The science of rioting

As Britain comes to terms with the worst riots seen there for decades, John Holden looks at some of the theories bandied about among psychologists and scientists to try and explain ‘mob mentality’.

From the schoolyard to the streets of the major metropolitan city, group behavior has its own crazy way of reminding humanity of our animalistic origins. With Britain’s riots now easing, the rush to explain such unexpected behaviour is on, with biological, psychological and geographical theories all in the media.

Dr Kristian Skrede Gleditsch from the University of Essex has compared the common patterns of the spread of riots to those followed by wildfires. In an interview with ABC News he said, “There's some evidence suggesting that ... the severity of riots is inversely proportional to their frequency. It's kind of like a forest fire. Most fires go out very quickly, but a few become catastrophic. Once they reach a certain magnitude, they can become self-sustaining and very hard to contain." In other words a riot can reach a certain scale after which there is no longer any hope of it being contained. But how does this happen?  

Well any group of people is the sum of its individual parts. But the individual becomes subsumed by the masses in a riot, both physically and mentally. Crowd psychology suggests that when in a group, we all feel more anonymous, suggestible and uncritical of what people around us are doing.  This allows us to maybe do things - such as loot – that we wouldn’t normally do. In addition, initial grievances which might have sparked the trouble - such as economic or social disadvantage - only need to be real for some participants while merely perceived by others.

Riot reports on British TV and radio this week often included interviews with youths who weren’t sure exactly as to why they were rioting. One such BBC interview was with a teenage boy who said he was rioting ‘against the police’. When asked what the police had done exactly he said he didn’t know but that they’d done something to his community. Presumably he was referring to the police’s part in the death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham.

When looked at from another scientific approach, it’s hard not to be skeptical about these types of media reports which aim to suggest mobs often act with little or no motive other than getting a new flat screen or showing off to their mates.  Psychologist Dr Clifford Stott from the University of Liverpool offers an evidence-based response to rioting which suggests that traditional ‘mob mentality’ theories are over simplistic. Rioting mobs, according to Stott, cannot be seen as a homogenous groups but a complex mix of individuals brought together by a common belief or viewpoint.

America has seen relatively little social unrest since the beginning of the financial crisis compared with Europe. One study suggesting a possible reason for this was carried out by Alensina, Di Tella and MacCulloch in 2001. They examined the results of 124,000 life-satisfaction surveys from both sides of the Atlantic. The data, which was correlated to wealth, social inequality and political views, found that rich Europeans were largely indifferent to inequalities in society, while less wealthy Europeans and leftists were very conscious of the gap between rich and poor, and felt the government was obliged to tax the rich in order to narrow that divide. In the US, on the other hand, poor Americans were not as troubled by the difference between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’; the only group to express themselves as troubled by inequality was a small sub-group of wealthy leftists.


Image top: Emma LB.