Comfort traps

On edging life with a little friction

September 17, 2023 — November 9, 2023

incentive mechanisms
Figure 1

A comfort trap is a situation which seems to promise me ease and happiness, but which in practice degrades both, because it makes me lazy or saps my capabilities from under-utilisation so that I end up worse within it than without. Comfort traps are local optima in the hedonism landscape where short-sighted pursuit of good vibes makes for an overall increase in bad vibes. I do not have a profound theory here; I’ve simply observed the phenomenon enough that I need a name for it.

I do not know if there is an established term for this in the psychological literature; presumably there is. I am borrowing Mayo Oshin’s term from The Comfort Trap: Why the Pursuit of an Easier Life Creates a Harder One.

Clearly what is a comfort trap depends upon the person. Further, it might be hard to know in advance; certainly I have a poor track record in getting it right until I try it.

Possible conection: the pop sci-notion of the doapmine pathway:

Dopamine’s primary role is to make us want things, not necessarily like things. We get the biggest rush of dopamine coursing through our brains at the possibility of reward, but this rush is no guarantee that we’ll actually like or even enjoy the thing once we get it.

1 Examples

  • IMO, cars are a comfort trap, which is why I prefer bikes
  • Flat-rate streaming service subscriptions (e.g. Netflix) are a comfort trap for me. They lead me to excessive bingeing of TV that I am not glad to have watched afterwards. I prefer pay-per-view services, which force me to be more selective about what I watch.
  • Nuclear family households are a comfort trap for me. Living with my partner makes it easier for me take them for granted, and relish the specialness of their presence. Living without others around puts up barriers that I do not need between myself and easy access to friends in busy times. That is why I am involved up cohousing: not because I think it is a perfect utopian solution, but because I think it offers a healthy degree of imperfection and friction for my well-being.
  • In sexual relationship monogamy is popularly named as candidate for comfort trap status. I know people who advocate the virtues of polyamory because it is hard.
  • I suspect that tree-changing is a comfort trap for me. Cities get me down sometimes, with all the cultural friction and lack of quiet time, but you know what gets me down even more? The isolation and lack of cultural diversity in the countryside. And I can take a holiday in the countryside when I need it.
  • For Germans, modern pop stoics and Wim Hof, warm showers are a comfort trap.
  • I’m pretty sure comfort food is called that because of being a comfort trap.
  • Sitting desks are sometimes supposed to be a comfort trap. Probably not for me; I’m not comfortable sitting.
  • Permissiveness is claimed to be a comfort trap, suggesting a bunch of strict stringent moral guidelines are good for our souls. This finds its most extreme expression in authoritarian regimes, Arbeit macht frei, anyone?
  • Also in parenting, permissiveness is not well-regarded For some fascinating anecdotes on this theme see Chu (2017).
  • Barefoot runners argue that shoes are a comfort trap.
  • Lukianoff and Haidt argue that safe spaces are a comfort trap (Lukianoff and Haidt 2015, 2019).
  • Excessive conflict avoidance seems to be a comfort trap.
  • Clinical psychologists refer to maladaptive coping which seems to include various comfort traps, such as avoidance coping.
  • Leaving a phobia unaddressed by avoidant response looks like a comfort trap
  • Uber eats? How about that?
  • Perhaps addictions are built upon comfort traps?
Figure 2: Irritation makes pearls

2 Incoming

3 References

Chu. 2017. Little soldiers: an American boy, a Chinese school and the global race to achieve.
Higgins, Marguc, and Scholer. 2012. Value From Adversity: How We Deal With Adversity Matters.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Lukianoff, and Haidt. 2015. How Trigger Warnings Are Hurting Mental Health on Campus.” The Atlantic.
———. 2019. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.
Seery, Holman, and Silver. 2010. Whatever does not kill us: cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Strauman, Socolar, Kwapil, et al. 2015. Microinterventions Targeting Regulatory Focus and Regulatory Fit Selectively Reduce Dysphoric and Anxious Mood.” Behaviour Research and Therapy.