OTPIC Officially Retired

As of December 2, 2005, the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict (OTPIC) has been officially retired, and is no longer open to new registrations.

The successor to OTPIC is a course called Dealing Constructively with Intractable Conflicts (DCIC). The new curriculum is built around one of our major projects, Beyond Intractability, and offers a much more extensive and informative set of learning materials than that available through OTPIC.

Uncontrolled Escalation and Runaway Responses

Paul Wehr


A primary characteristic of emerging conflict is escalation. Conflict parties begin to treat one another with more and more suspicion, distance, hostility, fear. The aggressive actions each takes toward the other are returned in kind but increased in intensity. Thus, in each round of exchanges, the parties become more belligerent, more hostile, less cooperative. We speak of this dynamic as upward spiraling.  Escalation, by its very nature, moves participants toward more and more costly conflict. This poses a dilemma for powerless groups wishing to change the power ratio more in their favor.  They wish to minimize destructive consequences as they bring conflict into the open. How can conflict groups confront one another, challenge unjust social structures, and do necessary conflict in a controlled way that does not lead to ever more costly outcomes? 

Runaway Responses

As intergroup conflict escalates, Coleman (1957) notes a number of "runaway responses," or dynamics supporting escalation. 1) Mutual reinforcement. Reciprocal causation occurs, with each party's aggressive action eliciting the next intensifying one from the opponent.  Communication between the reciprocators tends to diminish. The harm each does the other increases with each new round, as does the motivation to win the struggle. The conflict becomes more and more competitive. 2) From the specific issue to the general. For example, in an escalating conflict, parties may begin with narrow, specific complaints about their opponents but move toward more general ones. It is claimed, for example, that they were hostile in this or that particular instance but that they are always rather unfriendly. 3) From disagreement to antagonism. A conflict which begins with impersonal disagreement over an issue will become antagonism directed at particular opponents and their personal attributes. An advocate for using creationist textbooks in a school system, for example, will come to be seen and portrayed as a narrow-minded bigot by his or her opponents. 4) Information distortion. Awareness about conditions and persons involved in a controversy will be distorted through rumor, hostile feeling and the fact that people simply want and need more information than is available from objective sources. They therefore create their own information, and consequently it will become less accurate. 5) Emergence of extremist leaders. As the conflict escalates, more extreme persons become leaders of the conflict groups, forcing out moderates. 

Supporting literature: James Coleman, Community Conflict . New York: Free Press, 1957.


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