Research: The inner workings of progress

Ongoing research into the "progress trap" syndrome focuses on a more scientific than historic analysis of the behavioural aspect.

An analysis of the behavioural stages of counter-productive progress. January 25, 2012
(Research paper, preliminary notes)

Despite several modern discussions of the progress trap syndrome, it is not broadly accepted as a problem, much less investigated scientifically as a specific set of recurring, socially self-destructive steps. This author believes that there are behavioural aspects to this pattern of counter-productivity that merit scientific investigation. The application of the term progress trap to the syndrome in 1990, and the subsequent discussion by Ronald Wright1, Professor Tad Patzeck2 and Thomas Homer-Dixon3 can be seen as instances of independent verification, and perhaps offer grounds for further study.

This project seeks to address the complex syndrome that constitutes the behaviour of self-confounding progress. If one were to list the steps that make up a cycle of self-negating progress, it would begin like this:

1. one can be so focused on cognitive activities as to be unaware of events in one’s environment
2. one can perform rational activities that have an effect on one’s environment
3. one can pursue rational activities that have a negative effect on one’s environment
4. cognitive function can incorrectly interpret stimuli from the environment
5. one can perform activities that harm one’s environment and not be aware of them

and continue until the step of failure is reached and the lessons of the experience are enumerated. That would be followed by reasonable proposals for addressing this problem.
There are existing studies that support each assertion. For example, the first can be illustrated with the paper: Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events4. The second could be illustrated by the common practise of building a shelter.5 The fourth item is elucidated by Michael Gazzaniga, who wrote “In neurologically intact individuals, the interpreter does not hesitate to generate spurious explanations for sympathetic nervous system arousal.”6 And so on.

  1. Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress, Anansi Press, Toronto , 2004
  2. Professor Tadeusz W. Patzek, web archive of articles on progress traps:
  3. Thomas Homer-Dixon, Carbon Shift: How the Twin Crises of Oil Depletion and Climate Change Will Define the Future Random House Canada, 2009
  4. Daniel J. Simons, Christopher F. Chabris, Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events, Perception, 1999, volume 28, pages 1059 - 1074.
  5. Kirsh, D. Adapting the Environment instead of Oneself. Adaptive Behavior MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 4(3-4):415-452, 1996
  6. Michael Gazzaniga, “Cerebral specialization and interhemispheric communication, Does the corpus callosum enable the human condition?” Brain, Oxford Volume 123, Issue 7 Pp. 1293-1326. 2000

See also:
Tainter, Joseph A (2003. First published 1988), The Collapse of Complex Societies, New York & Cambridge, UK

Laudan, L., 1977, Progress and Its Problems: Toward a Theory of Scientific Growth. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Note: The project began life in 1990 as a term paper entitled "The Progress Trap, Science, Humanity and Environment".

A book proposal was initially accepted for development in 1992 by McGill-Queen's University Press. The copyright for "The Progress Trap - and how to avoid it" was registered in April 1991 but the book did not see publication. After a similar book appeared in 2004, the author published independently, with the title "Escaping the progress trap".

The eBook is available at
Progress Trap - the book
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Progress Trap - the book
and (Kindle) at

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"The Progress Trap - and how to avoid it" Copyright Daniel O'Leary, registered at
the Copyright Office, Consumer and Corporate Affairs, Canada on April 5, 1991 (ref 405917)