Catch-22 Dilemma (originally Vicious Circle)
You need <A> to do <B>, but you need <B> to get <A> in the first place. There's nowhere to start.
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(permanent link) added: 2013-06-21 11:35:12 sponsor: Madrugada edited by: StarSword (last reply: 2013-07-20 15:21:20)

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"Wait a second. We knock out the turret to get the fighters. But to get the turret, we've gotta get through the fighters. We're dead."
-- Alex Rogan, The Last Starfighter

A Catch-22 Dilemma is a situation that the character cannot resolve or get out of, because they have nowhere to start to work on it. Each step they must take relies on completing the step before it, but starting the first step requires already having completed the last one.

It generally appears in one of two types: either each of the actions they must take or items they must acquire to progress rely on some other action already having been taken or item having been acquired first, or two or more of the actions they need to take or things they need to acquire are mutually forbidden.

Both types leave the character frustrated and with nowhere to start in solving the problem or escaping the situation.

Often, the solution lies in taking a third choice or Cutting the Knot, or, in games, finding the Dungeon Bypass the designer or GM overlooked.

In the form of "You must submit Document <A> with your application for Document <B>, but you have to present Document <B> to get Document <A>", it's a favorite tool of Obstructive Bureaucrats. Rules Lawyers or people attempting to cause problems by Bothering by the Book also use it, since in virtually any bureaucracy or set of rules, there's at least one set of rules or regulations that are interlocked or contradictory and can be exploited this way.

In common usage, a Catch-22 Dilemma is also known as simply a "Catch-22", after the book of that name by Joseph Heller. We have a page for the book at Catch-22, which is why this trope page doesn't use that exact name. Other names for it are a "Closed Logical Loop" or a "Circular Bind"; in engineering and programming, it's called "The Deadly Embrace"; another term in programming is a "Deadlock".


Related But Different Tropes:
  • Vicious Cycle: where the circle is of events which happen, rather than of things which need to be done.
  • Morton's Fork: The same bad result occurs no matter what you do. The reason it occurs is different with each option, though.
  • Circular Reasoning: A logical fallacy where you claim to prove something simply by asserting that it's true (usually in slightly different wording, and often with more than two steps intervening between the postulate and the assertion).
  • Chain of Deals: where a character trades <A> to get <B>, trade <B> to get <C>, and so on. A Chain of Deals may become a Catch-22 Dilemma if the last item is needed to get the first item.
  • Logic Bombs are sometimes built on Catch-22 Dilemmas.
  • The Key Is Behind the Lock is a subtrope,[[note]] a more specific version that has become a trope in its own right.[[/note]] where an item is locked, and the key to the lock is in the item. You need to unlock the lock to get the key to unlock the lock. They are most often solved by finding some way to open the item without the key
  • Unstable Equilibrium: a losing RTS player needs more resources to adequately match their opponents, but the only way to get those resources is to take them from said opponents ... whom they can't match without more resources.


Examples: [[foldercontrol]]

[[folder: Anime and Manga]]
  • Discussed in the Fishman Island arc of One Piece, during a flashback: Vander Decken is talking about marrying Princess Shirahoshi for her latent powers, who was still 6 at the time. His subordinate then tells him about a national treasure, a kind of drug that can age up whoever consumes it, and it might solve the age problem. The problem is, as said subordinate points out, the treasure is tightly guarded by the royal palace and the only legal way to obtain it is... marrying the royalty (the princess, in this case). In the end, though, Decken just decides to wait until she's aged normally.
[[/folder]]

[[folder: Film -- Animated]]
  • Sugar Rush Speedway in Wreck-It Ralph invokes this trope. The nine racers who will be on next day's roster are decided by a race held after the arcade closes, and the entrance fee is a coin; those who don't place in the top 9 don't get on the roster, thus can't earn any coins that day, so if they use the last of their coins to enter the qualifying race and don't place, they can never again be on the roster and thus can't ever get any more coins. This is done to keep Vanellope, supposedly a glitch, from racing, though why it hasn't yet caught any of the others is not explained.
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Film - Live Action]]
  • In Red Tails the brass are trying to decommission the Tuskeegee Airmen because they haven't scored any air-to-air kills. This is because they haven't been assigned to an area where such kills are available, officially because they haven't scored any air-to-air kills. In this case it's a blatantly obvious cover for simple racism on the part of the brass.
  • Lampshaded by Alex Rogan in The Last Starfighter. In the end they Take a Third Option they didn't know was available at the time of the conversation: they hide in a cave so they can hit the command ship from behind and get the turret without needing to hit the fighters, which are several kilometers ahead of the carrier.
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Literature]]
  • The term was coined by Catch-22. It crops up over and over again there, in several forms:
    • Yossarian can be exempted from flying more bombing missions if the doctor does a mental evaluation and declares that he's crazy. But for the doctor to make that declaration, Yossarian would have to request an evaluation. Requesting an evaluation because he doesn't want to fly more bombing missions proves that he's not crazy, because not wanting to risk your life repeatedly isn't crazy at all.
    • An Italian peasant woman deals with soldiers had claimed that the actual text of Catch-22 did not have to be revealed when carrying out orders related to it, meaning that "they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing." (In simple terms, "We don't have to provide a citation of the rule that allows us to do this because the rule that we're claiming allows us to do this says we don't have to provide a citation of it.")
    • Captain Black issued an order that everyone had to sign a "loyalty oath", but did not allow Major Major to sign it, then began harassing him because he hadn't signed it and, when Major Major asked to be allowed to sign it, Captain Black continued to refuse to allow him to sign it on the grounds that he hadn't signed it when the order was first issued.
    • Major Major uses it himself, giving his aide orders that no one is allowed to see him while he's in his office. But people must be allowed in sometimes, so he orders his aide to allow them to see him when he's not in his office. (When he sees someone coming who he doesn't want to deal with, but who outranks him, and therefore could countermand his order to his aide, he jumps out the window.)
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Live Action Television]]
  • Supernatural: The only thing capable of killing a dragon is a special dragon-killing sword, which can only be made by using the blood of a dragon when it's forged.
    Dean: So you need one to kill one, but you got to kill one to make one. How does that work out?
[/folder]]

[[folder:Music]]
  • "Dear Liza (There's a hole in my bucket)". Henry needs to cut straw to fix his bucket, but first he needs to sharpen his knife to cut the straw, but before that he needs to fetch water to sharpen his knife, but he needs his bucket in order to fetch the water. And his bucket needs to be fixed to fetch the water...
  • "I Can't Defeat Airman". The narrator playing Mega Man II can't get through Heat Man's stage, noting it would be easier with Item 2, which is acquired by defeating Air Man -who the player can never beat. It goes on to note Air Man would be easier to beat with the Leaf Shield -but the player can't beat Wood Man either. Though it's not noted in the lyrics, Wood Man's weakness is the Atomic Fire you get from Heat Man so it's a unwinnable circle.
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Newspaper Comics]]
  • FoxTrot had a comic where Jason asks Roger if he can hang out with his friend Marcus, and Roger answers "I'm okay with it if your mom is." Then when Jason asks Andy, she says "I'm okay with it if your father is." The comic ends with Jason reading a book on formal logic, trying to figure out whether they actually gave him permission or not. The next comic had Paige asking a similar question and getting the same answers... and she simply interprets that as an okay.
[[/folder]]

[[folder: Tabletop Games]]
  • Paranoia: The adventure included in "Traitor's Manual" ran the PCs through a five-link Catch-22 Dilemma as they tried to get themselves established as undercover agents. The way out of the circle was to use their secret society connections to get one of the needed forms.
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Video Games]]
  • Pharaoh has a recurring situation where your housing starts devolving because it no longer has access to some services, most often because of a worker shortage. When housing devolves, several citizens are kicked out, reducing the workforce even further, causing the housing to fall to an even lower level, and so on. The only way to fix the situation is to increase the workforce and improve the services, which can only be done by getting new workers to move into the area...
  • Deliberately invoked in the 1980s PC shareware game Master Spy: you control four agents (one at a time), each in his own domain which he cannot leave except through the good exit door (or by returning to the Safe House in the middle and meeting the other agents there), and once he leaves his domain, he's out of that game forever. If a loyal agent exits through the bad door with any ticket, or through either door without a ticket, he's trapped and you lose. The problem is that Agent A's domain has the ticket required for B to exit, B has C's ticket, C has D's ticket, and D has A's ticket. Fortunately for you, one agent is The Mole, and the aim of the game is to deliberately trap that agent as well as enabling the escapes of the loyal three; so to win you need to execute the escapes in precisely the right order.
  • The Riddle of Master Lu: You need to get into the Hall of Classics, but when you approach the guard, to enter he tells you that you need a pass to get into the Hall of Classics, but you get passes from inside the Hall of Classics. Being an Adventure Game, you ultimately have to Take a Third Option and do a series of convoluted actions that give you the ability to sneak in, whereupon you are given a pass for easy reentry.
    Ripley: "I'd like to go through there."
    Guard: "You must have a pass."
    Ripley: "Where do I get a pass?"
    Guard: "Through there."
    [[/folder]]

[[folder:Webcomics]]
  • When Pip first starts playing "Legends of Lorcraft" in Phillip Jackson's Sequential Art, panel 136, he starts as a Level 1 serf, and needs armor and a sword to go on treasure quests. However, armor and swords cost money, which is earned by obtaining treasures. Pip lampshades his dilemma nicely.
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Western Animation]]
  • Discussed in Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown during the initial organization of the girls' tent in a "democratic fashion". Peppermint Patty wants to prepare ballots, but the girls have to decide first on who passes out ballots.
    Lucy Van Pelt: Wait a minute! You can't vote unless we have ballots!
    Marcie: If we can't vote to see who will pass the ballots, how can we have ballots to vote?
[[/folder]]

[[folder: Real Life]]
  • One that's all too common is businesses that offer starting-level jobs, but require that the person hired already have <some amount> of experience. You can't get the job without having experience, but you can't get the experience without having a job. And that's all that needs to be said about it.
  • One early railway system included the regulation: "Should two trains meet on the same track, neither shall proceed until the other has retreated".
  • One theoretical application of the Alcubierre drive that would not require large amounts of exotic matter would be to use masses placed along the intended travel path, creating Hyperspace Lanes. Unfortunately these masses would themselves have to be moving faster than the speed of light, so you'd need an Alcubierre drive to make an Alcubierre drive.
[[/folder]]
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