Britain riots and crowd psychology

by Joanne Black / 27 August, 2011
Riots like those in Britain this month cannot be explained away as simply irrational or criminal acts.

This week the British Government has talked tough over the riots that claimed several lives, caused millions of pounds worth of damage and shocked the world with images of looting and arson in the streets of London.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has announced a “riot payback scheme”, in which those convicted of involvement in the mayhem will be made to “look their victims in the eye” as part of restorative justice schemes. Others will be made to do community work in the areas where looting, arson and the wilful damage of property took place.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said anyone involved in the riots should expect to go to prison – and it seems magistrates have heeded that message.

One student who was jailed had been caught on a CCTV camera stealing two bottles of water from a shop that had been smashed open by others. And this week a 42-year-old man from South London was sent to jail for six months for receiving two tennis racquets worth £340, originally looted from a sports shop. The Guardian reported he told police, “I knew it was not right the minute they put them into my hand.”

But if people “knew it was not right”, why did they participate?

Professor Michael Platow, a researcher in the Department of Psychology at the Australian National University, says the answer lies in the way people adopt different identities, then behave in a manner they feel is consistent with that identity.

So, someone who identifies with a crowd will act with that crowd and in context with the situation, Platow says. Therefore, if the crowd is helping others, and others identify with that crowd, they too will help others. If the crowd is rioting and people identify with that crowd, they will riot, too. Even criminal behaviour can seem normal in a crowd situation – and no different for rioters in London than for those who were arrested in New Zealand during anti-Springbok tour protests in 1981.

Behaving like everyone else “is what we all do, all the time, regardless of context”, Platow says.

He says the fundamental question is why people act one way on one day in one circumstance, and another way that seems at odds on another day in different circumstances.

“I constantly tell my students that you can go out on a weekend with your mates, you’re drinking, you do silly things and on Monday you go, ‘Gee, I can’t believe I did all that.’ When I lived in Dunedin, I remember the students at the University of Otago would go out on Friday nights intentionally with the purpose of getting drunk and then throwing up on themselves. So they would wear white coveralls as they walked through town. On Monday they might say, ‘Gee, I can’t believe I did that, it was really stupid.’ Well, what’s going on here is that we have different identities. This is not a clinical disorder – it’s in all of us.”

Platow says anyone who asks themselves why they drank so much the previous evening, or why they said something hurtful to someone, is reflecting on themselves behaving in a way that suited their identity at that time.

A person watching an opera, for example, might clap politely at the appropriate time while the rest of the audience is also applauding politely, Platow says. That same person might leap to his or her feet during an All Blacks match and shout, “Break his leg!” But it is the same person acting in context for the different circumstances.

A leading academic in the field of crowd behaviour is Professor Clifford Stott, of the University of Liverpool. He has done a lot of work with police on crowd control of football hooligans, encouraging officers not to be too aggressive because it sets up an “us and them” mentality, which can increase the alienation of the crowd and undermine the crowd’s perception of the legitimacy of the police’s authority.

More recently, Stott made recommendations about policing in the wake of the riots over the 2009 G-20 London summit. As a result of these riots, there are now “vitriolic debates loaded with moral indignation that are as much about pathologising crowd action, attributing blame and denying responsibility as they are about truth and objectivity. But this transition from peaceful to riotous crowd is, of course, one of the fundamental questions of crowd psychology.”

He says during his studying of the subject for more than 30 years, some important advances in the scientific understanding of how and why riots occur have been made.

Of central importance, he says, is this is not about “an explosion of mob irrationality”. Nor can it be simply explained by a lot of people predisposed to criminality getting together. Rather, the crowd is acting in context with the situation.

The power of context is shown by a laboratory experiment in which subjects were told they were delivering an electric shock to a person in another room who was being punished for failing to learn something, Platow says. Some subjects were told that to remain anonymous, they needed to put a hood over their heads, while others wore no hoods when they delivered the shocks.

“Lo and behold, when they were totally anonymous – lost in the crowd if you will, with a hood over their heads – they delivered higher levels of shock. So that experiment was interpreted as saying, ‘See, you get lost in the crowd, you lose your personal identity and you become more aggressive.’

“But someone else came along a couple of years later and said, ‘Wait a minute. Those hoods look like Ku Klux Klan hoods and there’s a norm for the Ku Klux Klan of being aggressive, so I’m going to change the experiment and say, ‘We’re going to get rid of your personal identity and make you anonymous, so we want you to put these nurses’ uniforms on so you all look the same.’

“Sure enough, when that happened and they applied the electric shocks, they were less aggressive. So the subjects may have thought, ‘Oh, Ku Klux Klan hoods, that’s aggressive, I’ll behave that way’, whereas when they put on nurses’ uniforms, they became less aggressive because that’s what you do.

“They’re the same people, or they could have been. They were normal people and in the riots people look around – you might be a person identifying with the rest of the group, seeing someone behaving a particular way and thinking, ‘Well, that’s not so bad, I’ll do it too.’ Only later might you reflect and go, ‘Wow, from where I sit now I can’t believe I did that.’”

Platow says people have a sense of themselves as being very constant and stable, “but in fact people are quite variable. We shift all the time, but in our society we value stability and don’t like being called inconsistent. But again, I behave differently at an All Blacks game than I do at the opera.”

If that helps explain the behaviour of a crowd, what then sets it off?

Paul Bagguley, a reader in sociology at the University of Leeds, says the British Government’s response to the riots, with talk of a lack of morality and a broken society, overlooked the trigger: the shooting of Mark Duggan by police, and police saying Duggan had fired first.

“The rumour going around Tottenham was that the police’s story was false, and it turned out the rumour was true.”

Duggan’s family and supporters went to the police station to try to meet senior officers, but none were available. The family’s crowd of supporters grew, and eventually a line of police in riot gear formed and the riots escalated from exchanges between the two sides.

Previous British riots, in 1981 and 1985, evolved from very similar events, Bagguley says – with parallels of heightened tension between police and young black men. Other young men from ethnic minorities, who may have identified with the rioters, were then quick to get involved. Overlaid on that, he says, is the fact that the riots involved a lot of low-income or unemployed young men.

“In some of these areas, there are 80 unemployed people chasing every job that’s available. It’s a kind of delayed effect of the credit crunch and the economic processes are working their way out, so a lot of young people from poor backgrounds, without qualifications, are finding it almost impossible to find employment.”

Bagguley says the interesting difference between the recent riots and previous ­disturbances is the amount of looting.

“We’ve had waves of riots spread across the country before but they usually involve a main activity, like conflict with the police, and looting as a secondary activity.”

This time other people were attracted to the looting, he says. “One of the things about looting in the context of a riot is that looting seems like a low-risk activity, and can be very opportunistic. A riot tends essentially to involve young men, primarily teenagers to early thirties, but looting often involves children, women and older people, and that’s what seems to have happened here.

“You can see it from the media images and media reports. Those who have been to court [for looting] range in age from 11 to 58. It’s quite a wide range, but half are aged 17-24. That’s not surprising – you could explain that simply because those are the kinds of people available to be involved in things like this. They’re just at an age where they’re hanging around the streets.”

Bagguley also sees an economic context to the riots. “One way of describing this is as a consumer-society riot because a lot of the shops that were attacked are large chain stores often selling quite expensive goods that the people involved in the riot can’t afford to buy. Those shops have no real connection to the local community – they’re owned by large companies, they may employ some local people but they are not seen as owned and run by local people.

“It was an attack upon large chain stores that are constantly and aggressively advertising and marketing fashionable items like electronic devices, phones, iPads, clothing and trainers to people who can’t afford to buy them or obtain them through legitimate means.

“So, on the one hand there’s a kind of purpose to what people are doing, in the sense that they are being given the opportunity to obtain things for nothing – to steal things. However, sometimes the looting was very random and involved stealing things of no consequence, like chewing gum.”

Bagguley says one of the curious aspects to rioting and looting is the diversity of people involved. There may be a core of people who have similar motives, but there is also often a range of different motives.

“The media are highlighting the unusual examples, but they tell you something about the chaos of riots and their unpredictability. It’s not necessarily thought out, or it’s thought out but quickly.

“There’s been some discussion about how far the looting was planned and organised by gangs, but any serious criminal gangs will stay away from events like this. They get in the way of their business. The more informal street gangs of young people may or may not have played a role – the politicians keep referring to this – but I’ve not seen any real hard evidence of it. It’s just an assumption that people are making.”

But does it matter to rioters that they are destroying the very environments they live in?

“What’s important to understand in riots is that concern about the local environment gets pushed into the background. And I think those environments are so hard they are not seen as having any real value anyway.”
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