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The London riots and the myth of mob mentality

A police officer stands guard as firefighters work to extinguish the flames of a blazing store in Woolwich, southeast London, on Aug. 9.
REUTERS/Jon Boyle
A police officer stands guard as firefighters work to extinguish the flames of a blazing store in Woolwich, southeast London, on Aug. 9.

Trying to find a reason for last week’s rioting in England continues to monopolize the British public, press and political establishment. 

What has been particularly perplexing to many Brits is the fact that, as the Daily Mail reported, “While the trouble has been largely blamed on feral teenagers, many of those paraded before the courts yesterday led apparently respectable lives.”

In a speech Monday, Prime Minister David Cameron blamed last week’s rioting in England on “the slow-motion moral collapse” that he said has been infecting Britain for several generations.

And Labor leader Ed Milliband has called for a commission to “investigate why people looted and vandalized their own neighborhoods and why they felt no loyalty to their own communities, and what had led to the ‘greed, selfishness, immorality’ demonstrated last week,” reports the Guardian newspaper.

A long-debunked myth
There’s been a lot of discussion about how many of the thousands of individuals who participated in last week’s deadly destruction and looting were apparently pulled into their anti-social acts by “a violent few.”

But as articles in Scientific American and on the blog MindHacks point out, this view of mob mentality is a myth that was debunked 30 years ago.

“[T]he old ideas about the ‘mob mentality,’ deindividuation and the loss of individual responsibility are still popular, but completely unsupported by what we know about how crowds react,” writes psychologist Vaughan Bell in his MindHacks post. “People don’t become irrational and they do keep thinking for themselves, but that doesn’t mean that the influence of the crowd has no effect.”

Or, as psychologist (speciality: group behavior) Stephen Reicher of the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland told Scientific American reporter Lauren Friedman: “When people form a psychological group, what happens isn’t that they lose a sense of identity but that they think of themselves in terms of group membership.”

‘Us Against Them’
MindHacks’ Bell provides a great analogy to explain how this new group identify (and the riotous mob) forms:

Imagine you’ve just got on a bus. It’s full of people and you have to jam into an uncomfortable seat at the back. There are people going to work, some vacant students heading home after a night on the beers, some annoying teenagers playing dance music through their tinny mobile phone speakers and some old folks heading off to buy their groceries.
You’re late and you missed your train. You feel nothing in common with anyone on the bus and, to be honest, those teenagers are really pissing you off.
Suddenly, two of the windows smash and you realize that a group of people are attacking the bus and trying to steal bags through the broken windows.
Equally as quickly, you begin to feel like one of a group. A make-shift social identity is formed (‘the passengers’) and you all begin to work together to fend off the thieves and keep each other safe.
You didn’t lose your identity, you gained a new one in reaction to a threat.
If the police wade in with batons indiscriminately, lots of these riot wannabes suddenly start to feel like they’re part of the bigger group and feel justified in ripping the place apart, mostly to throw at the coppers.
Suddenly, it’s ‘them’ against ‘us’ and a small policing problem just got much, much bigger — like attacking a beehive because you just got stung.

The importance of early intervention
“Crowd events tend to be mixed events with some people who do intend to be violent and some who don’t,” Reicher told Scientific American. “The response of authorities is to see the group as a whole as dangerous. At that point, precisely those people not originally violent have the experience of being treated with hostility and often physical force. Under those circumstances, they see the police as illegitimate and violence escalates.”

“Reicher suggests,” writes Friedman, “ … that the key to preventing riots may be for authorities to regularly engage community members who will publicly oppose violence and looting, shifting the perception of group’s needs and desires in advance. This early intervention — similar to approaches used to combat gang violence — could intercept the possibility of a violent group identity before it can begin to form.”

“You can only take part in these events to the extent that you believe you have collective support from others,” Reicher said. “Nobody riots on their own.”

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/15/2011 - 01:07 pm.

    P.M. David Cameron’s “answer” to the problem is to use the police to continue to crack down on the young people (many very young boys) who took part. His concern is to protect property, not to seek for the “whys” that led these boys to join in the riots.

    At the same time he is calling for an appreciably larger police presence, he refuses to reverse the funding cuts he has called for in the police department. Among his other cuts have been major ones to youth programs and job-search help that may have given these young people something productive to do.

    Guardian commenter Sally Toynbee wrote a week or so ago that England should be careful not to absorb any of the Tea Party nonsense emanating from the United States. These right-wing Cameron cuts to every piece of social spending, including the National Health Service and in-home care for the disabled and elderly. Wait times are already increasing for health care appointments and one or two major research hospitals may close. I think it’s too late, Sally.

  2. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 08/15/2011 - 01:56 pm.

    Understanding crowd behavior as described above suggests some strategies for authorities when dealing with angry and potentially violent crowds.

    Clearly, the wrong approach is to treat every member of the crowd equally because it reinforces the sense of membership in the group. Likewise, the presence of uniformed police officers creating a barricade serves the same purpose.

    It sounds like some sort of surgical intervention might have a chance of diffusing tense crowd situations by dealing with incidents of violence individually, and only AFTER they have become criminal.

    Specifically, law enforcement might place itself above and away from the crowd, keeping a very watchful eye (with cameras and recording equipment) on the proceedings without making things worse. Here I’m thinking of something like the way Major League Baseball handles brawls. Since there are 20 cameras trained on everything that happens, it’s not hard to figure out who dealt which blow, who escalated the event, who tried to deescalate things, etc. Police are already trained to do such detailed observation in real time.

    Police can then identify members of the crowd who require their attention immediately, and take smaller, perhaps even unnoticed (plain-clothes) actions against only those in the crowd whose actions are already criminal.

    Describing it this way sounds a little bit Orwellian, but several things are accomplished. First, freedom of assembly and speech are not infringed. Second, no one is detained because they have the POTENTIAL to commit a crime, only because they have ALREADY committed a specific crime (caught on camera). Third, peaceful demonstrators are exempted from any sort of harsh, one-size-fits-all police action. Fourth, escalation to a violent mob is inhibited.

    There is sort of a macho sense that a strong wall of uniformed police is the best way to meet an angry crowd. The research cited above shows why that approach has never worked and never will.

  3. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 08/15/2011 - 02:22 pm.

    The mobs are looting, stealing, shattering windows and burning buildings because they can, and they know no one will stop them. When police passively rely on cameras to do their work for them, they will stand idly by and wait for the violence to ebb on its own. In the meantime, millions of dollars of property is destroyed and people are injured and maybe even killed. Next time, the violence will be worse, because the mobs know law enforcement will do nothing against them, and even make excuses for their behavior.

  4. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 08/15/2011 - 02:39 pm.

    Rosalind,

    I did not make myself sufficiently clear.

    My suggestion was that, in conjunction with the observation, law enforcement officers remain on alert nearby to remove any violent members in real time. That is, as soon as a crime is observed, officers remove the offender without interfering with peaceful protestors.

  5. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 08/15/2011 - 10:06 pm.

    The the autumn of 1969 and the spring of 1970 there were coordinated anti-war demonstrations that drew one-million nation wide. By contrast the spring 1971 (May Day) demonstrations only drew 30,000 nationwide, a 97% decrease.

    Lot’s of potetial reasons but we had a military draft lottery that got tow thirds to three quarter of male “off the hook”. Kent and Jackson State deaths made people think it was dangerous. The Madison truck bomb further dampened spirits.

    Also, we had “Earth Day” were some elected officials actually participated!

    Riots, like fire is opportunistic. The “revolution” is now televised live so people see that they can get away with it. Here in the USA we have laws like RICO that can be applied to those in “flash mob” riots. Surveillance cameras are a great deterrent just as DNA testing is a great deterrent to sexual assault.

  6. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 08/15/2011 - 10:27 pm.

    Another difference is that we had AFDC/Welfare reform here around 1995 preceded by a couple of years of opponents making draconian prediction of what it would mean.

    Do the math! Born in 1995, sixteen years old today!

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