United Kingdom — Tough times, lowering of self-responsibility and a desire to join in are fuelling the UK riots, researchers say.
They add, understanding the psychology and motivation of riot participants can help cities prevent peaceful protesting from escalating to violent or destructive rioting.
The events surrounding the police’s part in a British man’s death catalysed riots that quickly spread in England this week. Although race tensions seem to influence the rioting, unemployment, cuts to public programs and a stale economy have factored in, too.
But how do riots’ destructive and violent grasps on an area spread?
Dr Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, a professor of government at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, says the geography of riots and how they spread seem to show certain patterns – patterns similar to those followed by wildfires.
“There’s some evidence suggesting that … the severity of riots is inversely proportional to their frequency,” he says. “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 the case of the England riots, Gleditsch says the situation has moved past the point where police can contain violence from spreading to new locations. He says it will be interesting to study what allows urban riots to grow to this magnitude, whether they’re shaped by police strategies or other factors. Shedding identity and responsibility
Dr Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University in Boston, says most rioting consists of two phases in which people’s motivation to behave violently or destructively may change.
Dropping one’s personal identity and responsibility and adopting those of a group’s (a behaviour known as deindividuation) often happens in the first phase of rioting, he says. Usually, people are pushed to their personal limits before expressing their grievances this way.
Following the initial catalyst, and with rioting spreading, people’s rationales for participating in change, too.
“It has to be recognised that economic times are pretty harsh, not only in the United States but in England. There are desperate individuals who will unfortunately go outside of the law simply because they’ve lost confidence in mainstream politics, see the police as the enemy of occupation, and don’t see the light at the end of the economic tunnel,” says Levin. “They may take advantage of a dire situation in order to accumulate certain items – such as flat screen TVs – that they otherwise might not.”
According to Levin, these free-for-all bouts of looting transition into a second phase of rioting and often happen when newcomers join with individuals they already know. For example, friends showing up at a riot are probably pressured by one another to act destructively rather than acting to support the original grievance.
Though outsiders should try to understand the rationale of riot participants, Levin says riots can range from the “sublime to the ridiculous,” adding that it’s become trendy to riot over less serious events such as the victory or loss of a sports team. Lowering standards
Another researcher points out the difference between violent and destructive behaviours, adding that riots are more likely to lower people’s standards for themselves, regardless if they have a criminal history. Overall, vandalism and looting, which are technically property crimes, are easier for people to justify than behaving violently.
“I think the threshold to engage in their choice of [destructive] behaviours is lower,” says Dr Sherry Hamby, a research associate professor of psychology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. “The main thing to understand about this group psychology is that individual psychology probably explains a small percentage of these behaviours.”
Though police reports and media sources might focus on the extremes of a riot and accuse all participants of having a criminal history, the truth is existing criminals are unlikely behind this riot’s genesis and progression, she says.
“The criminal element doesn’t really change from week to week or month to month – they’re always out there,” says Hamby. “You can’t usually pinpoint something like that. It’s not the criminals that are getting the riots really going; they’re more political events than they are criminal events.”