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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. The theory has been used to explain outbreaks of conflicts and violence, spanning from individuals to states.
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. Issues of gun control have been described as a Hobbesian trap. 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. 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.
The Hobbesian trap can be avoided by influences that increase the trust between the two parties. 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.
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- Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Penguin Group USA. ISBN 978-0143122012.
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