Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate and Settlement
By Dean G. Pruitt and Jeffrey Z. Rubin
Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate and Settlement, Dean G. Pruitt and Jeffrey Z. Rubin, (New York: Random House, 1986).This Book Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
In this text, Pruitt and Rubin describe how people engage in social conflicts. The authors define conflict as "a perceived divergence of interest, or a belief that the parties' current aspirations cannot be achieved simultaneously. "(p. 4) They describe the sources of conflict, identify five basic conflict strategies, and explore processes of conflict escalation and resolution. Social conflicts have both costs and benefits. Positive functions of conflict include nurturing social change, reconciling people's interests, and ultimately fostering group unity. However, when contentious strategies cause conflicts to escalate, then they may become destructive.
Sources of Conflict
Conflicts occur when parties believe that both sides' aspirations cannot be satisfied at the same time. Aspirations are expressed in terms of goals, or specific targets, and standards, or acceptable minimums. Three elements contribute to the perception that the parties aspirations are incompatible: the party's own level of aspiration, their perception of the other party's level of aspiration, and their perception of the availability of integrative solutions.
High aspirations are more likely to provoke conflict. A party's aspirations may be based realistically on what they think they can achieve, or idealistically on what they think they deserve. When levels of attainment are low, parties' realistic aspirations often remain low. Rapid improvement may give rise to highly inflated unreachable aspirations. Societies develop rules and norms that specify who is entitled to what outcomes, and so shape peoples' idealistic aspirations. Invidious comparisons with other groups may lead to increased aspirations. Such comparison "stimulates a rise in aspirations both for realistic reasons (because it seems reasonable that one can do as well as people with whom one compares oneself) and idealistic reasons (because people think that their outcomes should be as good as those of others with whom they compare themselves)."(p. 15) Finally, the formation of struggle groups to promote certain under-recognized interests may increase people's awareness of those interests and increase their level of aspiration.
We estimate another's aspirations by considering the same sorts of factors that affect our own aspirations, and by considering previous experiences with the other party. Distrust in the other encourages the perception that their aspirations are incompatible with our own. Trust encourages the perception of their aspirations as flexible or reasonable.
High aspirations are seen as incompatible when the parties cannot imagine any integrative solution, that is, an outcome that could satisfy both sets of aspirations. Sometimes this perception is realistic. Other times it is the result of zero-sum, or win-lose thinking. "Zero-sum thinking can result from a negative attitude toward the other party, which makes one unwilling to contribute to the other's welfare, or from a personality disposition akin to authoritarianism, which leads to a view of the world as a jungle in which everybody is in inevitable competition with everybody else."(p. 18)
Conflicts are less likely to arise under conditions of ample resources, balanced power, trust, shared norms that prescribe compatible aspirations, and the presence of integrative options. "In low-conflict communities, one typically finds a broad consensus involving wide acceptance of certain goals, rules of conduct, role definitions, procedures for decision making, and authority and status systems."(p. 19) Low-conflict communities inhibit invidious comparisons, often by creating myths that define certain groups as more or less deserving, or by forms of physical or psychological segregation between unequal groups. They also inhibit the formation of struggle groups by removing potential group leaders, co-opting dissidents, or through other "divide and conquer" tactics. While too much conflict can disrupt society, too much emphasis on stability and conflict suppression can foster injustice and unproductive policies.
Choosing Conflict Strategies
There are five basic conflict strategies. Contending is an attempt to resolve the conflict on one's own terns without regard for the other side's interests. Contentious tactics include threats, punishments, and preemptive actions. Problem-solving strategies attempt to find mutually appealing solutions. Problem solving tactics include making concessions and discussing underlying interests. Yielding is an attempt to reduce conflict by lowering one's aspirations. Parties may choose to withdraw from a conflict. Finally, they may choose to remain in the conflict but be inactive, waiting for the other side to make a move. The authors are most interested in contending and problem solving, since these strategies are essentially social (whereas yielding, withdrawing and inaction are pursued unilaterally).
Pruitt and Rubin describe two approaches to modeling conflicting parties' choices of strategy. The dual concern model views strategic choice as the product of two elements: concern for one's own outcome, and concern for the other side's outcome. Where concern for both self and other is high, problem solving is the more likely strategic choice. Where concern for both self and other is low, inaction is more likely. High concern for one's own outcome and low concern for the other leads to contending strategies. Low concern for oneself and high concern for the other results in yielding strategies.
A person's level of concern for their own (or their group's) outcomes is shaped by the outcome's relation to their underlying values, its importance relative to the person's other aspirations, and by how much they fear conflict. Concern for the other side's outcomes may be instrumental or genuine. Genuine concern comes from interpersonal bonds. Instrumental concern comes with dependence on the other party.
The perceived feasibility model of strategic choice focuses on parties' assessments of the costs and effectiveness of the various strategies, and offers an important supplement to the dual concern model. The dual concern model predicts a party's preferred strategy. "But for a strategy actually to be adopted, it must also be seen as minimally feasible. If not, another strategy will be chosen, even if it is less consistent with the current combination of concerns."(p. 35)
Problem-solving strategies seem more feasible the greater the parties' perceived common ground, the greater the mutual trust, the lower their aspirations, and the greater the perceived availability of integrative alternatives. Contending seems more feasible when the other's resistance to yielding is low, when the contentious party has more power and the other side is less able to counter, and when the perceived costs of using contentious tactics is low. Inaction seems most feasible when there are no pressing time constraints on the inactive party. People withdraw from conflicts when the expected benefit from the conflict falls below their minimum aspiration.
The authors explore a number of contentious tactics, including such "light" tactics as ingratiation, gamesmanship, persuasion, and promises, and "heavy" tactics such as threats and irrevocable commitments. They argue that although increasingly severe contentious tactics are a feature of conflict escalation, contentious tactics are not necessarily destructive. Through ingratiation, one party seeks to make the other party favorable disposed toward them, and so lessen their resistance to yielding. Specific tactics include flattery, agreeing with the other party's opinions, and doing them small favors. Gamesmanship tactics involve "inducing a state of upset or unrest that has the effect of lowering the other resistance to yielding."(p. 48) Ingratiation and gamesmanship both work best when the target is not aware that these tactics are being employed.
Persuasive arguments are overt attempts to induce the other party to lower their aspirations. A party usually argues either that they have a legitimate right to their desired outcome, or that it is in the other party's best interests to lower their aspirations. Promises and threats seek to induce the other party to act in some particular way, by attaching further consequences (beneficial or harmful) to their actions. The advantages of promises are that they are generally effective, relatively "nice," and may create a sense of indebtedness in the recipient. The drawbacks are that promises cost the promising party whatever reward was offered, recipients may demand more extravagant rewards in the future, or they may be mistaken for bribes. Threats are even more effective than promises, and have lower costs. However, threats tend to evoke counter-threats, increasing hostility and escalating the conflict
Another tactic involves making an irrevocable commitment to pursuing some potentially mutually harmful course of action. In making an irrevocable commitment, "the locus of control over the outcome of the exchange has been shifted from the shoulders of Party to those of Other, who is now the only one capable of preventing mutual disaster," presumably by choosing to yield.(p. 57) The advantages of this tactic are that it can be effective, and that it does not require much relative power (unlike promising or threatening). The drawbacks are that it can entail substantial risks, that it must be used preemptively, that it must be clear and credible, and that it can foster escalation.
Factors Favoring Escalation or Stability
Five transformations occur in conflict escalation. Contending strategies shift from light to heavy tactics. What starts as a small conflict over a specific issue grows into a large, engrossing conflict over a number of issues. The issue involved shift from the specific to the general. The parties' goals change from doing well for themselves, to winning, to harming the other side. The number of participants swells.
Most conflict relationships are relatively stable, alternating between periods of mild tension and periods of harmony. A minority of conflicts do escalate, however. Escalated conflicts tend to remain escalated, and to be more destructive. The authors describe factors that encourage escalation, as well as those that encourage stability.
Escalation is more likely when an imbalance of power, or a lack of integrative options, makes the parties more inclined to adopt a contenting strategy. Escalation is also more likely when both parties have high aspirations.
Conflict-limiting social norms, the fear of escalation, social bonds, and a balance of power all foster stability. Social norms may discourage escalation by prescribing conciliatory, peaceful or problem-solving responses to conflict. Societies also offer institutions and forums for managing conflicts, such as courts, elections and mediation. Awareness of the dangers of conflict escalation can make people more conciliatory and less likely to employ contentious tactics.
Social bonds foster stability. Stabilizing bonds include positive attitudes, perceived similarity, respect, friendship, kinship, common group membership and future dependence. Conflicts will arise more frequently in relations of broad dependence, but will be less likely to escalate. However, extreme dependence can produce resentment and provoke conflict. The presence of a common friend or a common enemy between two parties can have a stabilizing effect on their relationship. Cross-cutting or interlocking group memberships also have a stabilizing effect.
Ironically, threats and punishments are also very effective ways of avoiding conflict escalation. Stabilizing threats range from the explicit threat of criminal punishment to the implicit threat conveyed by a frown. The authors observe that "threats and penalties are omnipresent in social relationships, potentially deterring others from taking hostile or bothersome action."(p. 81) Stability can also be maintained by maintaining a balance of power among parties. In such a case no one party has a clear power advantage, and any aggression would provoke retaliation by the combined forces of the other parties. International security often adopts this approach. If they are to contribute to stability, threats and their intentions must be clear and credible. If misunderstood, threats may be ineffective or even contribute to conflict escalation.
Pruitt and Rubin explore two models of the escalation process. The conflict spiral model describes escalation as a vicious cycle of action and reaction. One party's punishing action provokes punishing retaliation by the other side, which in turn prompts increased retaliation from the first party. Similarly, one party's defensive action may be perceived as threatening by the other side. Their defensive response is in turn seen as a threat by the first party.
The structural change model "argues that conflict, and the tactics used to pursue it, produce residues in the form of changes in the parties and the communities to which the parties belong. These residues then encourage further contentious behavior, at an equal or still more escalated level, and diminish efforts at conflict resolution."(p. 92) Psychologically, the parties become more angry, fearful and emotionally aroused. They develop negative attitudes toward the other party, blaming them for the conflict and attributing hostile intentions to them. The parties' capacity for empathy and trust is undermined, and they shift toward zero-sum thinking.
Structural changes at the group level include a tendency to shift toward more extreme views and militant leadership, and to adopt contentious group goals. Group norms come to reinforce psychological changes. Conflict increases group cohesion, which increases members' conformity, members' belief in the rightness of their goals, and the vigor of group actions. New struggle groups may form. Such groups encourage escalation "because, in addition to having all the other attributes of a group in conflict, a struggle group exists for the primary purpose of prevailing over the adversary."(p. 108)
Conflicts also tend to polarize the broader community, which increases the likelihood of escalation. "This is because of the destruction of crosscutting group memberships and the disappearance of neutral third parties who would otherwise urge moderation and mediate the controversy."(p. 108)
Why Escalation Persists
Negative attitudes toward the other party tend to be perpetuated by three psychological mechanisms: selective perception, self-fulfilling prophecy, and autistic hostility. First, people tend to select those perceptions that tend to confirm their existing attitudes, and ignore or discount information that would disconfirm their existing attitudes. People also tend to see negative behavior as stemming from an adversary's basic character. Self-fulfilling prophecies arise when a party's expectations about their adversary cause them to act in ways that actually provoke the adversary's "expected" response. The adversaries (provoked) response is then taken as confirmation of the party's original expectation, and a vicious cycle ensues. Vicious cycles can also occur when the other party, who is unaware of our expectations, does nothing to disconfirm them, and so implicitly confirms our worst expectations. People tend to break off interaction and communication with those they dislike. When this happens people become stuck in autistic hostility, that is, their hostility is perpetuated by their refusal to communicate.
Structural changes in groups are perpetuated by group dynamics. Norms are self-perpetuating by their nature. Members rely on their groups for status and a sense of meaning. Struggle groups exist for the sake of pursuing a conflict. Members and leaders of struggle groups may then have a vested interest in continuing a conflict, in order to maintain their own positions.
Individuals and groups are subject to processes of overcommitment and entrapment, which serve to perpetuate conflict escalation. Overcommitment occurs when parties view the time and effort put into conflict as an "investment." Yielding or withdrawing from conflict would mean losing their investment. Instead, parties intensify their efforts, hoping to pull off a "win" and to make good on their investment, that is, to justify the time and effort spent on the conflict. Eventually, parties have "invested" so much into the conflict that they become entrapped. Withdrawing from the conflict would make all the earlier investment worthless and meaningless. Often however, the conflict has already escalated so much that the "prize" to be won is worth less than what the parties have already invested. As a result of overcommitment, the parties' goals change. "The concern with maximizing winnings, which first gave way to a concern with minimizing losses, is now supplanted by the determination to make certain that, even though one is sure to lose oneself, the other player is going to lose at least as much."(p. 122)
Stalemate and De-escalation
"At the point of stalemate, neither party can or will escalate the conflict further, though neither is yet able or willing to take the actions that will eventually generate an agreement."(p. 127) At this point the conflict can get no worse, and can hopefully get better. Stalemates happen when the parties exhaust their resources or social support, when contentious tactics have failed, or when the costs of continued escalation have become unacceptable. Stalemates represent a balance of effective power: neither side has the power to move the other.
Stalemates can be broken by yielding, withdrawing, or problem solving. However, it is not always possible to withdraw from a conflict. Yielding may be unacceptable, particularly if the parties are already overcommited and strongly concern with losing face. The most important consequence of stalemate, then, is that the parties may be compelled to adopt a problem solving strategy.
Initiating problem solving can be a very delicate matter. The parties in a stalemate avoid showing any interest in problem solving or compromise because such interest could make them appear weak or result in a loss of face. This resistance can be addressed by careful use of contact and communication, and by introducing superordinate goals. Contact and communication can give both parties better understanding of their respective interests and intentions. It can help diminish negative attitudes and create positive bonds. Introducing superordinate goals involves developing "an objective that is common to both parties and beyond the capability of either party alone."(p. 136) Superordinate goals can take the form of a common opponent, or of an opportunity for joint gain. Introducing superordinate goals works by fostering cooperation, weakening group boundaries, and creating relationships of benefit and gratitude.
When problem solving, parties seek a mutually acceptable solution to their conflict. "The parties or their representatives talk freely to one another. They exchange information about their interests and priorities, work together to identify the true issues dividing them, brainstorm in search of alternatives that bridge their opposing interests, and collectively evaluate these alternatives from the viewpoint of their mutual welfare."(p. 139) Parties may either compromise, agree on a procedure to determine who should win, or develop an integrative solution. Integrative solution are the most desirable, because they maximize both parties gain, and because they can diminish the parties perception of conflicting interests.
Pruitt and Rubin suggest five techniques for creating integrative options. Parties may "expand the pie" by increasing the available resources. "In nonspecific compensation, Party gets what he or she wants, and Other is repaid in some unrelated coin."(p. 144) In logrolling, parties trade concessions on low priority issues. Cost cutting seeks ways to meet a party's goals with minimal or no cost to the other party. The parties may use bridging to invent new options that substantially satisfy both of their basic interests.
In order to bridge or cost-cut effectively, the parties must have some understanding of the interests that underlie their positions, and of the deeper interests that underlie those interests. Sometimes deeper interests can be reconciled even when superficial interests conflict. "When one seeks the interests underlying divergent positions, one often finds that the issue under consideration has a different meaning to each of the two parties."(p. 150) For instance, one party may be concern with substance and the other with appearances, or one with the short term and the other with the long term.
The authors suggest a four step problem-solving process. First, parties must clarify and explain the situation, to determine whether there really is a conflict of interests present. Second, each party must thoroughly examine their own interests, and set reasonably high aspirations. Third, the parties should problem solve together, using the techniques above, trying to create an integrative solution that satisfies both parties interests. Finally, if no integrative solution can be found, one or both parties must lower their aspirations, and search again for an integrative solution.
Parties must be firm about their basic interests, flexible about how those interests may be satisfied, and remain responsive to the other party's interests. If there are many issues at stake, then the parties will need to develop an agenda. Usually it is best to put the easiest issues first on the agenda. Deciding that no agreement is final until all are allows for logrolling on the later issues. When issues are very complex, parties may begin by first agreeing on an overarching formula for how talks will proceed. Often, a party's interests are psychologically (but not practically) linked together. Such psychological linkages must be broken down to increase the parties' flexibility and increase the potential for an integrative solution.
There are risks in shifting toward a problem solving strategy when the other side is contending strongly. The strategic shift may be seen as a sign of weakness, and so cause the contending party to intensify their efforts. Raising integrative options may be interpreted as backing off a position. Discussing one's interests may give an advantage to the other party. To minimize these risks, parties often use covert tactics to test the other's interest in shifting toward a joint problem-solving strategy. One such covert tactics is to have back-channel contacts, meeting in informal, private or even secret venues, to explore problem solving. "Intermediaries provide greater protection against image loss and information loss than is found in back-channel meetings, because it is even less clear whether they represent the thinking of the people who sent them."(p. 158) Parties may also use conciliatory signals to invite problem solving. Such signals must be both noticeable, so the other side gets the message, and deniable, so the first party can save face.
A party may also try overt persuasive tactics to draw the other side into problem solving. The key to effective recruitment is to convey a firm but conciliatory stance toward the others. Parties signal firmness by making a vigorous statement of their interests and having constituents make strong statements, by being unwilling to make unilateral concessions, and by developing a modest amount of threat capability. Careful use of contentious tactics can also signal firmness without triggering escalation. Parties can signal their conciliatory intent by expressing their willingness to adopt integrative solutions, by expressing concern for the other party, by keeping the lines of communication open, and by rewarding the other's cooperative gestures. Parties may also make unilateral trust-building initiatives, for instance, by using the GRIT strategy.
Third parties change conflicts, often for the better, just by being present. Third parties can play many roles. They may act formally or informally. They may act as individuals, or as representatives of some larger group. They may be invited to participate by the conflicting parties, or they may intervene spontaneously. Usually an effective third party will be impartial, however there are occasions when a partial role can be helpful. Third parties may be limited to advising the parties, or they may be able to make binding decisions for the parties. They may intervene in conflicts between individuals or between groups. Some third parties will focus on the substance of the dispute, while other focus on improving the conflict process.
Pruitt and Rubin describe three effective forms of third-party intervention. First, third parties may intervene to modify the physical or social structure of the conflict. They can facilitate communication, offer a neutral or private venue for talks, impose a timeline and deadlines, contribute resources, and call up public pressure. Second, third parties can change the structure of the issue in a conflict. They can help the parties identify issues and interests, and break psychological linkages. They can help the parties group and order the issues to be addressed. And they can introduce new issues, alternative solutions and superordinate goals. Third, such intervention can further motivate the conflicting parties to reach an agreement. Third parties help participants save face by accepting responsibility for concessions. They manage parties' emotions and absorb hostility. They can also help sustain the parties' momentum toward a resolution.
In conclusion, the authors point out the need for further study of processes of de-escalation, and of when and how conflict strategies are employed in combination. They acknowledge that their approach is somewhat limited in that it emphasizes description and individual behavior. There is further need for more prescriptive theory, and for analysis focusing on interactions between individuals.