The Science of Rioting – Is there a reason for the Violence? Is there a Solution?

Violenti scontri per le strade by Il Fatto Quotidiano, on FlickrThe streets of major British cities descended into chaos last night. Again.

Angry stick-weilding, BMX-riding hooded teenagers went on the rampage. Breaking, burning and looting for no apparent reason – the police largely impotent to halt to the anarchy.

It’s been a long time since the UK has seen anything like this. Just what triggered these night-time waves of indiscriminate destruction, no-one seems certain. A peaceful protest three days ago about a questionable police shooting escalated into violence. Now neither shops, homes or landmarks are being spared by the hands, bats and Molotovs of an uncontrolled testosterone-fuelled rage.

Is this the product of a disenfranchised youth? Former London Mayor, Ken Livingstone blames the austerity cuts. London councillor, Mike Fisher called it “pure criminal activity by mindless thugs and morons”. As David Cameron cuts short his summer break to exert some leadership, I’d be very surprised if he’ll be ‘hugging a hoodie‘ in London tonight.

Politicians and victims of the violence will undoubtedly draw their conclusions to make sense of the carnage. Is there a rational scientific viewpoint to take on the reason for all the unrest? Current thinking in psychology, might make you reassess what is going on…

Crowd psychology: Are we a herd of Wilderbeest?

wilderbeestBeing a part of a large group of people – be it at a football game or a rock concert – can be a strange thing. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the compulsion to clap or stare because those around you are doing the same. Our peculiar group behaviours are studied in the field known as crowd psychology.

The key facets of ‘classic’ crowd psychology could help explain the recent outbursts of violence in UK cities. When in a group, the theory says we become anonymous, suggestible and uncritical of what the rest of the crowd is doing. It lends itself to unthinking, primitive “copycat” behaviour (in the words of Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent speech). The only justifiable response to control this unreasoning animal-like heard would be uncompromising force: curfews, rubber bullets and water cannons.

But is this ‘logical response’ a wise or informed course of action? Dr. Clifford Stott, a leading thinker in the psychology of public disorder, would say certainly not…

An Evidence-Based response to Rioting and Looting

London: Yesterday.
Dr Stott from the University of Liverpool, thinks that traditional theories for rioting are overly simplistic and lack any supporting evidence. Rioting crowds aren’t unthinking ‘mobs‘ but a complex mix of individuals – he helped develop an alternative crowd theory called Elaborated Social Identity Model (ESIM). His theories suggest that group behaviours and violence manifest only when a particular belief or viewpoint is shared by enough members of the group.

It is subtly, but crucially different to other theories. ESIM is an increasingly evidence-backed theory and suggests a more pragmatic approach to social disorder:

  • Rioting behaviour is a symptom of an underlying problem
  • Labelling or marginalising the rioters as ‘mindless criminals’ will not address the underlying reasons
  • Indiscriminate use of force will almost certainly likely to escalate the situation
  • Police forces should be educated in the cultural norms and the legitimate intentions of the crowd before engaging them
  • Legitimate and legal actions by any crowd should be allowed and facilitated by the police forces
  • Illegal and inappropriate action should be discriminated from acceptable behaviour and targeted by appropriate force
  • Police forces should communicate their intentions to any crowd before using force

Can Science really Advise on Riot control?

By now, there are undoubtedly countless commentaries in newspapers and online explaining away the recent violence. I have my suspicions – the singling out of high-end shops and brands by the looters suggests anger at economic inequality or lack of opportunity.

I truly hope that psychologists and scientists can help inform policing and policy over the coming nights. Please let peace return – but let us not become complacent when calm returns.

My wish is that we could have the courage to face up to the serious underlying problems affecting our society.

My hope is that we can do something about them…

Related Article:

  • Why Europeans Riot but Americans Don’t

  • Thanks for reading! Thoughts and opinions are welcome…


    P.S. The latest issue of ‘Guru’ is now out – a free, bi-monthly, crowd-sourced magazine and a humble attempt make science interesting and engaging. Check it out – I’d love to know what you think (but please don’t be too brutal)!


    Selected Reference:

    Reicher, S., Stott, C., Drury, J., Adang, O., Cronin, P., & Livingstone, A. (2007). Knowledge-Based Public Order Policing: Principles and Practice Policing, 1 (4), 403-415 DOI: 10.1093/police/pam067

    Want to read more?

    To find out more about Dr Stott’s theories and research click here

    8 responses to “The Science of Rioting – Is there a reason for the Violence? Is there a Solution?”

    1. I tend to agree.

      I think that a lot needs to be done to identify the triggers, i.e. the actual thoughts and ideas that result in the course of action being Rioting, Looting and setting Fire to things.

      But also, I do think that Christians would not think in this way, would not Riot, would not Loot and would not set Fire to things.

      Paul John Chinchen


      South Africa

      • Thanks for commenting Paul!
        I recently happened upon a fascinating podcast (BBC Radio 4) discussing exactly these issues – causes, triggers, etc and looking at the known evidence & statistics: – it’s well worth a listen.
        There is definitely a lot to be said for peaceful (and highly effective) civil movements – such as that by Martin Luther King Jr and Ghandi.
        Stu 🙂

      • i would take this opportunity to point out the behaviour of the KKK, Salve owners in america, the crusades or how about the IRA? the bombings in london years ago? i could go on… and unless you have spoken to every single person who took part in the riots in the uk you can not possibly make such an absurd assumption that just because someone goes to church on sunday or is “christian” then they will not think or behave that way… the fact of the matter is that christians throughout history have : started fires, rioted, bombed, raped and pillaged. because christians are humans or have human urges and who will respond like humans. they are not inherently better than anyone else or impervious to bad behaviour, if you want to take that stand then let me point out the ultimate : HITLER

    2. I am studying social sciences degree and at moment doing an essay on the mass media and moral panics came across your page as we have to define a moral panic and I have chosen riots. I was doing research and came across your page hence the comment I posted before any other information would be entirely grateful

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