Destructive Escalation


Michelle Maiese

Original Publication September 2003. Current Implications added by Heidi Burgess in July 2020.

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

Guy Burgess asserts that escalation is "the most destructive force on the planet." One need only to read this essay to figure out why he says this. Conflict escalation causes people to do all sorts of terrible, hateful things that they would ordinarily not consider doing (including, at the extreme, genocidal violence and, potentially, nuclear war). "The enemy is not the other side, Guy says, it is conflict escalation."   More...

What is Conflict Escalation?

Escalation refers to an increase in the intensity of a conflict and in the severity of the 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]  In the conflict stage diagram, it is the next step after conflict emergence that pushes the conflict up towards, eventually, a hurting stalemate.

When conflicts escalate, more people tend to become involved. Parties begin to make bigger and stronger threats and impose harsher negative sanctions. Violence may start, or if violence has already occurred, it may become more severe and/or widespread as the number of participants involved in the conflict increases, and a greater proportion of a state's citizens actively engage in fighting.[2]

Conflict theorists Dean Pruitt and Jeffrey Rubin list five changes that occur as a conflict escalates.

  1. First, parties move from light tactics to heavy tactics. Light tactics include such things as persuasive arguments, promises, and efforts to please the other side.  Heavy tactics include threats, power plays, and even violence.
  2. Second, the conflict grows in size. The numbers of issues in contention expands, and parties devote more resources to the struggle.
  3. Third, issues move from specific to general, and the relationship between the parties deteriorates. Parties develop grandiose positions, and often perceive the other side as "evil."
  4. Fourth, the number of parties grows from one to many, as more and more people and groups are drawn into the conflict.
  5. Fifth, the goal of the parties changes from "doing well" to winning, and finally, to hurting the other.

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Under certain circumstances, escalation is a reasonable thing to do. [3] Parties might, for instance, intentionally escalate a conflict in order to pressure the other side, involve third parties, or rally more people to their cause. At times, the more powerful party may not even see that a conflict exists; they may think everything is "fine." Escalation may be necessary to get them to engage at all in a discussion of how to make things better for the other side which is suffering from oppression. This sort of constructive escalation can have positive effects and help move parties toward a mutually beneficial relationship.[4]

However, a great deal of conflict escalation is inadvertent, and occurs without the parties having fully considered the implications of their actions. The same is true for inentional escalation:  parties may be too optimistic about the benefits of escalation and not adequately concerned about (or aware of) the likely costs. Sometimes this is a result of perceived crises and time pressures that compel the parties to act before they have considered alternative courses of action or have a full understanding of the situation. The use of force and threats, if regarded as too extreme, can ultimately backfire and provoke retaliation.[5] It is in these cases that conflicts have the potential to spiral out of control and have terribly damaging effects. Destructively-waged conflicts typically involve great losses for one or more of the contending parties, and tend to persist for a long time.[6] To avoid these negative consequences, a better understanding of the dynamics of escalation is needed.

As the initial conflict between the Soviets and the West grew, more and more issues were drawn into the conflict.

After WWII, the USSR attempted to gain control of adjoining nations in order to increase its security. This made East-West cooperation difficult and increased the parties' mutual suspicion and mistrust.

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 is now known as the Cold War. -- Pruitt and Rubin, 88-89

Conditions that Encourage Escalation

Incompatible Goals:

Some conflict escalation is driven by incompatible goals. Many note that destructive social and inter-personal conflicts always begin with the emergence of contentious goals of two adversaries. If the parties do not see a possibility of finding a mutually beneficial solution, and one believes that it has the power to substantially alter the aspirations of the other, it may try to bully the other side into submission.[7] As the adversaries begin to pursue their incompatible goals, they may issue threats or otherwise attempt to coerce the opposing side into giving them what they want.[8] Each side typically believes that the other is driven by power and will increase its coercive behavior unless it is prevented from doing so by greater coercion.[9] But if one party is harmed or threatened by another, it is more likely to respond with hostility. The greater number of issues in contention and the more intense the sense of grievance, the more fuel there is to encourage escalation.[10]

Identity and Moral Issues:

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. For example, matters regarded by adversaries as being integral to their personal or collective identities are more prone to conflict escalation. When faced with groups that exhibit radically different attitudes, values, and behaviors, parties may feel criticized, demeaned, or threatened.[11] Threats to identity tend to arouse feelings of anger and fear, which can in turn fuel conflict escalation. Similarly, moral conflicts often lead to conflict escalation because the opponent is viewed as wrong in principle and not merely on the wrong side of some specific issue.[12] Disputes involving ideological or moral issues tend to attract more parties and be resistant to compromise.

Past Grievances and Injustice

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. One party feels that it has been treated unfairly by its opponent, and angrily blames its opponent for the suffering it has endured.[13] Deprivation, inequitable treatment, and pain and suffering thereby lead to a desire to punish or injure the other.[14] If there are no "norms of redress" in place, the aggrieved party may feel compelled to strike back in response to this perceived provocation.[15] However, their feelings of anger and frustration may lead them to overreact. And if their actions are seen as overly severe and exceed the normative expectations of the other side, these actions may provoke outrage and simply intensify the struggle.[16]

Indeed, hostility-driven conflicts tend to escalate for trivial reasons, and also become unnecessarily violent.[17] Once victims have made exaggerated assessments of the severity of the harm they have suffered, they are likely to seek revenge. Their hostile actions often simply lead to further injustice, which grants victim status to the original wrongdoer.[18] This not only generates new conflict issues, but also provokes fresh feelings of anger and injustice. Both parties may come to view revenge as an end in itself.[19]

Three Process Models

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.

Aggressor-Defender Model

Jannie Botes says journalists frequently escalate conflicts. This can be positive or negative, depending on the situation.

In the "aggressor-defender" model, the "aggressor" is viewed as having a goal that places it in conflict with the "defender." The "aggressor" begins with mild tactics and moves on to heavier tactics if the mild tactics don't work. The defender reacts, escalating its efforts in response to the aggressor's escalatory actions.[21] While this model reflects some cases of escalation, it suggests that escalation moves simply in one direction, with the defender always reacting to the action of the aggressor. In many cases, escalation is better understood as a circular process, in which each side reacts to the other's behavior.

Conflict Spiral Model

According to the conflict-spiral model, escalation results from a vicious circle of action and reaction. Because each reaction is more severe and intense than the action that precedes it, each retaliation or defensive action in the spiral provides a new issue or grievance.[22] These dynamics explain the movement from lighter tactics to heavier tactics, as well as the expansion of issues in conflict. As the spiral rises, each party's list of grievances grows longer, producing a growing sense of crisis.

Conflict spirals can be either retaliatory or defensive. In a retaliatory spiral, each party punishes the other for actions it finds hurtful. Retaliation may be in response to events of the distant past, or to the opponent's most recent atrocious acts.[23] These events lead one party to blame the other for harm suffered, and to desire punishment. Central to this desire for retaliation are feelings of anger and the perceived need to "teach" the other a lesson. In addition, it is common for one party to miscalculate the likely reaction of the other, and inadvertently commit acts that result in further escalation.[24] For example, one side may try to intimidate its opponent, and instead provoke a harsh counteraction.

In a defensive spiral, on the other hand, each party reacts so as to protect itself from a threat it finds in the other's self-protective actions.[25] While retaliatory spirals are typically driven by blame and anger, defensive spirals are driven by fear. Though one side may simply wish to protect itself, its actions may be perceived as threatening by its opponent. One example of this sort of spiral is the arms race. (This is called the security dilemma and is discussed in the essay on security.)

Structural Change Model

Carolyn Stephenson says that both escalation and de-escalation are needed to resolve conflicts.

Finally, according to the structural-change model, the experience of conflict and the tactics used to pursue it produce residues that affect and change the parties and communities involved.[26] As a fight escalates, the means of waging it become more and more removed from the substantive issues that first gave rise to conflict.[27] The psychology of the adversaries, as well as the relationship between them, undergoes fundamental changes. These enduring structural changes encourage further contentious behavior and fuel escalation. Thus, the structural-change model has the unique ability to explain why escalation tends to persist and recur.[28]

Psychological Dynamics

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). Parties have a tendency to blame the other side for any harms suffered, and want at least restitution, if not retaliation. They may also form ideas about the dispositions, basic traits, and motives of the other side. For example, each side may believe that the other is fundamentally selfish, unfriendly, and hostile to its welfare.[29] As a result, actors often come to regard revenge and punishing the other side as an end in itself. Discussions about substantive issues and grievances give way to personal attacks upon the other.

Another psychological process that drives escalation is the sacrifice trap, also commonly known as entrapment. In some conflicts, a party may expend seemingly unjustified amounts of time, energy, and resources because they cannot admit they were wrong in what they did. So they continue or even increase their commitment to a failing course of action in order to justify their previous investments.[30] As time passes, the cost of continuing increases, but so, they think, do the prospects of reaching one's goal.[31] In addition, because they do not regard total withdrawal as an option, they come to regard total commitment as the only choice. Combatants thereby become trapped into an escalatory path of ever-increasing commitment.

Another psychological process that contributes to negative attitudes is selective perception. Once parties have expectations about the other side, they tend to notice the behavior that fits these expectations. But this tendency to make observations that fit their preconceptions simply makes those preconceptions stronger.[32] As a result, the actions of distrusted parties are seen as threatening, even when their actions are ambiguous. There is a tendency to misinterpret their behavior, and to give them little or no benefit of the doubt.[33] This may give rise to fear and defensive escalation. Even when an adversary makes some conciliatory actions, this conduct is likely to go unnoticed, or to be discounted as deceptive.[34] Not surprisingly, selective perceptions often get in the way of effective negotiation and problem-solving processes.

This process of selective perception is further enforced by attributional distortion. Once one party has formed preconceptions about the other, any information that supports this hypothesis will be attributed to the opposing side's basic disposition. Any observations that do not fit their expectations, such as friendly behavior, will be attributed to situational causes or regarded as a fluke.[35] As a result, there is almost nothing that the opponent can do to dispel the party's negative expectations. These negative evaluations allow parties to rationalize their own hostile behavior, which simply intensifies the conflict.

Selective perception is likewise reinforced by self-fulfilling prophecies. One party's negative views about the other may lead that party to behave in hostile ways towards its opponent. This typically evokes a hostile response from the opponent, and in effect prods the opponent to behave in ways that fulfill the party's initial expectations.[36] In this way, parties' worst suspicions of each other lead them to act in ways that confirm their negative views.

Changes in Relations

Mari Fitzduff suggests that the violent way a struggle is waged often simply perpetuates conflict.

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.

Development of hostile goals increases the divergence of interest among parties. As one side imposes negative sanctions upon another, any harm suffered become new issues of contention. New issues come to the fore as a result of each side's desire to defeat the other. The number of issues in conflict is likely to expand, and deep conflicts over values may surface.[38] Legitimate distrust develops among the adversaries, and what might otherwise be a relatively minor issue takes on great symbolic significance.

In many cases, groups are bifurcated into "us" versus "them," and differences between the "in-group" and the "out-group" are emphasized. Psychological or physical barriers may be put up to reduce interaction.[39] Group members define themselves by their joint opposition to a common enemy, which increases group solidarity and polarization.

In addition, people have a tendency to stop interacting with those that they do not like or respect. Once communication has been interrupted, it becomes very difficult to resolve the substantive issues that first gave rise to the conflict. This absence of communication may lead to the embellishment or distortion of facts, and damaging rumors may provide more fuel for escalation.[40]

As a result of escalation, formerly neutral or moderate parties are pulled toward one side or the other, and communities become severely polarized. Third parties who would otherwise urge moderation and attempt to mediate the controversy disappear and are forced to take sides.[41] Such polarization further reduces the opportunities for communication and contributes to the general deterioration of the relationship between the adversaries.

Parties may also begin to deindividuate persons from the opposing side. Through deindividuation, persons come to be seen as members of a category or group rather than as individuals.[42] This state of mind makes it easier for parties to take more severe measures against their opponents and to view them as less than fully human. In some cases, parties humiliate their enemies to make them appear less than human, and thus further justify their degradation.[43]

This process of dehumanization makes any moral norms against harming other human beings seem irrelevant. Those excluded from moral norms can be viewed simply as inferior or as evil, perverted, or criminal.[44] Harsh and violent action not only becomes psychologically plausible, but also may seem necessary.[45] There is a disengagement of morals, and restraints against harming or exploiting certain "kinds" of people are reduced. This can lead to severe violence, human rights violations, sometimes even genocide.

Such severe violence and hatred produces negative attitudes and perceptions that tend to persist even after the substantive issues of the conflict are settled. These "residues" then encourage the development of further conflict and the use of severe tactics when conflict arises again in the future.[46]

Group Dynamics

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]

The development of group solidarity, or cohesiveness, can likewise contribute to escalation. Many note that groups with little internal diversity tend to escalate conflicts rapidly.[49] This is in part because cohesiveness encourages conformity to group norms and strengthens negative perceptions among group members.[50] With group cohesiveness also comes heightened commitment to the goal and a stronger conviction that is attainable. Individuals typically become more invested in the conflict, and look to other members of the group to justify their violence and reinforce their beliefs. Without a diversity of views, no one questions the advisability of extreme actions. This may also contribute to an effect whereby groups become convinced that glorious victory is assured and attempt to mobilize the community for conflict.

As conflict escalates, new, more militant leadership often develops. Leaders who fear that they will be replaced by challengers will not want to be seen as weak or submissive. As a result, they will often refuse to admit that any past actions were mistaken and are likely to grow in militancy and become more "hardline."[51] Furthermore, conflicts that already involve contentious activity are likely to fall into the hands of militants who have strong negative attitudes and tend to use extreme tactics.[52] In many instances, these leaders seek to ritualize the conflict and exhibit a complete lack of interest in resolution.[53] All of this contributes to conflict escalation.

In addition, new and more militant subgroups sometimes develop, as well as committees or departments to deal with the struggle. Radical spokespersons and extremists emerge, and participation widens to include those who are willing to use more intense means.[54] These newly aroused will tend to form less moderate struggle groups that grow rapidly in size and form goals to defeat their opponent. This social endorsement of aggression can increase the likelihood that severe tactics will be used.

These competitive goals and aggressive actions tend to outlive the reasonable purposes for which they were intended.[55] Norms of contentious interaction develop, and any individuals who challenge these norms tend to be ostracized by other group members. Those who doubt the legitimacy of certain tactics may stay quiet out of fear of being labeled traitors. Or, any "dissident murmurs" will simply be drowned out by the majority.[56] Leaders are likely to foster such homogeneity by portraying the enemy as a grave threat and instituting policies that build support for the struggle.

Militant subgroups may also endure as a result of vested interests. Group membership and participation in the struggle can give individuals status, wealth and even a sense that life is meaningful.[57] Members may not wish to surrender these benefits, and therefore work hard to ensure that their group lives on. Similarly, leaders who have gained their positions because of their militancy and military men who gained status as generals and admirals have a vested interest in the perpetuation of conflict. Such individuals have incentives to resist conflict resolution and make sure that the war effort continues.

Finally, the involvement of other parties may increase a group's capacity to escalate conflict. Outside parties may see an opportunity to gain some benefit or weaken an old enemy if they join the conflict.[58] In other cases, parties will join a struggle out of obligation to their friends or allies. They may become directly engaged, or simply provide weapons or extra funds. Such aid often enables combatants to escalate their level of fighting. During the Cold War, for example, many local conflicts were exacerbated by the larger conflict between the USSR and the United States. Each superpower would lend support to its favored side and thereby provide more fuel for local conflict.

These changes among individuals, groups, and communities result from prior escalation and contribute to further escalation. Once these transformations have taken place, escalation tends to persist and recur, and there is lasting damage to the relationships between the parties. In order to limit the destructive effects of escalation, parties must find a way to limit or reverse this process. Strategies to limit escalation or de-escalate conflict are needed and are discussed at length in the essays on those topics.


Current Implications

Guy Burgess asserts that escalation is "the most destructive force on the planet." One need only to read this essay to figure out why he says this. Conflict escalation causes people to do all sorts of terrible, hateful things that they would ordinarily not consider doing (including, at the extreme, genocidal violence and, potentially, nuclear war). "The enemy is not the other side, Guy says, it is conflict escalation."

A common metaphor for escalation is "making a mountain out of a molehill."  When it comes to our worst conflicts, the mountain is Everest, and that's what is building between the Left and the Right in the United States in 2020 (though it has been this way for quite some time.)

Just read some of the key ideas in this essay—they all relate to the relationship between U.S. liberals and conservatives in 2020

  • Parties move from light tactics (persuasive arguments, promises) to heavy tactics (threats, power plays, even violence.  Yes!
  • The conflict grows in size; more issues are in contention, more resources are used in the struggle. Yes!
  • The relationship between the parties deteriorates; the parties see the other as "evil." Yes!
  • More people and groups are drawn into the conflict. Yes!
  • The goals change from doing well to winning to hurting the other. Yes!
  • Identities are threatened and defended. Yes!
  • Frustration, anger, fear drive both aggressive and defensive responses; one or both sides seek revenge. Yes!
  • Parties cease seeing the other as "individuals," often dehumanizing them. Yes!
  • The end result is often violence, sometimes even genocide. We hope not!!

But if such a dire outcome is to be avoided, somehow the seemingly never-ending escalation processes currently going on must be reversed.  This essay explains why that isn't easy.  Escalation is both a cause and an effect, and every escalatory action tends to cycle back and cause another escalatory response.  It is going to take a lot of effort by a lot of people to stop this runaway train (to change metaphors) before we all crash off the cliff.

But Guy's quote above gives a hint about one way to pursue de-escalation.  If more people can come to understand escalation's insidiousness and its dangers, they will come to understand that indeed, the enemy is escalation much more than it is "the other."  And escalation is the enemy of the other side too.  If the two sides can come to realize this, and work together to vanquish their common enemy—escalation—de-escalation could actually occur pretty quickly.  So the key is developing "escalation awareness."  

Obviously, escalation is a serious problem in places other than the United States.  It is behind every civil war and every international war.  It is the cause of family dissolution and business break ups.  Without destructive escalation, most disputes are pretty easily resolved with dialogue and/or negotiation—most often they don't even need the help of a third party (such as a mediator or a court). It is only once conflicts escalate that they get so deep-rooted that they are extraordinarily difficult to resolve. So whenever possible, escalation should be avoided in the first place, and once it has occurred, efforts to de-escalate the conflict should be first priority, before settlement or resolution is attempted. 

In making this statement, it is, however, important to acknowledge that constructive escalation can play an important positive role by raising awareness of an injustice that needs to be addressed and mobilizing people to work toward that end. It is critically important, however, that this be done in a way that avoids driving the dangerous escalation spiral described here.  In general, this is done through a power strataegy mix that relies more on persuasion and exchange and less on force.  More information on how to do this can be found on our Constructive Escalation Essay, our video on Power and the Power Strategy Mix, and the  Constructive Confrontation Project. 

Heidi Burgess, July 2020.

Back to Essay Top

[1] Louis Kriesberg, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution. (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, Inc., 1998), 152. New version of this book (2012) <>.

[2] Kriesberg, 152.

[3] Otomar Bartos and Paul Wehr, Using Conflict Theory. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 99. <>.

[4] Kriesberg, 152.

[5] Bartos and Wehr, 99.

[6] Kriesberg, 152.

[7] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement.  New York: McGraw Hill, 1994. p. 48.

[8] Kriesberg, 24.

[9] Kriesberg, 157.

[10] Kriesberg, 166.

[11] Jessica Jameson, "The Escalation and De-escalation of Intractable Conflict." Communicating War and Terror, N.C. State University Department of Communication <>.

[12] Kriesberg, 166.

[13] Susan Opotow, "Aggression and Violence," in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, eds. Morton. Deutsch and Peter Coleman, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, Inc., 2000), 411. New version of this book <>.

[14] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 15.

[15] Opotow, 413.

[16] Kriesberg, 169.

[17] Bartos and Wehr, 102.

[18] Sung Hee Kim and Richard Smith, "Revenge and Conflict Escalation," in Negotiation Journal, (9:1) 37-44. (New York: Plenum Press, 1993), 41.

[19] Kriesberg, 157.

[20] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 73.

[21] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 73.

[22] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 74.

[23] Bartos and Wehr, 100.

[24] Kriesberg, 158.

[25] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 79.

[26] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 82.

[27] Kriesberg, 160.

[28] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 83.

[29] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 85.

[30] Kriesberg, 153.

[31] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 113.

[32] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 102.

[33] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 86.

[34] Kriesberg, 153.

[35] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 105.

[36] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 100.

[37] Kriesberg, 157.

[38] Kriesberg, 158.

[39] Jameson <>.

[40] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 108.

[41] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 110.

[42] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 88.

[43] Kriesberg, 158.

[44] Opotow, 417.

[45] Kriesberg, 158.

[46] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 110.

[47] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 90.

[48] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 93.

[49] Kriesberg, 167.

[50] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 94.

[51] Kriesberg, 155.

[52] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 95.

[53] Jameson <>.

[54] Kriesberg, 155.

[55] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 108.

[56] Kriesberg, 167.

[57] Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim, 108.

[58] Kriesberg, 159.

Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Destructive Escalation." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.