Michelle Maiese and Heidi Burgess

Original Publication July, 2004. Current Implications added by Heidi Burgess in September 2020.

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

As was true for all the other escalation essays, the content of this one, though 16 years old, is still very true. The only change I would make if I were writing this today would be to focus on the entrapment we are seeing in the political conflicts in the U.S., in addition to referencing entrapment in overseas engagements. A good example of this, it seems to me, is Donald Trump and the Republicans' response to COVID-19. More...

What is Entrapment?

Fundamentals Seminar
Home | Syllabus / Other Posts


This post is also part of the
Constructive Conflict
MOOS Seminar's

exploration of the tough challenges posed by the
Constructive Conflict Initiative.


To start with, we need to be clear that, in the conflict and peacebuilding context, the word "entrapment" has a very different meaning than it does in the legal context (where it refers to the police tactic of enticing somebody into a committing a crime that they would not otherwise have committed).

Entrapment, or the "sacrifice trap[1]" 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."[2]

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.

Rats and men come to love the things for which they have suffered! --Kenneth Boulding, from http://www.ciaonet.org/wps/mic01/

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.

We all experience entrapment when we are put on hold when telephoning or when we wait for a bus; the longer we wait the more we want to walk away but the more reluctant we are to do so, having already invested so much time. --Louis Kriesberg; p. 161 in Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, 2nd edition; Rowman and Littlefield

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.

An Example

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."[3]

Having sunk resources into a fight, sinking more and more resources seems justified in order to attain the goal of the struggle and so justify what has already been expended in money, honor, or blood. This ever-increasing commitment and allocation of resources may go much beyond the original value of the goal, but the combatants are trapped into continuing and even escalating the struggle. -- Louis Kriesberg; p. 161 in Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, 2nd edition; Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2003.

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."[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.

During the Vietnam War, a common line of thought was "We have already lost 54,000 lives, so we can't give up now."

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.[7] Often this involves making sure that adversaries have a way to halt their struggle without losing face.

Current Implications

As was true for all the other escalation essays, the content of this one, though 16 years old, is still very true. The only change I would make if I were writing this today would be to focus on the entrapment we are seeing in the political conflicts in the U.S., in addition to referencing entrapment in overseas engagements. A good example of this, it seems to me, is Donald Trump and the Republican's response to COVID-19. As I write this in September 2020, it has become increasingly clear, as the deaths mount up, that this is an extremely serious pandemic that requires extreme measures to control. Yet, Donald Trump staked out his position on the virus early on—it wasn't a big deal, it was "just like the flu," masks aren't necessary, we should get back to work, get back to school—and now in an election year he and his fellow Republicans are very reluctant to admit that they were wrong.  So instead of taking the strong measures needed to (perhaps) control the virus, they are staying the course, while trying to limit testing and reporting in order to hide what is really going on (at least until after the election).  It isn't hard to see where this is going.

Trump voters are in a similar spot.  Many of them voted for him hoping he would "clean the swamp," as he promised to do, and they are very reluctant to accept the fact that they were wrong. He didn't "clean the swamp" at all, he just made it a "Trump swamp" instead of what he saw as an "Obama swamp."  He also hasn't delivered on many of his promises: the promised wall wasn't built, jobs weren't brought back (in fact the economy is in a shambles due to COVID-19), people are losing health care, not gaining it...he did get a massive tax cut passed, but most of the benefits have gone to the rich, not to the middle class or the poor. [8] One would think that would cause many of his supporters to vote Democratic this time, but polls suggest that is not the case.  Trump's "base," as it is called, has firmly maintained their support for the President throughout.  They still seem to think that he will be a better president than his opponent Joe Biden.  Some of this may be rational—they may look at Democratic policies and not like them, or they might not like Joe Biden or Kamala Harris. But a lot of it is likely due to the sacrifice trap—not being willing to admit they were wrong and standing by "their man."  

The same dynamic, of course, afflicts Democrats (and most everyone else).  It is very hard for Democrats to admit that they may have over-reached in their calls to "defund the police."  It is similarly hard for them to admit that they may have gone too far with the "cancel culture," environmental regulations, or a host of other issues.  

I should also point out that entrapment is closely related to "cognitive dissonance"  and a broader range of cognitive biases that lead us to be very reluctant to admit that we were wrong.  And, finally, Face Saving, designed to make admitting one's errors a virtue rather than a vice, offer the most promising strategy for combating this problem.

--Heidi Burgess, September 17, 2020

Back to Essay Top

[1] A phrase used by Kenneth Boulding and Guy Burgess

[2] Joel Brockner and Jerry Rubin, Entrapment in Escalating Conflicts. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1985. p.5

[3] Morton Deutsch, The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes, pp. 356-7; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973

[4] http://www.ciaonet.org/wps/mic01/

[5] http://www.ciaonet.org/wps/mic01/

[6] http://www.ciaonet.org/wps/mic01/

[7] http://www.ciaonet.org/wps/mic01/

[8] NIcholas Kristoff. " 'I Keep My Promises,' Trump Said.  Let's Check."  New York Times. Sept. 5, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/05/opinion/sunday/trump-promises-check.html

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/essay/sacrifice-trap>.