What makes people into Looters?

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Recent riots in London and other major cities in the UK have shocked the world as they watched young people ransack and loot property in their communities.  What leads to this behaviour?

The BBC had a short article on the topic, looking at the question of deindividuation within a group.  It is important to also make some links to some of the other theories that our students study in the course.

First, Social Identity Theory is important here. Reicher argues that in riots two essential things happen:

1. There is a direct collective confrontation between distinct groups - for example, the police and the rioters.

2. People in a crowd assume the identity of the group.  Once this happens, members of the crowd will look to the other members to determine how to behave.

Reicher tested this theory by looking at the St Paul's Riot in Bristol in 1980. His findings were that the violence, burning and looting were not unconstrained.  Aggression was directed only at symbols of the state - the banks, the police and merchants in the community.  The crowd also stayed within the boundaries of the St Paul's neighborhood.  Finally he noted that during and after the riot, rioters felt a strong sense of positive social identity as a member of the St Paul's community.

An interesting discussion might attempt to see whether this may support what is happening in Britain.

A second theory that could be looked at is risky shift - that is, that when in a group, people take higher risks than when acting alone.

Having students do some of their own research on rioting should help them to see how these theories are applied.  As always, when we can make links between current events and the psychological theory that we teach, we are helping our students engage in authentic learning.

Tags: Social identity theory, group behaviour, crime

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