The recent U.K. riots have confounded many armchair psychologists. There seems to be no overt political motive; the rioters aren't desperately poor; and much of the "rioting" is basically people stealing clothes, shoes and electronics from high street stores. Watching these scenes of frenzied looting unfold on our TV screens, there is one essential question that surfaces repeatedly: What is going on here?
And perhaps this is not a question relevant to the U.K. alone. Earlier this year, a riot broke out in Vancouver over the loss of a hockey game. Sports fans the world over have relentlessly rioted through the years. So, the question, then is, what makes any politically unengaged young person go on a violent rampage?
The idea that people in crowds act differently -- more violently, more passionately and perhaps, with a compromised moral compass -- than individuals acting alone is not new. LeBon and Freud proposed it way back in early 20th century and others have since built on the theory.
But is that really the main motivation at play here?
Some, like Columbia University's Tory Higgins don't think so. Higgins, a professor of psychology who studies motivation, believes that riots such as the these typically occur when people feel "ineffective." "In situations like this, there is a long period prior to the riot of feeling that you're not in control of your own life. It may either be financial, like unemployment or a low-paying job, or political," he says. "They basically don't feel respected or that they're making a difference."
In that sense, says Higgins, the U.K. riots are no different from the riots in the middle east earlier this year. They were both ultimately motivated by similar feelings of powerlessness. So why, then, the totally different outcomes? In one instance, the rioters were celebrated as harbingers of political change, and in the other, denigrated as criminals.
"Crowd psychology shows that when you see other people acting in a certain way, you're more likely to do it. It intensifies whatever is normative in the group," says Higgins. "In the U.K., fighting back is seen as normative. But violence isn't the necessary outcome of every collective action," he says.
Other analyses of the riots have backed up Higgins' theory. In the BBC's report on the psychology of looting, criminologist John Pitts says that looting makes "powerless people suddenly feel powerful" and that is "very intoxicating." "The world has been turned upside down. The youngsters are used to adults in authority telling them they cannot do this or this will happen. Then they do it and nothing happens," he says.
But aside from the more political explanations, there is also the simple idea that rioting and violence can be fun. In his book, "Among The Thugs," writer Bill Buford describes the thrill of being being part of a rampaging British soccer mob. “I had not expected the violence to be so pleasurable ... This is, if you like, the answer to the million-dollar question: Why do young males riot? They do it for the same reason that another generation drank too much or smoked dope,” he writes.
“Violence is their anti-social kick, their mind-altering experience, an adrenalin-induced euphoria that might be all the more powerful because it is generated by the body itself.”
And perhaps that is all there is to it.
Media outlets in the U.K. have published a plethora of in-depth pieces on the psychology of rioting.
For more riot psychology: