By Cate Malek

Based on a longer essay on Escalation, written by Michelle Maiese for the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Project

Updated May 2013 by Heidi Burgess


An increase in the intensity of a conflict and in the severity of tactics used in pursuing it.


Anyone involved in an intense, emotional or violent conflict (or one that might become so) or interveners in such a conflict.


When conflict escalates, more people become involved and disputants make stronger threats. Violence may start or become more severe.

Causes of Escalation

One cause of escalation is incompatible goals. If two parties can't find a solution, and one believes it is more powerful, it may try to bully the other side. Escalation can also be caused by a sense of injustice. One party feels it has been wronged by its opponent, which leads to a desire to punish the wrong-doer. Escalation can also happen unintentionally. If one party feels aggrieved and lashes out at the other side, that side may respond even more hostilely, setting off an escalation "spiral" without either side intending to do so.

Psychological Changes

Escalation results in significant psychological changes in the parties involved. In addition to anger and fear, it can be driven by negative stereotypes of the opponent. Discussions about substantive issues give way to personal attacks. The opponent is seen as inferior, stupid, unworthy, or even evil. This eliminates the felt need to treat the other side with respect or "fairness," and can lead to disrespect, unfair treatment, violence, human rights violations, even genocide.

Such patterns are self-sustaining. Once parties expect certain behavior from the other side, they can only see that behavior. Thus, ambiguous actions of distrusted parties are seen as threatening. This leads to hostility toward the opponent, evoking a hostile response, and prodding the opponent to fulfill the party's initial, distrustful, expectations. Psychological or physical barriers are put up to reduce interaction. Once communication stops, parties can't resolve the substantive issues that caused the conflict in the first place. This absence of communication may lead to the distortion of facts, which provides more fuel for anger, fear, and escalation. Another psychological process that drives escalation is entrapment or "the sacrifice trap." A party may expend seemingly unjustified amounts of time, energy, and resources because they cannot admit they were wrong and all their previous sacrifices were thus "in vain."

Group Dynamics

Once group members realize others share their views, their own perceptions are reinforced. Group discussion can cause individuals to adopt  more extreme views. As conflict escalates, militant leadership develops. Leaders don't want to be seen as weak and consequently, often refuse to admit mistakes. Often, militant leaders ritualize the conflict and exhibit no interest in its resolution--their identity is tied up in its continuation. Norms of contentious interaction develop, and individuals who challenge these norms are ostracized. Those who question aggressive tactics stay quiet because they fear being labeled traitors, or dissident murmurs will simply be drowned out by the majority. Leaders foster such homogeneity by portraying the enemy as a grave threat. Group membership and participation in the struggle can give individuals status, wealth and a sense that life is meaningful. Members may not wish to surrender these benefits.


After WWII, the USSR attempted to gain control of nearby nations to increase its security. This made East-West cooperation difficult and increased the parties' mutual suspicion. In response to expanding Soviet influence, the United States attempted to strengthen Western European states and rebuild West Germany. Worried that Germany would return to power, the Soviets brought stronger tactics to bear. Already the conflict was escalating into what became known as the Cold War. On a much smaller scale, everyone has witnessed conflicts between children that escalate to the point of violence on the playground or elsewhere. A refusal to take turns, a perceived snub, or disagreement over whose friend (or girlfriend) is whose can lead to anger, threats, and even blows. One ultimate example of such was the Columbine High School tragedy, where two students shot and killed 13 students and a teacher and wounded 23 others after repeated perceived harassment and rejection. This scenario--only slightly altered, has played out time and again since Columbine, with mass violence taking place in schools, shopping malls, movie theatres, and the public street. Although the causes of these events are very complex, and little understood, it seems likely that escalated conflict played a significant role in most of these events.


Sometimes escalation is the rational thing to do. If a party has power over its opponent, it makes sense to use this power to overcome the opponent's resistance. Parties might also intentionally escalate the conflict in order to pressure the other side, involve third parties, or rally people to their cause. Often, tactical escalation can have positive effects and help move parties toward a mutually beneficial relationship. However, escalation often damages relationships and makes conflicts more difficult to resolve. Sometimes the situation needs to reach an extremely damaging and costly level before efforts are made to de-escalate the conflict and seek resolution.

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