Conflict Resolution Strategy: Avoiding Escalation

I am fascinated by escalation in conflict. Roy Bauermeister’s book on ‘Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty’ cites I recall some experiments in which identical minor negative actions done to one or by one are evaluated differently. (This is Roy:)

Specifically, they found that we overrate the negative impact of what is done to us, and underrate the negative impact of what we do to others. And, of course, we may also think that what we did negatively was accidental or unintended, and what they did was deliberate. This sets the scene for escalation: I do action A and see it as no big deal. The other side sees it as a bigger deal and responds proportionately to the bigger deal. We now see their reaction as disproportionate and react accordingly and so on, and before you know it you are in Rwanda.

Think about the last time someone offended you and thought it was no big deal, but didn’t see that you thought it was or vice versa. I guess it takes a special form of empathy to get it about right. Or as our correspondent Victor puts it: some Christian turning of the other cheek to stop the cycle of escalation. (See Matthew Chapter 5 verse 39.)

Bauermeister also shows that almost all really big mass killing is not mainly the result of sadism or psychopathology, (though both may be present in the execution), but of defensiveness and/or idealism, whoever warped. Hence Hitler, hence Stalin, hence Mao, and hence Pol Pot. Preserve us from the idealists.

Pol Pot:

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Book Reviews, Conflict Processes, Neuro-science of conflict, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Philosophy of Conflict, Ways to handle conflict. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Conflict Resolution Strategy: Avoiding Escalation

  1. Victor says:

    There is a well established strategy in conflict– to provoke and then overwhelmingly retaliate— Israel does this as a standard strategy to gain territory but they are not the first and they are not alone.

    I never really understood what ” turn the other cheek ” means–I think it is a mistranslation.

    In the Axelrod view of the world Forgiveness and Mercy make sense at the early stages of the- tit for tat strategy- as means to deescalate conflict–but Israel, Stalin and any gangster quickly learned to gain the system to their unilateral advantage.

    Provoke then overwhelmingly retaliate-

    In tribal/racial societies the problem has always been a culture of honour and revenge which escalates and has endured for 100s of years–people realized this 1000s of years ago and the Christian concept of ” Forgiveness” was an intervention to deescalate—it worked within Christian cultures for 1000 years + until the Reformation.
    It does not work with cultures that have other values—thus the cross faith strategy of MAD– mutually assured destruction-.
    After WW1, Wilson, who was a devout Christian, supported the League of Nations as a solution to this cross faith issue, it failed– as has the UN.
    MAD is current best strategy in the world of nuclear weapons—but MAD depends upon rational self interested actors—who want to survive.

    A new world of kamikazes evolved in WW2, the solution we used to kamikazes was total war and unconditional surrender–once Japan complied we treated them with dignity and rebuilt their economy.

    In a world where people lie and share no common ethical systems and, in fact, game the system of any ethical system then total war and unconditional surrender will prevail–and that could well be Evil if the wrong side wins.

    MAD will be our fall back until something globally tragic happens.

  2. Victor says:


    Wilson was President in WW1 not WW2—the Treaty of Versailles is a good example of how the French gained the alternate conflict management system—diplomacy- and thereby destroyed that alternate system–leading to the total war and unconditional ethic of WW2

    • I’ve corrected it. Thanks.

      Interestingly, everyone from Keynes onwards denounces the Treaty of Versailles. But in terms of fairness: it was less financially less harsh than the settlement the Germans imposed on the French in 1871 (and the French paid their reparations), less harsh than what the Germans proposed to impose on the Allies had they won as revealed by their archives, and much less harsh than the Germans imposed on the Russians at Brest Litovsk in 1917. Pay backs are a bitch as they say in auto plants.

      The real issue with Versailles is that the German politicians had been dishonest about the course of the war, promising victory, and when they lost it, instead of conceding they were defeated by military and economic superiority, they blamed Jews and Bolsheviks. And they made no attempt to pay the reparations and get on with life as the Germans did in 1945. It was probably a mistake not to occupy Germany in 1918: unlike Iraq in 1991. At least if you occupy you control the teaching of recent history.

  3. As usual Victor, a shrewd analysis.

    Interestingly in Richard Frank’s book Downfall about the Japanese surrender in 1945, he notes that the military went from waging war and being prepared to die for the Emperor, to dishonestly selling military supplies on the black market in a matter of weeks. Thousands of Kamikaze pilots lined up to attack the US invasion fleet were similarly out making a buck in a matter of weeks. Strange how the mind works in such circumstances: the social psychology of moving from kamikaze to what we called spiv in the UK in a week or two. In a funny sort of way, I guess it is optimistic sign of human adaptability. If North Korea collapses the Communist cadres will be flogging stuff off at the same speed. Perhaps the South Korea should simply announce it is awarding government pensions to all senior Communist officials.

    MAD worked well for 40 years, but it is a high stake poker game. The real psychological issue is that we never seem to realize that in the background to our petty or even nuclear squabbles, our common interests, planet earth and species survival are shared and dwarf the conflicting interests. Our brains haven’t grown up enough and are still those of adolescent males perhaps?

    And as for those who game the system like Stalin, Hitler, or the Israelis, ultimately and often quite soon it fail. Nixon wanted to play ‘mad dog’ to intimidate the North Vietnamese: not much success there. Gaming the system is just not sustainable as you slowly build up a coalition against you, you find it hard to cut deals, or make alliances, you have no moral standing which ultimately sustains societies. Stalin famously asked ‘how many divisions does the Pope have?’ More than enough to outlast his belief system. Israel has lost its moral standing and turned its military victories in 1967 and 1973 into political and moral defeats. And the increasingly fundamentalist nature of the IDF make it hard for it to be a learning organization. Chosen people can be arrogant and lose the Gideon cunning.

    The Cold War whatever US sins was won morally as well as economically and militarily. We will see what moral edifice sustains emerging China. I am not sure I see folks queuing up to join the Chinese way of life?

    I am not a big believer in cross-cultural differences at the fundamental level. Most of the constructs like betrayal, injustice, friendship, enmity etc translate all the way from New Guinea tribesmen to George W Bush and beyond. Not to say there are’t huge misunderstandings but we are not from different planets.

  4. Victor says:

    The issue with Versailles was that the Germans were deceived, they were promised an honourable deal for the armistice but Clemenceau and George Ball { the inventor of modern PR } persuaded the the British etc to change the terms at the last minute without letting the Germans know until they were at the table—it was this deceit that led directly to the demoralization of German politics and the end of the diplomacy as a means of ending wars–after that it was a matter of unconditional surrender–no one trusted diplomacy anymore.
    For thousands of years diplomacy was on a different logical level from war—after 1919 it is war by other means—that had not been the case since the Trojan Horse.

    Once trust is broken, through violating confidentiality or through direct deceit then it is gone for many lifetimes.

    A secular interpretation of Christianity and Buddhism is that they were forms of creative conflict management–both faiths were prevalent along the Silk Road—once the Muslims dominated the Silk Road it was destroyed–the Muslim faith explicitly promotes deception when dealing with infidels–the Christians and Buddhists did not promote deception as a matter of policy– though of course it happened from time to time.

    • Actually the Dylan Evans case fits the escalation theory quite well. The original investigation cleared Evans of the specific harassment allegations, (which does make me wonder about the overall case), but found ‘unintentional offence’ had been caused by the now notorious Fruit Bat article being handed over. If my memory serves me well, Evans was quite prepared to accept that and apologize and attend sensitivity training. Indeed still is as far as I know. Murphy (I suspect without being properly briefed) used the term sexual harassment in his letter, and the whole issue escalated from there. If Irish labour law is like UK law, you cannot have the judging authority find a stronger offence than the investigators found, so this change not only set off the whole sorry saga, but also may be the thing that sinks UCC’s case. We’ll see.

  5. Really interesting comments. I will give them some thought. Your Versailles comment is certainly true, but I think that there was more than just Clemenceau deceit to it. The expectation of a generous peace also rested on the idea that there was no military defeat and that is of course not the case. The Germany army was smashed on the battlefield.

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