The psychology of a riot

The psychology of a riot

Riots are complex situations. They are fascinating for anyone considering policing as a career.  Controlling them relies on a deep understanding of the human psychology. Sparked by a controversial incident – as minor as a sports team losing a match or as major as a government coup – riots see the respectability of the individual replaced by the mentality of the mob.

Social media can fan any sparks of distrust into a flaming, physical mob. Twitter widens the audience – often distracting from the event which started it in the first place. Riots can be simple appeals to be heard, when normal channels don’t work or enormous eruptions of rage, when frustrations and political issues boil over. They can also be expressions of hope that things could change. The police need to handle the tactical consequences on the ground – but the authorities need to acknowledge the wider expression of discomfort to quiet the storm.

The idea that people in crowds act differently from individuals has been extensively explored by psychologists. LeBon and Freud proposed it way back in the early 20th century and others have since built on the theory. According to this interesting article on the psychology of a riot,  It is generally agreed that crowds act more violently, more passionately and perhaps, with a compromised moral compass when compared to individuals. A crowd is not simply a sum of its parts – it takes on a life of its own.

Ken Eisold Ph.D.  in Psychology Today, describes rioting as,

 …a kind of intense belonging, not dissimilar to what spectators feel at a sports event or fans at a rock concert. But because it isn’t focused on a game or performance, it easily gets out of hand.

Theadore Dalrymple disagrees that a crowd mentality turns regular people into a criminal mob. In his article about the pleasure of rioting,he insists that the criminal mob is attracted to the gathering and uses it as an excuse, or to hide criminal activity. He says,

Rioters are a self-selected group, who are fully aware and not forced to participate in riots. It is not true that individual rioters lose control of what they do. In the London riots of 2011, rioters smashed and looted every store in a street except the bookstore, the only one to remain with its windows and stock entirely intact. The rioters had no use or desire for books and, notwithstanding their alleged loss of control were perfectly able to discriminate between the kinds of things they wanted and those they did not. And when the police, arrested some of the rioters engaged in the gravest actions, it turned out that the majority of those them already had serious criminal records.

Theodore Dalrymple M.D – The Pleasures of Riot

So whether you believe a riot is a result of a meeting of minds or a smoke screen for the criminal underclasses, it is a fascinating subject for anyone pursuing a career in policing to get their heads around.

A degree in policing, covering the study of the psychology of a riot, is available from CU Scarborough, CU London or CU Coventry.