Psychology offers better insights into riots than soundbite politics

Independent on Sunday, 14 August 2011

What do you get when you juxtapose violent street disturbances, excitable commentators, angry politicians and sundry ‘experts’ on youth culture? The answer, I’m afraid, is a lot of hot air: it’s perfectly possible to be horrified by last week’s riots without rushing headlong into a moral panic or claiming that they’ve fulfilled doomy predictions about the impact of Government spending cuts.

It’s vital to identify causes because the response of national politicians, local councils and schools will be shaped by assumptions about why the violence happened in the first place. But much of what’s been said in the last few days has been irrelevant for a very simple reason: mobs are not driven by reason. The looters who smashed shop windows and attempted to torch buildings were in the grip of intense emotions, visibly excited and revelling in the destruction around them.

When they appeared in court, some of the defendants appeared bewildered by their own behaviour; a 24-year-old woman turned herself into the police after a sleepless night wondering why she’d stolen a flat-screen TV. Crowds behave differently from individuals; assuming that looters ransacked shops because they were angry about bankers’ bonuses or MPs’ expenses is to credit them with conscious processes that don’t exist in the heat of the moment. It’s also to confuse proximate and ultimate causes, a mistake much in evidence in recent days.

Violence is exciting. The entertainment industry exploits that fact by creating violent movies and computer games. When social norms are breached in real life, as they rarely are in peacetime, there will always be a small number who relish the chance to join in. Most of us don’t, a fact that’s in danger of being forgotten as right-wing commentators paint an apocalyptic vision of this country supposedly in moral meltdown. But young men are particularly susceptible, whether they get involved in football hooliganism – it’s not so long since that was a regular feature of big matches in this country – or street violence. So far, most of the defendants passing through the criminal justice system in the wake of the riots are males under the age of 25. Many of them are unemployed.

On the political right, this is fertile territory for moral outrage. A ‘liberal elite’ has been blamed for producing a generation of ‘feral’ kids, a claim as fatuous as some left-wingers’ attempts (thankfully reined in by Ed Miliband) to suggest that the riots are down to the withdrawal of the EMA. It goes without saying that someone who robs an injured student has a wonky moral compass, but the wanton destruction on our streets confirms pre-existing anxieties that a substantial minority of kids are growing up without empathy.

Children need to develop a capacity to understand and respect other people’s feelings. They need to learn not to over-react when they’re disappointed or angry, which isn’t easy when parents are absent or distracted by their own problems; some adults are themselves addicted to romance, craving the excitement of short-lived relationships and barely aware of the impact of such instability on children. The tabloid obsession with celebrity provides terrible models of how to relate to other human beings, while children from poor backgrounds are bombarded with messages about the desirability of brands their families can’t afford. They aspire to identities based on crude forms of power, which is why they find gang membership so attractive.

Failing at school and a lack of job prospects make the situation worse, but these are young people whose problems started in infancy. They need substantial intervention to change the habits of a lifetime, and right now psychology is a better guide to that than politics.

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