Conflict Resolution: Destructive escalation

Posted: January 29, 2011 in Conflict Resolution
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Article & source


  • Escalation refers to an increase in the intensity of a conflict and in the severity of tactics used in pursuing it. It is driven by changes within each of the parties, new patterns of interaction between them, and the involvement of new parties in the struggle.[1]
  • Conflict theorists Dean Pruitt and Jeffrey Rubin list five changes that occur as a conflict escalates.:
    • move from light tactics to heavy tactics
    • numbers of issues in contention expands, and parties devote more resources to the struggle
    • issues move from specific to general
    • the number of parties grows from one to many
    • goals change from doing well to winning
  • Many note that destructive social and inter-personal conflicts always begin with the emergence of contentious goals of two adversaries.Threats to identity tend to arouse feelings of anger and fear, which can in turn fuel conflict escalation.
  • In many instances, the parties view each other as having relatively high aspirations or regard the issues under dispute as ones that cannot be compromised.
  • Past grievances, feelings of injustice, and a high level of frustration may also provoke escalation. Hostility-driven escalation is typically caused by grievances or a sense of injustice, and may ultimately be rooted in events of the distant past.
  • Hostility-driven conflicts tend to escalate for trivial reasons, and also become unnecessarily violent.[17]
  • When our expectations are unmet, we revert to illusions of control, “unrealistically expecting all people to behave and all situations to turn out as we think they should
  • Various frameworks can be used to better understand the dynamics of conflict escalation. Pruitt, Rubin, and Kim discuss three broad models of escalation: the aggressor-defender model, the conflict-spiral model and the structural-change model.[20] Taken together, these three accounts of what occurs during escalation can help to make sense of a wide variety of conflicts. Process models:
    • Models: Aggressor-defender
    • conflict spiral
    • structural change
  • Escalation is both a cause and a result of significant psychological changes among the parties involved. In addition to anger and fear discussed above, negative attitudes, perceptions, and stereotypes of the opponent can drive escalation, as well as being caused by it (another spiral).
  • After conflict has begun, the relations between the adversaries change in certain fundamental ways. In light of the psychological changes discussed above, their interaction becomes contentious, the number of issues in contention expands, and the parties become polarized.[37] The adversaries become increasingly isolated from each other, and their harsh actions tend to reinforce each other’s negative stereotypes.
  • Internal changes that groups undergo during escalation include not only the social-psychological changes discussed above, but also changes at the group or collective level. Dynamics at the individual level are often accentuated by collective discussion and tend to become group norms. Collective goals of defeating the enemy develop, as well as increased group cohesiveness.[47] Once people realize that others share their views and hear new arguments favoring them, their own perceptions are validated and reinforced. Group discussion can in this way cause individual members to become more extreme in their hostile attitudes. The number of moderates in the group thus begins to diminish as more and more people come to hold extreme views.[48]
  • This process of dehumanization makes any moral norms against harming other human beings seem irrelevant.


I loved Maiese’s destructive escalation piece. It is practical, methodical and simple. My memory of the short experience I went through in Lebanon’s past conflicts reinforces many ideas and theories outlined mainly the dehumanization process that transforms norms against harming humans into irrelevant and somehow ‘acceptable’.

In addition, the development of group solidarity, or cohesiveness, is very evident and contributes to escalation. Especially within groups that have little internal diversity. But I wonder whether the diversity of any group is transformed into a fictitious unity just for the sake of satisfying those ‘needs’. What do you think?

Joe Zaarour, P2PU


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