Catch-22 Dilemma

It's exactly what you need to unpack itself.

"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

You have two chests that you need to open. The key to chest one is in chest two and the key to chest two is in chest one, now what?

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. When time travel is possible, you can sometimes pull this off with a Stable Time Loop.

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:
  • Morton's Fork: The same bad result occurs no matter what you do. The reason it occurs is different with each option, though.
  • Begging the Question: A logical fallacy where you claim to prove something simply by asserting that it's true (usually in slightly different wording; Circular Reasoning is similar, but with more than two steps intervening between the postulate and the assertion).
  • Chain of Deals: where a character trades Item A to get Item B, trade that to get Item 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 subtropenote  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 with the resources they have.


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     Anime and Manga 
  • One Piece:
    • Discussed in the Fishman Island arc, 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.
    • In the Thriller Bark arc, Gecko Moria steals Luffy's shadow, uses it to animate a giant zombie called Oars and sets it on the rest of the crew. One way to return the stolen shadows is to defeat Moria, and as the battle goes on it seems like that the only way to defeat Oars is to remove Luffy's shadow. At one point Moria appears in a special cockpit in Oars' chest, giving the crew this dilemma; They need to get to Moria to stop Oars, but in order to get to Moria they need to beat Oars! Eventually the crew gets around this by breaking Oars spine so that that the zombie can't move, even with Luffy's shadow.

     Comic books 
  • A Sturmtruppen story arc inspired by the Trope Namer focused on the efforts of a soldier to be declared insane, so he'll be able to ask for discharge on those grounds. After volunteering for a chore you had to be insane to volunteer for (namely, disposing of avariated nitroglycerine, more prone to explode than normal nitroglycerine. When he does volunteer, the sergeant actually asks him if he's insane), the sergeant is finally convinced he's insane, so he asks for a discharge... And the doctor points at the catch-22 in the rules, stating that if you ask for discharge on grounds of insanity you're not insane. The soldier is promptly stuck with the mission, goes actually insane, and is discharged on those grounds.

    Fan Works 
  • In My Immortal: if you aren't a legit goff, Tom Rid won't give you the "real" goffic clothes. But you can't be a "real" goff without them, so you can't get the "real" goffic clothes unless you already have them. Oh, and you're not considered a true goff unless you know all goffic knowledge, but if you didn't have said information at some point, then you're a poser.
  • In Witches of Westfield Andromeda Tonks decides to resume the Healer internship she abandoned when she became pregnant with her daughter.
    Andromeda: It seems that there are some additional classes I'll need to sit as it has been a number of years since I dropped my previous internship. Sadly, in order to sit the classes I need to be in an internship, which I can't get without sitting the classes. It's all rather maddening.

     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.

    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, and the problem is solved when the unit's major and his white boss who helped him set the unit up call the brass on their BS and basically browbeat them into letting the Red Tails provide the air support for an amphibious assault. They not only down several Bf-109s in the air, they follow them back to base and have a fun time blasting it to pieces.
  • Lampshaded by Alex Rogan in The Last Starfighter. The Ko-Dan have too many fighters for him to take out ship-to-ship, so the plan is to destroy a communications array on The Mothership to disrupt command-and-control. But to get to the comm turret, they have to get through the fighters. 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.
  • Catch-22 includes many of the same examples as the trope-naming book.
  • Camp X-Ray: Ali hasn't done anything wrong, so he should be released. However, the very fact that he's been in Guantanamo means no country will take him in, so he can't be.
  • Akira Kurosawa's film Ikiru has an extended scene showing a group of frustrated residents being directed from one city-hall office to another to yet another, in hopes of registering a complaint; they wind up being referred right back to the first person they tried to complain to.

  • The term was coined by the Joseph Heller novel 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 who 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.)
  • In Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School, the last True/False question is as follows:
    1. Statement 2 is true.
    2. Statement 1 is false.
  • In "The Death of Chaos" by L. E. Modesitt, Jr., the protagonist, Lerris, arrives at a base where his consort is stationed. The guard at the gate refuses to let him in without a pass, and after asking several questions, Lerris learns the only people who can give him a pass are inside the base he needs a pass to get into, and the guard won't call anyone who can help. After a few failed attempts at reasoning with the guard, Lerris gets impatient and tries to enter anyway, resulting in about a dozen guards trying to hack him apart. Luckily, an officer who knows Lerris arrives to sort things out, and the guard who started the whole mess receives an (offscreen) chewing out for his behavior.
  • In Soul Music Musicians' Guild membership costs AM$25.00 (plus AM$15.00 compulsory voluntary pension fund contribution and AM$35.00 as a percentage of ... something). Without membership, a musician can't perform in Ankh-Morpork (at least, not for long), and without performing, there's no way the average musician can raise AM$75.00.
  • In Paradox in Oz, Ozma meets a barber who impressed the princess of his land with his haircutting skills so much that she passed a rule decreeing that he must cut the hair of anyone who doesn't cut their own hair. The other barbers of the land didn't want him cutting their hair, however, so they asked the princess to amend the rule to say that he isn't allowed to cut the hair of someone who does cut their own hair, which landed him into the quandary of whether or not he's allowed to cut his own hair. (In short, the barber paradox.) The result being that he's let his hair and beard grow long enough to cover the entire floor of his shop because he can't decide what to do with them.
  • In P. G. Wodehouse's short story "The Artistic Career of Corky", from Carry On, Jeeves (1925), Bertie Wooster explains a problem for budding artists: "You see, the catch about portrait-painting — I've looked into the thing a bit — is that you can't start painting portraits until people come along and ask you to, and they won't come and ask you to until you've painted a lot first. This makes it kind of difficult, not to say tough, for the ambitious youngster."

    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. This is explained in other material. (spoiler) 
    Dean: So you need one to kill one, but you got to kill one to make one. How does that work out?
  • The detectives in Law & Order have run into this a few times: they know evidence is somewhere, but can't prove probable cause to search the place. Essentially, to find the evidence, they need the evidence. Generally resolved by finding a weak piece of evidence that lets them search the place they really wanted to.
  • The season 2 premiere of CSI: Cyber has a sideplot of the team hoping to take down a revenge porn site and running into a common Catch-22 created by Fourth Amendment protections: they can't get a warrant without probable cause, but they can't get enough evidence for probable cause without a warrant. They try an end-run around it by checking to see if a victim's phone was hacked for the nudie pics (which would constitute probable cause to seize the servers as evidence), but it doesn't pan out.

  • "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 2 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.
  • The chorus to "Graphene" by Midwives of Discord (Relevant lyrics have been bolded):
    You cannot love someone else
    Until you accept yourself
    My inner demons might have friendly faces
    But dont give them a reason to come out of their places
    You cannot accept yourself
    Until you're loved by someone else
    They bleed green they spit hot mace it's
    Grotesque, the more they feed the darker my day gets

    Mythology and Religion 
  • The Pirkei Avot, a classical Jewish text, states that God created the first pair of tongs, because you need a pair of tongs to fashion a pair of tongs.note 

    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.
  • Invoked in Dilbert by Wally as an excuse for being unable to get any work done.

     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.
    • Paranoia as a whole highly encourages this trope, as they're an easy way to (further) trap the players in unwinnable situations. A large part of the game's Black Comedy is seeing how the players deal with such situations.

    Video Games 
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past has this in the form of a locked chest with its key locked inside.
  • 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: In Beijing, there's a gate you might want to go through (not for any particular reason, it's just there), but there's a guard blocking your way, and he won't let you through without a pass, which you can get from behind the gate. It's just a throwaway joke since you don't actually go through the gate at any point, although travelling to the First Emperor's tomb at the end of the game may be implied to involve going that way offscreen.
    Ripley: "I'd like to go through there."
    Guard: "You must have a pass."
    Ripley: "Where do I get a pass?"
    Guard: "Through there."
  • In Kingdom Hearts, Riku is recruited by Maleficent to gather the hearts of the seven Princesses of Heart in order to retrieve Kairi's heart. The problem with this is that Kairi is a Princess of Heart.
  • In Strife, a Red Acolyte in The Bailey drops an Order Key — which you need in order to get into the Bailey in the first place. Fortunately, this key is also dropped by a Grey Acolyte outside the Bailey, both making it possible to get in and making the second drop redundant.
    • Strife is also full of exits to other levels — most of which are to levels whose relevance to the plot was earlier, or which can only be opened from the other side, making them useless as sequence-breaking shortcuts.
  • In the Digimon World installments for Nintendo DS, if your Digimon loses battles, you lose friendship, best gained through winning battles, and it stops obeying you, leading to more losses... and in the case of your Lunamon or Coronamon, your most powerful. If they lose in the prologue, you're doomed.
  • Parodied in Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando: a ways into the game, the duo finds a pair of jars that contain a rock and a wrench upgrade. A plaque reads "Use rock to break glass to get wrench to break glass to get rock." Clank is more than eager to try and logic it out... before Ratchet just breaks the new wrench open with his old one.
    Ratchet: Solved it.

  • In Phillip Jackson's Sequential Art, panel 136, Pip has to play as a Level 1 serf, and needs armor and a sword to go on treasure quests. (He had a sword and armor upon first spawning in the game, but they were stolen by a Griefer who he tried to join a Pick-Up Group with.) However, armor and swords cost money, which is earned by obtaining treasures. Pip lampshades his dilemma, then solves it by killing grasshoppers to level up.

    Web Original 
  • The Angry Video Game Nerd sees Stalactite Spite this way in a Batman review. If you go under a Spiteful Stalactite, it hurts you, and to make it fall, you have to go under it. What a paradox. To make matters worse, the game in question, Return of the Joker, added ice physics to the stalactite rooms, to make it harder to get out of the way.
    • In the Tiger Games review, the Bullshit Man from You Know Whats Bullshit makes a cameo appearance and mentions scissors that come in plastic packaging that requires scissors to open, much like the trope image.
  • Freeman's Mind on the Malevolent Architecture of Black Mesa: "Why would you get to the ladder? To fix the elevator! How do you get on the ladder? You take the elevator that doesn't work! Who thought this one up?!"

    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?
  • Beetlejuice faces a Catch-22 in "Super Zeroes." As his own superhero Super Beetleman, he can't join a union of superheroes unless he has a membership card. And a superhero can only get a membership card by being part of the union.
  • In two episodes of The Proud Family, Oscar tells Penny that he wants her to start dating after she's married.
  • In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Patrick! The Game", Patrick makes his own board game out of several other game boards taped and glued together and starts making up rules as he goes along. When Squidward lands on the "go to jail" square on the Monopoly-esque game, Patrick tells him one of the only ways he can get out is to roll a 6, which he can't do because he can't roll the dice while in jail (the other way is for someone to say his name).

     Real Life 
  • One that's all too common is businesses that offer starting-level jobs, but require that the person hired already have a certain level 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". Lawyers and law professors swear up and down that the regulation was actually a statute in Kansas; the state of Kansas is famous in the American legal community for producing well-intentioned legislation that nevertheless is inevitably poorly drafted, requiring extensive unnecessary judicial interpretation later.
  • 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.
  • The 2010 Florida race for US Senate that eventually saw Marco Rubio win was this for third-party candidate Alexander Snitker. He was excluded from debates because he didn't have enough support in the polls, he didn't have enough support in the polls because pollsters wouldn't place his name on them, and they wouldn't place his name on them because his profile wasn't high enough, something he could change by, say, participating in debates. In fact, the two party system in general throws independent candidates into a Catch 22.
  • Even within the main parties this can be observed. Some candidates in major primaries get no media coverage because they have no chance to win, but they have no chance to win because they have no media coverage. In extreme cases this can include the candidates the polls say are frontrunners.
  • Some banks require you to have a credit score in order to take out a loan or get a credit card. In order to get a credit score, you have to pay back money owed due to loans or credit. The easiest way out of this one is to piggyback onto someone else's credit by convincing them to co-sign with you. Of course, if you turn out to be bad with money, this leaves them burdened by your debt.
  • Having a bad credit score can keep one from getting a job, but getting a job is the best way to improve a credit score.
  • As mentioned on the Idiot Programming page, the music composition software Finale PrintMusic has a pretty big flaw with their user registration system on their forums. If your account should happen to get locked due to inactivity (and only about 3 months of inactivity will qualify), then it is essentially impossible to get back into it, because you must contact a forum administrator to re-enable it, contact information is found in user profiles, and user profiles cannot be viewed unless you are logged into an account. You can't even make a new account (at least, without setting up an entirely new e-mail address) because the old information is still in the system and cannot be reused.
    • This also happens with British satellite broadcaster Sky:
      • To sign up for Sky services, including internet, you need an email address. To get an email address, you already need internet access. Fortunately, you can borrow someone else's or the like.
      • In rare cases, your original order may run into a problem, in which case you need to sign up again. You can't use the email address you used before because it's already registered with Sky. One way around this, is to use plus-addressing (e.g. if is blocked, use to create an address which looks different but isn't.
  • Stack overflows in programming are often caused by a function needing information from some other function, which in turn needs information from the first function (more functions may be involved), creating an infinite sequence of calls back and forth filling up the stack.
  • To get identification paperwork, you need to prove your identity. Which is the purpose of identification paperwork. Thankfully, multiple forms are issued, so you can, for example, use your birth certificate to get your passport. If you lose something along the way, though, good luck.
  • The curious case of the now-defunct Lakes Mall in Lauderdale Lakes, Florida. The owners of the then struggling mall, in 1989, were faced with a unique problem: "The owners [of the mall] aren't paying off their mortgage, the mortgage holder charged in a foreclosure suit filed this month. We can't, says the owner, because the mortgage holder — which also leases space in the mall — isn't paying its rent." So the mall owner can't pay the mortgage owner because the mortgage owner can't pay the mall.
  • This trope is said to be why the SACD format failed. The publishers wouldn't release discs because not enough people had players... but the public wouldn't buy players because there weren't enough discs.
  • Often the case with many high schoolers looking for a job to earn enough money to purchase an automobile. Many of these low level jobs ask if you have a reliable way to get to and from your job. In other words, you need a car to get a job in which you're saving up to get a car.
  • During World War II, the International Labour Organization was faced with the potential of this. They were an agency of the League of Nations, but were autonomous enough to keep running despite the League's issues. The problem they realized was that one thing they by their constitution couldn't do was change their constitution without getting approval from the League — so if the League ceased to exist in any sense capable of giving approval, then the constitution couldn't be changed and they'd be stuck as an agency of an organization that no longer existed. Ultimately they just decided that such a situation meant that article of the constitution was no longer in effect, allowing them to amend the constitution using their internal procedures and follow along when the rest of the League's remaining assets and institutions were transferred over to the United Nations.
  • A lot of bullying victims suffer from a rather cruel version of this trope; they tend to try to spend as much time alone as they possibly can to avoid being bullied, and, in the process, tend to feel pretty lonely after a while. Usually however, if they decide they're tired of being lonely and want to be around other people again (especially if they're the same age as they are), they'll have to deal with being bullied once more.