justify pre-emptive attacks. For Hobbes, we avoid this problem by naming a ruler who pledges to punish violence with violence.[8][9] In the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, Kennedy and Khrushchev realized that they were caught in a Hobbesian trap which helped them to make concessions that reduced distrust and fear.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Baliga, Sandeep; Tomas Sjöström (2010-09-21). "The Hobbesian Trap" (PDF). Retrieved 3 April 2013. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  2. ^ a b Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Penguin Group USA. ISBN 978-0143122012.
  3. ^ Pinker, Steven (2002). The blank slate: the modern denial of human nature. New York: Penguin. ISBN 978-0142003343.
  4. ^ Ocampo, Dan (December 16, 2012). "The Gun Craze". Archived from the original on April 19, 2013. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link) CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  5. ^ a b c Pinker, Steven. "All About Evil. A moral philosopher makes the case that the 20th century was even worse than we thought". Archived from the original on 2015-07-21. Retrieved 3 April 2013. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  6. ^ Pinker, Steven. "A Blank Slate". Archived from the original on 14 February 2014. Retrieved 21 February 2014. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  7. ^ Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now, p. 315-6
  8. ^ Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now, Penguin Books, 2018, p. 173
  9. ^ Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Book 1, Chapter XIII

Further reading[edit]

  • Pinker, Steven (2012). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Penguin Group USA. ISBN 978-0143122012.
  • Garfinkel, edited by Michelle R.; Skaperdas, Stergios. The Oxford handbook of the economics of peace and conflict. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195392777.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)

External links[edit]