Promote Escalation Awareness

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

September, 2018 with a July 2020 update

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


Escalation, Guy Burgess asserts, is the "most destructive force on the planet," because it so increases the intensity of a conflict that it does enormous damage, while making the harm essentially unescapable.  This video shows what escalation is, how the damage happens, and suggests the first line of defense is prevention--don't "jump into the metaphorical pot!"  Steps to take to get out of the pot, once in, will be discussed in future videos.

July 2020 Update: 

In late May, 2020, George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Massive protests—first in Minneapolis, then across the U.S., and soon worldwide— erupted.  Demands were made to "defund the police," what were seen as "racist statues" were torn down, for awhile (but not long) police stations were attacked and stores were looted. These reactions escalated the conflict from a local one to a global one, and immediately thrust the topic of systemic racism to the top of many politicians' and business people's agenda.  This escalation, over the short term, appears to have done some good.  Systemic racism was all but ignored before these protests; now it is back on the political agenda.  But escalation is a dangerous dynamic and can be very hard to stop.  Before one intentionally escalates a conflict, it is important to understand the dangers of escalation, and how those can be avoided.  We will be posting some additional thoughts on both constructive and destructive escalation soon, but this video from 2018 is worth reconsidering as well.

Full Transcript:

Slide 1. Hi, this is Heidi Burgess. In this video I'd like to talk about escalation and the importance of understanding how it works and how dangerous it often is.

Slide 2. Guy often says that escalation is the most destructive force on the planet. As I'm making this video, Hurricane Florence is pounding North Carolina, and I realized that escalation is a lot like a hurricane. It gets more and more intense and it has incredible potential for damage. But you can escape that damage if you evacuate early. But if you stay, you're in grave danger. The same thing's true with escalation.

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Slide 3. Escalation works at all levels. So in interpersonal conflicts, escalation can start with a small argument between people which gets worse and worse and worse until friendships are completely destroyed, marriages are destroyed;it can even lead to interpersonal and domestic violence.

Slide 4. At the inter-group conflict level, you can see gang wars, where one side kills somebody on the other side, and they seek revenge, and it goes cycling back and forth and back and forth so you get the homicide rates that you see in places like Chicago and LA.

And you get civil wars, for instance, in Syria or Yemen. Now, of course, outside influences are making those civil wars worse But there is a basic inter-group conflict within those countries that escalated out of control. Sometimes such inter-group conflicts lead ultimately to genocide.

Slide 5. And then there's the specter of international conflict wit,h potentially, nuclear war. These pictures were drawn from last summer, when Trump was tweeting such things as “North Korea will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen!” and Kim responded, “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire!” This was incredibly dangerous rhetoric that had the entire world on edge, fearing that it could have escalated further to nuclear war. Fortunately, it did not, but it could at some point in the future, unless these two leaders calm down their rhetoric.

Slide 6. Escalation is a lot like the story of the boiling frog. Now biologists tell us that it isn't really true, but it's a very illustrative story, nevertheless.

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Slide 7. And the story is that if you put a frog into hot or boiling water, it will immediately jump out.

Slide 8. But, supposedly, if you put it into a pot of cold water and raise the temperature slowly, it won't ever get out, and it will boil to death, which is what this picture is supposed to show. Escalation works the same way. It can sneak up on us, and if we don't stop it, if we don't get out before it gets intense, then there's no backing out, and we're gravely harmed, sometimes even killed.

Slide 9. Guy created this diagram a number of years ago to point out the changes that take place as a conflict escalates, and it's worth going through. At the very lower left, a conflict starts with grievances, and the belief that the other side wronged you and you're the victim, and of course there's a tendency for both people to see the situation the same way.

And you begin to develop a worst-case bias. You assume that the other person or the other side is malevolent towards you and trying to get you; you don't give them the benefit of the doubt.

And you start beginning to develop what Guy called here “out-group identity.” I call it “us-versus-them framing” or “me-versus-you framing,” and we begin to get increasingly hostile images of the other. And as you go up the escalation arrow, you begin to think of the other side as fundamentally evil, possibly less than human, and therefore it's okay to treat them very, very badly, because they're not worthy of respect or humane treatment.

The next step that Guy has is enmity reinforcement. This is done through self-fulfilling prophecies. If you treat the other side badly, they'll respond badly, which will prove that they're bad people, so you'll treat them even worse, and they'll respond towards you even worse, and this starts feeding back upon itself more and more.

Guy also describes something called the recreational complaint effect, where we sit around for fun and complain about the other side, and how good we are, and how bad they are. This leads, of course, to further worst-case bias, and us-versus-them framing.

And this influences our tactical choices. We escalate the nature of our responses to them. We start getting increasingly hostile, we start getting more coercive, we start getting more strong in our demands, and our tactics.

And we try to build coalitions and pull more and more people and more and more organizations into our side. And we force people to take a side, because both sides are doing this. So standing in the center gets less and less feasible. If you're not with us, you're against us. You have to take a side.

And there's a tendency to see yourself as invincible. We're right, they're wrong, we're going win. Just keep on escalating the conflict and they'll back down.

And you get into a set of traps which act as ratchets, making it even less likely that you'll back down.

One is what Guy calls “the sacrifice trap.” The thinking goes, “we've put this much effort in, we've expended this many resources, we can't possibly give up now, it would be a waste!” And we don't want to admit that we were wrong, which is what he calls “the shame trap.” So we keep on pursuing our losing course of action because we can't admit we made a mistake.

Then he has something that he calls the “personalization breakover.” Now, if you're dealing with interpersonal conflicts, it's personal right away. But if you're dealing with inter-group conflicts, or you're dealing with national-level conflicts, it may not become personal until somebody in your family or your close associates or you are personally hurt.  Then that ratchets the escalation up even further. You get to think much less about what you're doing, and just lash back.

There's another breakover when conflicts turn violent.  Then there's a strong desire for vengeance and self-defense, and this just keeps escalation intensifying even more.

Slide 10. A few other authors who have written about escalation have come up with some things that Guy didn't have in this chart. Pruitt, Rubin and Kim in their book Social Conflict talks about the number of issues in contention rising, the number of resources expended rising, and the number of people involved rising, all of which increase the size of the conflict.

They also talk about goals changing. People go from a goal of doing well, and if the other side does well, that's great, to the point where they want to win and have the other side lose, to eventually, in very escalated conflicts, you just want to hurt the other, and if you're hurt at the same time, oh well. The thinking becomes that “the other side is so evil, they deserve to be punished.”

And Louis Kriesberg and Bruce Dayton, in their book Constructive Conflicts, as well as Chris Mitchell in his book The Nature of Intractable Conflict, add the notion of hardening of stances, both of leaders and followers. So leaders who advocate stronger and stronger coercion, or even violence against the other side, begin to predominate, and be treated more favorably than leaders who advocate moderation or compromise. Those folks are discredited.

And the same is true of the followers: the followers get more and more extreme. And emotions are heightened. Fear is heightened, anger is heightened, which heightens the sense of urgency. “We'd better act now and we'd better win now, because if we don't, we're going to lose!” And this further increases the entrapment of the entire cycle.

Slide 12. Let me illustrate this another way. Going all the way back to the bottom, you have grievances, and your grievance creates her grievance, which creates more grievances for you, more grievances for her, and this starts cycling.

Slide 13. And you start framing yourself as the victim, as the other side does, and that starts a cycle, which interacts with the grievance cycle.

Slide 14. And then this develops into us-versus-them framing, and…

Slide 15. all three of these processes cycle and interact with each other. And then everything on this chart cycles.

Slide 16. And intensifies itself and intensifies all the other things in this chart.

Slide 17. So it becomes essentially a cyclone or a hurricane that wipes away everything in its path.

Slide 18. That's why it's so important to be aware of the danger of escalation, and ideally not start it. Or if you start it, get out before it gets out of control.

Slide 19. Despite this, many people escalate conflicts on purpose. Now I long advocated that that never be done, but Louis Kriesberg among other people, pointed out that sometimes tactical escalation makes sense.

Slide 20. The Civil Rights movement in the 1960's, for instance, tactically escalated the conflict between white and blacks because they saw no other way out of the status quo. But they did it carefully and respectfully. Look at the way these people are dressed. They're wearing suits and ties. They were respectful of the other side.

They were actually willing to negotiate with the other side. Martin Luther King, to my surprise, was willing to negotiate where the line was going to be drawn on the bus. It was the whites who refused to negotiate, which ended up with the Montgomery bus boycott, and the elimination of segregation on buses altogether. But King was very careful with his escalation, giving whites a way out, before it got too violent. Now other Civil Rights leaders, of course, were not so careful, and a lot of Civil Rights marches did get violent. But, tactical escalation did work in this case. More often, I would assert, the dangers prevail, and unmitigated damage is done.

Slide 21. So that's why I argue that you definitely don't want to escalate a conflict without thinking about it carefully.

Slide 22. And most of the time, I would argue that you shouldn't jump into the pot of escalation, and if you are already in, you should jump out early. We'll talk about how to do that in our upcoming videos.

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