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.

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International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict

Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA

General Information on Escalation

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Escalation is the increase in intensity of a conflict. Perhaps the most destructive conflict dynamic, the cycle of provocation and counter-provocation eventually results in the replacement of substantive debate with increasingly hateful and sometimes violent confrontations directed more at hurting opponents than at advancing interests. This process plays a crucial role in the long slide toward war and the crossing of taboo lines which normally restrain our most inhuman impulses. It can also lead people to take ever more extreme and unjustifiable positions. Escalation alone is sufficiently powerful to transform what should be a tractable dispute into one that is virtually impossible to resolve.

Conflict theorists Dean Pruitt and Jeffrey Rubin list five changes that occur as a conflict escalates. First, parties move from light tactics to heavy tactics. Light tactics include such things as persuasive arguments, promises, efforts to please the other side, while heavy tactics include threats, power plays, even violence.  Second, the number of issues in contention grows as parties bring up more and more things that are making them annoyed or angry. Third, issues move from specific to general, and the relationship between the parties deteriorates. "What starts out as a small, concrete concern tends, over the painful history of an escalating exchange, to be supplanted by grandiose and all-encompassing positions and by a general intolerance of the other party." (Pruitt and Rubin, 1986, p. 64.) Fourth, the number of parties grows from one to many, as more and more people and groups are drawn into the conflict. Fifth, the goal of the parties changes from "doing well" to winning, and finally, to hurting the other.

The result of escalation is that a conflict can grow out of control very quickly. Escalated conflicts cease to be focused on the parties' original problems or goals, nor do they provide a way for those goals to be realized. Rather, they provide only costs and continued conflict, with little benefit for anybody.

Yet, escalated conflicts are very hard to reverse. Once relationships have been broken, once distrust, fear, and hatred grow, and especially, once violence has occurred, it is very difficult to back away from an escalated conflict and resolve it constructively. Rather, people tend to continue the fight, if possible, even escalating it further, as this usually seems less risky than "showing that you are weak" by trying to initiate de-escalation.

Despite the dangers of escalation, advocates frequently escalate a conflict intentionally--thinking that they can harness to power of escalation to mobilize support for their side. While this strategy may appear to work well, it is also likely to build support for the opposition. Thus the common result is the intensification of the conflict, not victory.


Links to More Information about Escalation:

Paul Wehr--Uncontrolled Escalation and Runaway Responses
In this article, Wehr reviews the dynamics of escalation as described by sociologist James Coleman.
Dean Pruitt and Jeffery Rubin - Escalation in the Cold War
This is a short analysis of the moves made between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. as their conflict escalated into what became known as the "Cold War." Although all of the steps are well known, this short story highlights a classic case of escalation, as tactics moved from light to heavy, the relationship between the parties continuously deteriorated, issues went from specific to general, and more and more parties (i.e., allies) entered the conflict.
Ruth Heimburg -- Extremists versus police -- A Tragedy for All  
This is a analysis of the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) siege of the Branch Davidian commune in Waco, Texas. This conflict escalated very quickly to the point where negotiation was not considered, and the end result was the death of over 90 people.
Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler -The Principles of  Strategic Nonviolent Conflict, Introduction
In their introduction, Ackerman and Kruegler observe that ethnic conflicts have the potential to escalate dramatically and violently. They promote the use of nonviolent action instead, to avoid such uncontrolled escalation. More information is given in the summary of the whole book, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict by Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler
Alexander George- United States-Japan Relations Leading to Pearl Harbor
This is a short analysis of intentional escalation on the part of the U.S. that was intended to force Japan to withdraw from China in July, 1941. As often occurs with intentional escalation, however, the Japanese chose to escalate the conflict further, by bombing the U.S. at Pearl Harbor, rather than complying with U.S. demands.
Louis Kriesberg--Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution
Kriesberg examines escalation processes, with special attention to processes that lead to intractable conflicts and others that can be de-escalated and resolved.
Louis Kriesberg--Epilogue: The War in the Gulf
The Gulf War was a classic example of escalation into an intractable conflict--one that even the war did not really resolve.
Paul Wehr--Power Mixes in the US Civil Rights Conflict
Tactical escalation was part of the power strategy of U.S. civil rights leaders, though force was modified and escalation controlled by other types of power.
William Ury and Richard Smoke -- Anatomy of a Crisis
The authors describe the basic elements of a crisis, including escalation processes, and also examine ways to defuse crises.
William Ury -- Beyond the Hotline
This is a summary of Ury's book on crisis control.  It too examines escalation processes and approaches for crisis management.
Christopher Young--The Role of Media in International Conflict
This essay discusses how the media can contribute to the escalation of a conflict.


Links to Possible Treatments for this Problem:

De-escalation strategies

Escalation Training

Cooling-Off Periods

De-Escalatory Language

Step-by-Step De-escalation (GRIT)

Disowning Extremists

Changing Leaders

Making Escalation the Enemy

Ground Rules

Managing Strong Emotions



Media Management

Conciliatory Victory

"I" Statements not "You" Statements

Future Focus

Establish Personal Relationships


Links to Related Problems:


Personal Attacks


Sacrifice Trap

Tactical Escalation





Out-Group/Enemy Image


Inflammatory Media

Procrastination of Response

Copyright 1998 Conflict Research Consortium  -- Contact: crc@colorado.edu