Getting into the mindset of a mob mentality

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The Independent Online

How did a peaceful protest escalate to serious rioting over consecutive nights on a scale not witnessed for a generation?

If the political discourse is anything to go by, our society is under attack from "outsiders" hell-bent on "mindless criminality" from whom we need protection. The spread of this "disorder" to other areas is described as "copycat"; which suggests people are drawn into the looting and attacks simply because they have seen these things going on.

But this transition from peaceful to riotous crowds is, of course, one of the fundamental questions of crowd psychology. In addressing it over the past 30 years, my colleagues and I have made some important advances in scientific understanding of how and why riots come about.

Of central importance is that we know that "riots" cannot be understood as an explosion of "mob irrationality". Nor can they be adequately explained in terms of individuals predisposed to criminality by nature of their pathological disposition. The behaviour of these people in smashing up their "own communities" may seem irrational to some but to the "rioters" themselves these targets are meaningful.

These meanings in turn always relate to their sense of themselves as a social group and of the illegitimacy of their historical relationship to others around them. We cannot extract the "riots" from the situations in which they occur. It is highly meaningful that these riots developed after the shooting of Mark Duggan. This incident represented for many within his community the antagonistic relationship they have with the Met that fed into the events on Saturday night.

It is highly relevant that in the context of these riots people have taken the opportunity to target shops selling high-end electrical goods, clothes and jewellery. In this age of austerity, such items are becoming increasingly unobtainable.

To recognise these issues is not to act as an apologist for these actions. Rather to point out that to render the riots meaningless is to deny the opportunity that we must take to generate an understanding of them that will help to prevent them in the future.

Dr Clifford Stott is a senior lecturer in social psychology at the University of Liverpool and an expert in the psychology of riots.