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The Trap (television documentary series)

The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of


Title screen of The Trap

Genre Documentary series
Running time 180 min. (in three parts)
Director(s) Adam Curtis
Adam Curtis
Stephen Lambert
Writer(s) Adam Curtis
Country of origin United Kingdom
Language(s) English
Original channel BBC Two
11 March 2007–25 March
Original run
No. of episodes 3
Preceded by The Power of Nightmares
Official website
IMDb profile

The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom is a BBC documentary series by British
filmmaker Adam Curtis, well known for other documentaries including The Century of the Self and
The Power of Nightmares. It began airing on BBC Two on 11 March, 2007.[1]

The series consists of three one-hour programmes which will explore the concept and definition of
freedom, specifically "how a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic,
creatures led to today's idea of freedom."[2]


• 1 Production
• 2 Episodes
o 2.1 1. "F**k You Buddy" (11 March, 2007)
 2.1.1 Contributors
o 2.2 2. "The Lonely Robot" (18 March, 2007)
 2.2.1 Contributors
o 2.3 3. "We Will Force You To Be Free" (25 March, 2007)
 2.3.1 Contributors
• 3 Ratings
• 4 Featured music
• 5 External links

• 6 References

The series was originally entitled Cold Cold Heart and was scheduled for transmission in Autumn
2006. Although it is not known what caused the delay in transmission, nor the change in title [3], it is
known that the DVD release of Curtis's previous series The Power of Nightmares had been delayed
due to problems with copyright clearance, caused by the high volume of archive soundtrack and film
used in Curtis's characteristic montage technique [1].

Episode 1. "F**k You Buddy" (11 March, 2007)
In this episode, Curtis examines the rise of game theory during the Cold War and the way in which
its mathematical models of human behaviour filtered into economic thought.

Archive nterview with John Nash during episode 1

The programme traces the development of game theory with particular reference to the work of John
Nash, who believed that all humans were inherently suspicious and selfish creatures that strategised
constantly. Using this as his first premise, Nash constructed logically consistent and mathematically
verifiable models, for which he won a Nobel Prize. He invented system games reflecting his beliefs
about human behaviour, including one called "Fuck You Buddy", in which the only way to win was
to betray your playing partner, and it is from this game that the episode's title is taken. These games
were internally coherent and worked correctly as long as the players obeyed the "ground rules" that
they should behave selfishly and try to outwit their opponents, but when RAND's analysts tried the
games on their own secretaries, they instead chose not to betray each other, but to co-operate every
time. This did not, in the eyes of the analysts, discredit the models, but instead proved that the
secretaries were unfit subjects.
What was not known at the time was that Nash was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and as a
result was deeply suspicious of everyone around him—including his work colleagues—and was
convinced that many were involved in conspiracies against him. It was this mistaken belief that led
to his view of people as a whole that formed the basis for his theories. Footage of an older and wiser
Nash was shown, in which he acknowledges that his paranoid views of other people at the time were

Curtis examines how game theory was used to create the USA's nuclear strategy during the Cold
War. Since no nuclear war occurred, it was believed that game theory had been correct in dictating
the creation and maintenance of a massive American nuclear arsenal—because the Soviet Union had
never attacked America with its nuclear weapons, the supposed deterrent must have worked. This is a
subject Curtis examined in his first series, Pandora's Box, and he reuses much of the same archive
material in doing so.

Interview with R.D. Laing during episode 1

A separate strand in the documentary is the work of R.D. Laing, whose work in psychiatry led him to
model familial interactions using game theory. His conclusion was that humans are inherently selfish
and shrewd and spontaneously generate strategems during everyday interactions. Laing's theories
became more developed when he concluded that some forms of mental illness were merely artificial
labels, used by the state to suppress individual suffering. This belief became a staple tenet of
counterculture during the 1960s. Reference is made to the Rosenhan experiment, in which bogus
patients surreptitiously self-presenting at a number of American psychiatric institutions were falsely
diagnosed as having mental disorders, while institutions informed that they were to receive bogus
patients "identified" numerous supposed imposters that were actually genuine patients. The results of
the experiment were a disaster for American psychiatry, as they destroyed the idea that psychiatrists
were a privileged elite able to genuinely diagnose - and therefore treat - mental illness.

All these theories tended to support the beliefs of what were then fringe economists such as Friedrich
von Hayek, whose economic models left no room for altruism, but rather depended purely on self-
interest, leading to the formation of public choice theory. In interview, the economist James M.
Buchanan decries the notion of the "public interest", asking what it is, and suggesting that it consists
purely of the self-interest of the governing bureaucrats. Buchanan also proposes that organisations
should employ only managers who are motivated by money. He describes those who are motivated
by other factors—such as job satisfaction or a sense of public duty—as "zealots".

As the 1960s became the 1970s, the theories of Laing and the models of Nash began to converge,
producing a widespread popular belief that the state (a surrogate family) was purely and simply a
mechanism of social control which calculatedly kept power out of the hands of the public. Curtis
shows that it was this belief that allowed the theories of Hayek to look credible, and underpinned the
free-market beliefs of Margaret Thatcher, who sincerely believed that by dismantling as much of the
British state as possible — and placing former national institutions into the hands of public
shareholders — a form of social equilibrium would be reached. This was a return to Nash's work, in
which he proved mathematically that if everyone was pursuing their own interests, a stable yet
perpetually dynamic society could result.

The episode ends with the suggestion that this mathematically modelled society is run on data—
performance targets, quotas, statistics — and that it is these figures combined with the exaggerated
belief in human selfishness that has created "a cage" for Western humans. The precise nature of the
"cage" is to be discussed in the next episode.


• Robert Kavesh, government economist 1950s

• Friedrich von Hayek, economist and political philosopher
• Philip Mirowski, historian and philosopher of economics and politics
• Alain Enthoven, nuclear strategist at the Rand Corportation 1956-1960
• John Nash, winner of the Economics Prize for game theory
• R.D. Laing, psychiatrist
• Dr Morton Schatzman, psychiatrist and colleague of R.D. Laing
• Clancy Sigal colleague of R.D. Laing
• Professor Thomas Schelling Economist and Game Theorist
• Madsen Pirie, founder of the Adam Smith Institute.
• Sir Antony Jay, co-author of BBC TV comedy series "Yes Minister"
• David Rosenhan, attendee of Laing's talks in the US, creator of the Rosenhan experiment.
• Paul McHugh, psychiatrist-in-chief of Johns Hopkins Hospital
• Robert Spitzer, chair of the DSM-IV task force
• Dr Jerome Wakefield, psychiatrist

Episode 2. "The Lonely Robot" (18 March, 2007)

Interview with Napoleon Chagnon in episode 2, just before he terminates the interview early.

The second episode reiterated many of the ideas of the first, but developed the theme that the drugs
such as Prozac and lists of psychological symptoms which might indicate anxiety or depression were
being used to normalise behaviour and make humans behave more predictably, like machines.

This was not presented as a conspiracy theory, but as a logical (although unpredicted) outcome of
market-driven self-diagnosis by checklist, discussed in the previous programme.

People with standard mood fluctuations self-diagnosed as abnormal; they then presented at
psychiatrist's offices and fulfilled diagnostic criteria without explaining personal histories and so
were medicated. The alleged result was that vast numbers of Western people have had their
behaviour and mentation modified by SSRI drugs without any strict medical necessity.

The Ax Fight—a famous anthropological study of the Yanomamo people of Venezuela by Tim Asch
and Napoleon Chagnon—was re-examined and its strictly genetic-determinist interpretation called
into question. Other researchers were called upon to verify Chagnon's conclusions and arrived at
totally opposed opinions. The suggestion was raised that the presence of a film crew and the handing
out of machetes to some but not all tribespeople might have caused them to 'perform' as they did.
While being questioned by Curtis, Chagnon was so annoyed by this suggestion that he terminated the
interview and walked out of shot, protesting under his breath.

Film of Richard Dawkins propounding his ultra-strict "selfish gene" analogy of life was shown, with
the archive clips spanning over two decades to emphasise how the severely reductionist ideas of pre-
programmed behaviour have been absorbed by mainstream culture. (Later, however, the
documentary gives evidence that cells are able to selectively replicate parts of DNA dependent on
current needs, rather than robotically. Such evidence detracts from the simplified economic models
of human beings). This brought Curtis back to the economic models of Hayek and the game theories
of Cold War. Curtis explains how, with the "robotic" description of humankind apparently validated
by geneticists, the game theory systems gained even more hold over society's engineers.

The programme describes how the Clinton administration gave in to market theorists in the US and
how New Labour in the UK decided to measure everything it could, the better to improve it,
introducing such artificial and unmeasurable targets as:

• Reduction of starvation in Sub-Saharan Africa by 48 per cent

• Reduction of global conflict by six per cent

It also introduced a rural community vibrancy index in order to gauge the quality of life in British
villages and a birdsong index to check the apparent decline of wildlife.
In industry and the public services, this way of thinking led to a plethora of targets, quotas and plans.
It was meant to set workers free to achieve these targets in any way they chose. What these game-
theory schemes did not predict was that the players, faced with impossible demands, would cheat.

Curtis describes how, in order to meet artificially inflated targets:

• Lothian and Borders Police reclassified dozens of criminal offences as "suspicious

occurrences", in order to keep them out of crime figures;
• Some NHS Hospital Trusts created an unofficial post of "The Hello Nurse," whose task it was
to greet new arrivals in order to claim for statistical purposes that the patient had been "seen,"
even though no treatment or even examination had occurred during the encounter;
• NHS managers took the wheels off trolleys and reclassified them as beds, while
simultaneously reclassifying corridors as wards, in order to falsify Accident & Emergency
waiting times statistics.

In a section called "The Death of Social Mobility", Curtis also describes how the theory of the free
market was applied to education. With league tables of school performance published, the richest
parents moved house to get their children into better schools. This caused house prices in the
appropriate catchment areas to rise dramatically—thus excluding poorer parents who were left with
the worst-performing schools. This is just one aspect of a more rigidly stratified society, which Curtis
identifies in the way in which the incomes of the poorest (working class) Americans have actually
fallen in real terms since the 1970s, while the incomes of the average (middle class) have increased
slightly and those of the highest earners (upper class) have quadrupled. Similarly, babies in poorer
areas in the UK are twice as likely to die in their first year as children from prosperous areas.

Curtis' narrations concludes with the observation that the game theory/free market model is now
undergoing interrogation by economists who suspect a more irrational model of behaviour is
appropriate and useful. In fact, in formal experiments the only people who behaved exactly
according to the mathematical models created by game theory are economists themselves, and


• James M. Buchanan, winner of Economics Prize for public choice theory

• Philip Mirowski, historian and philosopher of economics and politics
• Robert Rubin, economic adviser to Clinton
• Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under Clinton (1993-1997)
• Thomas Frank, political journalist
• John Maynard Smith, geneticist (speaking in 1976)
• Napoleon Chagnon, anthropologist (filmed The Ax Fight in 1975)
• Richard Dawkins, popularizer of genetics (speaking in 1987)
• Paul McHugh, psychiatrist-in-chief of Johns Hopkins Hospital
• Robert Spitzer, chair of the DSM-IV task force
• Dr Jerome Wakefield, psychiatrist
• Arthur Levitt, SEC Chair under Clinton (1993-2001)
• Itzhaz Sharav, accounting professor
• Kevin Phillips, renowned political analyst
• Brian Ferguson, anthropologist
• John Nash, winner of the Economics Prize for game theory

Episode 3. "We Will Force You To Be Free" (25 March, 2007)

Archive interview with Isaiah Berlin

The final programme focussed on the concepts of positive and negative liberty introduced in the
1950s by Isaiah Berlin. Curtis briefly explained how negative liberty could be defined as freedom
from coercion, and positive liberty as the opportunity to strive to fulfill one's potential. Tony Blair
had read Berlin's essays on the topic, and wrote to him in the late 1990s, arguing that positive and
negative liberty could be mutually compatible. He never received a reply, as Berlin was on his

The programme began with a description of the Two Concepts of Liberty, reviewing Berlin's opinion
that, since it lacked coercion, negative liberty was the 'safer' of the two. Curtis then explained how
many political groups who sought their vision of freedom ended up using violence to achieve it. For
example the French revolutionaries wished to overthrow a monarchical system which they viewed as
antithetical to freedom, but in so doing ended up with the so-called Reign of Terror. Similarly, the
Communist revolutionaries in Russia, who sought to overthrow the old order and replace it with a
society in which everyone was equal, ended up creating a totalitarian regime which used violence to
achieve its ends.

Using violence, not simply as a means to achieve one's goals, but also as an expression of freedom
from Western bourgeois norms, was an idea developed by African revolutionary Franz Fanon. He
developed it from the Existentialist ideology of Jean-Paul Sartre, who argued that terrorism was a
"terrible weapon but the oppressed poor have no others." (^ Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth
Century, Bernard-Henri Lévy, p.343). ) These views were expressed, for example, in the
revolutionary film The Battle of Algiers.

This programme also explored how economic freedom had been used in Russia, and the problems
this had introduced. A set of policies known as "shock therapy" were brought in mainly by outsiders,
which had the effect of destroying the social safety net that existed in most other western nations. An
economic crisis escalated during the 1990s, and some people were paid in goods rather than money.
Yeltsin was accused by his parliamentary deputies of "economic genocide", due to the large numbers
of people now too poor to eat. Yeltsin responded to this by removing parliament's power and
becoming increasingly autocratic. At the same time, many formerly state owned industries were sold
off to private businesses, often at a fraction of their real cost. Ordinary people would sell shares
which to them were worthless for cash, without appreciating their true value. This ended up with the
rise of the Oligarchs—super rich businessmen who attributed their rise to the sell-offs of the '90s. It
resulted in a polarisation of society into the poor and ultra-rich, and indirectly led to a more
autocratic style of government under Vladimir Putin, which, while less free, promised to provide
people with dignity and basic living requirements.
There was a similar review of post-war Iraq, in which an even more extreme "shock therapy" was
employed—the removal from government of all Ba'ath party employees and the introduction of
economic models which followed the simplified economic model of human beings outlined in the
first two programmes—this had the result of immediately disintegrating Iraqi society and the rise of
two strongly autocratic insurgencies, one based on Sunni-Ba'athist ideals and another based on
revolutionary Shi'a philosophies.

Curtis also looked at the neo-conservative agenda of the 1980s. Like Sartre, they argued that
violence would sometimes be necessary to achieve their goals, except they wished to spread what
they described as democracy. Curtis quoted General Alexander Haig then US Secretary of State, as
saying that "some things were worth fighting for". However, Curtis argued, although the version of
society espoused by the neo-conservatives made some concessions towards freedom, it did not offer
true freedom. The neo-conservatives were ardent supporters of the Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile
which used violence to crush opponents and a virtual police state.

The neo-conservatives also took a strong line against the Sandinistas—a political group in Nicaragua
—who Reagan argued were accepting help from the Soviets and posed a real threat to American
security. The truth was that the Sandinistas posed no real military threat to the US, and a
disinformation campaign was started against them painting them as accessories of the Soviets. The
Contras, who were a proxy army fighting against the Sandinistas, were—according to US
propaganda—valiantly fighting against the evil of Communism. In reality, argued Curtis, they were
using all manner of techniques, including the torture, rape and murder of civilians. The CIA funded
the Contras by allegedly flying in cocaine into the United States, as financing the Contras directly
would have been illegal.

However such policies did not always result in the achievement of neo-conservative aims and
occasionally threw up genuine surprises. Curtis examined the Western-backed government of the
Shah in Iran, and how the mixing of Sartre's positive libertarian ideals with Shia religious philosophy
led to the revolution which overthrew it. Having previously been a meek philosophy of acceptance of
the social order, in the minds of revolutionaries such as Ali Shariati and Ayatollah Khomeini,
Revolutionary Shia Islam became a meaningful force to overthrow tyranny.

The programme reviewed the Blair government and its role in achieving its vision of a stable society.
In fact, argued Curtis, the Blair government had created the opposite of freedom, in that the type of
liberty it had engendered wholly lacked any kind of meaning. Its military intervention in Iraq had
provoked terrorist actions in the UK and these terrorist actions were in turn used to justify
restrictions of liberty.

In essence, the programme suggested that following the path of negative liberty to its logical
conclusions, as governments have done in the West for the past 50 years, resulted in a society
without meaning populated only by selfish automatons, and that there was some value in positive
liberty in that it allowed people to strive to better themselves.

The closing minutes directly stated that if western humans were ever to find their way out of the
"trap" described in the series, they would have to realise that Isiah Berlin was wrong and that not all
attempts at creating positive liberty necessarily ended in coercion and tyranny.

• Isaiah Berlin, political philosopher
• Kenneth Clark, historian, presenter of BBC TV series Civilisation
• Malcolm Muggeridge, british journalist
• Stuart Hall, cultural historian
• Jean-Paul Sartre, philosopher
• Jim Howard, field director, OXFAM
• Michael Ledeen, advocate of U.S. regime change policy
• Alexander Haig, first U.S. Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan
• Samuel Huntingdon, US political scientist
• Elliot Abrams, assistant US secretary of state 1981-1989
• Robert Parry, Press Assiciation reporter in Nicaragua in the 1980s
• Francis Fukuyama, political philosopher
• Jeffrey Sachs, US Economist
• Yevgeny Kiselyov, general director of NTV, Russian TV station

While commending the series, Radio Times stated that The Trap's subject matter was not ideal for its
21:00 Sunday timeslot on the minority BBC Two. This placed the three episodes against Castaway
2007 on BBC One, the drama Fallen Angel and the first two of a series of high-profile Jane Austen
adaptations on ITV 1, and Season 6 of 24 on Sky One. However, the series secured a consistent share
of the viewing audience throughout its run:

1. "F**k You Buddy" (11 March, 2007) ~ 1.4 million viewers; 6% audience share

2. "The Lonely Robot (18 March, 2007) ~ 1.3 million viewers; 6% audience share

3. "We Will Force You To Be Free" (25 March, 2007) ~ 1.3 million viewers; 6% audience share

Featured music
• "Intermezzo" from The Karelia Suite, by Jean Sibelius (Opening title, episode one)
• "Return To Hot Chicken", from the album I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, by Yo La
• "On Some Faraway Beach", from the album Here Come the Warm Jets by Brian Eno
• "Age Of Consent", from the album Power, Corruption & Lies, by New Order
• Overture from Tannhauser, Richard Wagner.
• "Assault On Precinct 13 (Main Title)" from Assault On Precinct 13, John Carpenter
• "A great height" from the film score for North by Northwest, Bernard Herrmann
• "Cosmonaute" from the album Monokini by Stereo Total
• "Is That All There Is?" by Peggy Lee
• "Becalmed" from the album Another Green World by Brian Eno
• "Taking Tiger Mountain", from the album Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy by Brian Eno
• "The Thing (Main Title)" from the score from the 1982 film The Thing by Ennio Morricone
• "Contest Winners" from the 1976 film Carrie by Pino Donaggio
• "Great Release" from LCD Soundsystem by LCD Soundsystem.
External links
• The Trap at the Internet Movie Database
• Oliver Burkeman. "Cry Freedom", The Guardian, 2007-03-03.
• James Harkin. "Forget Osama, Fear Blair", The Times, 2007-03-10.
• BBC Two—The Trap—Official site, with video extracts.
• Liberal Polemic provides a summary and critique of each part and the final conclusions.

1. ^ The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?. BBC Newsnight. Retrieved on March 11,
2. ^ The Trap—What Happened To Our Dream Of Freedom?. BBC Press Office. Retrieved on March
11, 2007.
3. ^ BBC TWO Autumn 2006. BBC Press Office. Retrieved on March 11, 2007.