- Martin Luther King, Jr.
What is Entrapment?
Entrapment, or the "sacrifice trap" can be defined as "a decision making process whereby individuals escalate their commitment to a previously chosen, though failing, course of action in order to justify or 'make good on' prior investments."
Though this happens in everyday occurrences (see inset, right), it becomes especially apparent when leaders pursue "questionable" wars or other especially costly policies. The leaders of countries or insurgent groups involved in intractable conflicts frequently ask their constituents to make enormous sacrifices in pursuit of the group's overall objectives. In addition to time and money, constituents are frequently asked to endure enormous hardship, personal injury, and even death. They may be separated from their families and loved ones and forced to travel across their country or overseas to advance their group's goals.
People are willing to make these sacrifices because they believe that there are no less costly ways to protect their vital interests. This means that the ability of leaders to retain their positions requires that they continue to persuade their constituents that they have chosen the best course of action. It is often politically unacceptable for the leaders to admit that they have made a mistake and that the sacrifices made have achieved nothing--or worse, may even have hurt the group's ability to pursue its interests. People who actually make the sacrifices are also understandably reluctant to admit that they have served no useful purpose and that their confrontation strategy should be abandoned. For example, it is far easier to believe that your son was killed in a noble crusade, rather than in a stupid blunder.
Since they want to believe they are right, people are often very reluctant to abandon failed strategies, and this reluctance, ironically, tends to increase as the magnitude of the sacrifice increases. This problem, for example, helps explain why the United States continued to pursue conflict in Vietnam long after it became clear that it was a serious mistake. Many in the U.S. and elsewhere believe that the same thing is happening with the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It clearly isn't working out the way the Bush administration expected, yet the administration continues to "hold the course," being unwilling to admit they were wrong.
Morton Deutsch talks about the lengthy U.S. involvement in Vietnam: "the most direct statement of the reason for our continued involvement is the fact that we are involved: our continued involvement justifies our past involvement. Once involved it is exceedingly difficult to disengage and to admit, thereby, how purposeless or unwitting our past involvement has been." He points out that "at every step of increasing involvement, we were led to believe that with some small additional help, we would not risk a major conflict but yet would help to build an independent, stable country that could stand on its own feet. We have over and over again acted on the tempting assumption that with just a little more investment we would prevent the whole thing from going down the drain."
How Entrapment Happens
How, exactly, do leaders become trapped into a continued pursuit of victory even after it should be evident that the costs have become unbearable? Underlying the sacrifice trap is an apparently irrational psychological process in which "costs" become transformed into "investments." The greater costs one incurs, the more one becomes invested in the goals one is pursuing. The more pain or damage there has been, the greater the need to continue towards "victory" in order to justify the sacrifices that have already been made. Part of this is a matter of saving face. There are instances where one can back down only by admitting defeat and implicitly agreeing that one's opponent is stronger and more capable.
Leaders often think that the extent of past sacrifices makes any alternative to complete victory unthinkable. So long as their vision remains fixed on achieving the benefits that can justify past sacrifices, the anticipated costs of continuing might not be enough to turn leaders' minds towards conciliation. This sort of "tunnel vision" makes it more difficult to see the bad consequences associated with the course of action one is pursuing. The result is often destructive escalation of conflict.
Getting Out of the Trap
What often gets parties out of a sacrifice trap is a triggering event that forces decision-makers to re-assess their situation. Their main objective then changes from justifying past sacrifices and attaining victory to salvaging what can be salvaged of remaining resources. Past losses are no longer regarded as investments in success, but become "bygones" that must be reluctantly abandoned. Leaders' thinking becomes dominated by the desire to minimize further costs and hopes of victory are abandoned. Involved parties try to salvage as much as they can from a policy that is unlikely to achieve the objectives for which it was originally launched.
Third parties can assist parties to get out of or avoid a sacrifice trap in a variety of ways. First, they can help the adversaries to engage in cost-benefit analysis and anticipate likely future costs of their actions. In many cases, parties involved in conflict underestimate the costs and overestimate their chances of success. Entrapment can be reduced if decision makers are aware and mindful of the costs and possible outcomes. Second, third parties can help adversaries to develop viable and less costly alternatives. Often this is a matter of helping parties to accurately assess the current situation and to avoid investing too much in struggles they are unlikely to win. Non-violent strategies and diplomatic efforts typically involve less investment than military engagement on the part of constituents and are less likely to lead adversaries into a sacrifice trap. Third, outside parties can work to design a non-threatening process that will assist leaders in moving towards conciliation. Often this involves making sure that adversaries have a way to halt their struggle without losing face.
 A phrase used by Kenneth Boulding and Guy Burgess
 Joel Brockner and Jerry Rubin, Entrapment in Escalating Conflicts. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1985. p.5
 Morton Deutsch, The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes, pp. 356-7; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973
Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Entrapment." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2004 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/bi-essay/sacrifice-trap>.