The Causes and Outcomes of Escalation


by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

November 1, 2021

As I was starting to write a section of the coming Constructive Conflict Guide on overcoming escalation and polarization, I came to realize that I first needed to explain what drives escalation, as a big part of avoiding it or reversing it is understanding the drivers and how to avoid them or reverse them.  As this chart shows, there are LOTS of things that drive escalation, each of which feeds upon the others. But, as I will explain in two coming blog posts on avoiding and reversing escalation, each one of these drivers presents an opportunity for avoidance and remedy.



Beginning at the Lower Left

  • We have initial, competing "in-group/out-group" identities, which often provide the foundation for the us-versus-them over-simplification we talked about earlier.
  • This differentiation between groups causes people to avoid people in the out-group. Instead, they try to work with, live with, and talk to only "their own," and not the other group as much as possible.
  • Communication between groups thus gets increasingly strained, until it is cut off altogether.  The only information each group gets about the other is filtered by the media—and as we will discuss in the communication section, each side seeks out and only pays attention to biased views of "the other." 
  • That leads "us" to see "them" in the worst possible light (worst-case bias).
  • We also tend to see ourselves as the victims of "their" bad actions, (sense of victimhood),
  • Causing us to have mounting grievances against "them."
  • We also increasingly distrust "them" and assume that anything that they say is insincere and deceptive.

Enmity Reinforcement

  • All of this feeds back upon itself strengthening the divisions even further. 
  • People begin to engage in what we call "recreational complaining"—the tendency we all have to enjoy sitting around (physically together or on social media) complaining about "the other."  It feels good to show how bad they are, to reinforce how good we are—and to do so among as many like-minded people as possible, as that reassures us, again and again, that we are righteous.
  • Each side comes 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. 
  • But this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the more we complain (and act out against them), the more we are validating their sense of victimhood and their grievances against us. So then they complain and act out against us, so that proves they are even worse than we thought!
  • This cycle of tit-for-tat responses increase our anger and fear and contribute to a growing sense of urgency.  We need to act now to subdue them, or else terrible things will happen!  (Ironically, this is an urgent situation that needs quick action—not against them, but against escalation!  But people caught up in these dynamics seldom see it this way.)

Tactical Choices

  • This deep enmity influences our tactical choices.
  • We don't consider any of their interests or concerns as legitimate, so we make no effort to meet them.
  • We assume all the issues in dispute are zero-sum, in other words, the more they get, the less we get.  So we approach every issue competitively and coercively.  We see cooperation and compromise as signs of weakness and out of the question.
  • We escalate the nature of our responses to them. We start getting increasingly hostile, more coercive, stronger in our demands, and our tactics. And of course, so do they.
  • To strengthen our side, we  try to build coalitions, pulling more and more people and more and more organizations to 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.  
  • The "quid pro quo" that accompanies coalition formation tends to draw us into other people's conflicts regarding other issues. This locks everybody into a never-ending web of conflicts (since it's virtually impossible to resolve them all at the same time and relieve oneself of one's obligations to coalition members). 
  • This process affects both leaders and followers. Leaders feel a need to be "strong," which means they need to take ever-stronger positions against "the enemy," increasingly refusing to cooperate with them or even talk to them.  Advocates of moderation or compromise become increasingly discredited and marginalized.
  • The "cautious shift," takes hold where, especially in crisis situations with uncertain information and distrust of the other side, there is a strong tendency to "play it safe," and not make concessions that could help de-escalate the situation. 
  • Reluctance to make concessions can also result from the fear of being double-crossed, which is particularly likely when the "other" is distrusted.
  • Leaders and the media "play to their base" by falsifying information to tell people what they want to hear. (More on this is in the communication section.)
  • There's also a tendency to see yourself as invincible. "We're right, they're wrong," and "we're going to win. Just keep on escalating the conflict and they'll back down, or we'll win decisively in the next election."

Falling into Traps

  • All of these choices get us into a set of traps that act like ratchets—once you pass a certain point, it gets extremely hard to back down. One of these is what we call “the sacrifice trap.” The thinking goes, “we've put this much effort in, we've expended so many resources, so many people have been hurt, 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 we call “the shame trap.” So we keep on pursuing our losing course of action because we can't admit we made a mistake.
  • The "personalization break-over” is another trap we fall into. When one is dealing with interpersonal conflicts, it's personal right away. But when one is dealing with intergroup conflicts, or national conflicts, it may not become personal until somebody in your family or your close associates or you personally are hurt.  That ratchets the escalation up even further. You think much less about what you're doing, and just lash back.  This is where the focus shifts sharply toward interpersonal hatred and away from substantive issues.
  • There's another ratchet when conflicts turn violent.  Violence creates a strong desire for revenge and self-defense, and this just keeps escalation intensifying even more.

And the Conflict Continues to Grow...

  • As all this is going on, the size of the conflict continues to grow. 
  • There get to be more issues in contention, more resources expended, more people involved.
  • This makes it harder and harder to turn back, reinforcing the "sacrifice trap."
  • Eventually, you get to the point as early conflict theorists Pruitt and Rubin pointed out, one's goals change from doing well (at the very beginning) to winning (at the middle) to hurting the other, even if it hurts yourself as well.

All of the circular arrows on this diagram are intended to show that all of these behaviors are positive feedback loops, reinforcing each other, making each stronger, happening more often, and intensifying the conflict increasingly over time.

Is there any question why we might want to avoid this process?

The good news is that there is a lot that we can do to slow and ultimately reverse the processes of escalation. Once we understand the many ways in which escalation can trap us, we can avoid those traps. If we discover that we have already fallen into a trap, we can work to climb out. In addition, there are many things we can do to help our communities resist destructive escalation while, at the same time, more constructively addressing important issues that are at the core of most conflicts. All of this will be discussed in the next two blog posts on reversing escalation.