What is Escalation? A Guide to System Failures

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Thinking in Systems" by Donella H. Meadows. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is escalation in systems thinking? How can escalation cause a system to fail?

Escalation is an increase in the system, when pressure is put on it. Knowing the answer to the quest “what is escalation” can help you identify system failures and learn how to stop them.

So what is escalation in systems thinking? Read to find out.

What is Escalation?

Also known as: Keeping up with the Joneses, arms race. But what is escalation in systems thinking, and why is it an issue?

How It Happens

Two or more competitors have individual stocks. Each competitor wants the biggest stock of all. If a competitor falls behind, they try hard to catch up and be the new winner.

This is a reinforcing loop—the higher one stock gets, the higher all the other stocks aim to get, and so on. It can continue at great cost to all competitors until one or more parties bows out or collapses.

(Shortform note: Conceptually, this is similar to policy resistance, in that the agents in the system are responding to how the others are behaving. However, where policy resistance had balancing feedback loops driving the system stock toward a central point, escalation has reinforcing feedback loops driving the stocks as extreme as they can go.)

Escalation Examples

Consider these escalation examples. Arms races are classic examples of escalation. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States monitored each others’ munitions and pushed to amass the larger arsenal. This was done at tremendous expense (trillions of dollars) and led to a drag on both economies, let alone the development of weapons that threaten humanity.

More pedestrian examples of escalation include:

  • Advertising between competitors gets increasingly prevalent and obnoxious, to try to gain more attention.
  • Restaurants get louder and louder as tables try to talk over each other.

Escalation can occur in the other direction as well, such as pricing wars where competitors progressively undercut each other in pricing, as seen in these escalation examples.

Fixing Escalation

As in policy resistance, the solution is to dampen the feedback wherein competitors are responding to each others’ behaviors.

One approach is to negotiate a mutual stop between competitors. Even though the parties might not be happy about it or may distrust each others’ intentions, a successful agreement can limit the escalation and bring back balancing feedback loops that prevent runaway behavior.

If a negotiation isn’t possible, then the solution is to stop playing the escalation game. The other actors are responding to your behavior. If you deliberately keep a lower stock than the other competitors, they will be content and will stop escalating. This does require you to be able to weather the stock advantage they have over you.

What is Escalation? A Guide to System Failures

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Donella H. Meadows's "Thinking in Systems" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Thinking in Systems summary:

  • How the world, from bathtub faucets to fish populations, can be seen as simple systems
  • The key system traps that hold back progress, such as escalating arms races and policy addiction
  • Why seeing the world as systems can give you superpowers in work and life

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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