Geoffrey Beattie: Why Greeks make a drama out of a crisis

While the people of some stricken countries vent their anger, the economically battered Irish, blaming themselves, hold their peace

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A number of European countries have been facing financial meltdown. They still are. The economic crisis has left them vulnerable, weakened and isolated. But the very different images that appear on our television screens illustrate the very different collective response: the crowds rioting in Athens, the anger on the streets in Spain, and the public seemingly going about its normal business in Ireland.

In Greece, there is uncontained fury at the conditions that the IMF has imposed on the Greek government, and this fury has been turned into direct and violent action on the streets against the government itself. In Dublin, life seems to be continuing much as before. There might not be as much money about and there may be a great deal of despair and despondency, but the despair and despondency are kept inside for the most part, and little of the emotion seems to be turned into action, and certainly not the direct, violent confrontational action that we have seen on the streets of Athens. What determines whether a country engages in open revolt against the government or happily goes along with whatever the government says that it must do?

We need to consider the cultural traditions of the place. Is it a macho culture where the natives will simply not bow down to the IMF? Then, does the country have a history of revolution? Are there organisations already active within the country to exploit the current situation and able to orchestrate a unified response to the government? We can reach towards history or sociology or politics to try to explain some of what is going on, but beyond that lies the possibility that there is something different about the Greek and the Irish psyche that makes one nation more prone to accept and another more likely to reject violently their government's imposition of austerity measures. Perhaps something in the Greek and the Irish psyche allows the two peoples to think differently about how and why these austerity measures are needed in the first place.

The kind of violent action that we have witnessed in Greece is in many senses an emotional response to the financial crisis. After all, what can these riots hope to achieve? A change in government? A clear signal to the IMF that Greece may default on the first loan and possibly on a second because it will not accept the measures? And then what?

The riots may not be entirely rational. Instead the primary driver might be a communal experience and expression of negative emotion, a unifying rage against what is happening, a bonding through anger. Expressions of anger may not provide a resolution to many situations but, of course, they can make you feel better for a very short period afterwards. (They can also leave you feeling much more stressed in the medium term.) If riots do provide this function of emotional release, why do other countries not engage in it, even though there is nothing to lose – except perhaps the IMF not offering a second bailout package?

The answer may be connected with patterns of individual thought, particularly how individuals think about the causes of the situation in the first place. If you think that the financial crisis was caused by external factors, the US, for example, and some of its dubious practices in the housing market, then you are more likely to have a build-up of anger that can be directed in certain ways as a consequence. But there are other ways of thinking about the causes of the current economic crisis. One might think that certain practices in the US housing market might have set the ball rolling, but many banks in other countries and many individuals in other countries were a core part of this whole process.

In the years of the Celtic Tiger, there were many in Ireland who made millions out of the bullish economy – speculators and property developers, bankers and financiers. There seemed to be money to be made around every corner. You might think that they (and their counterparts in other countries) were instrumental in helping shape the whole financial crisis. And if you do think like that, this might have an impact on how you deal psychologically with the crisis. Do you feel as much anger? And if you do, who are you going to direct this anger against?

But there are ways of thinking about this financial crisis that do not involve laying the blame at someone else's door. There is always the possibility that Ireland, and some other countries, might feel some guilt at the involvement of their own citizens in this whole mad speculative financial frenzy. You might then argue, from a psychological point of view, that these do not provide the right psychological conditions to give rise to riots. Instead, the negative emotion associated with the economic crisis could be internalised rather than directed outwards. Many climbed on the back of the Celtic Tiger, and now the negative emotion isn't so much anger against abstract "others", but a vague feeling of guilt about how some of your fellow countrymen may have behaved.

This feeling of guilt could then be driven down inside, into the deep recesses of the mind. Furthermore, as a Catholic nation, guilt plays a big role in the everyday emotional life of the Irish anyway. And if you internalise your negative response to a situation rather than make it external, then it becomes much harder to engage in a concerted outpouring of anger in the form of rioting or any other action.

Some psychologists observe that the individuals who remain happiest and most contented in their lives are those who take credit for all of the good things that happen to them while at the same time attributing any bad things that happen to them to external forces. This simple pattern, some claim, is the very basis of optimism and healthy living.

In one curious way, the sight of all of those rioting Greeks on the streets in Athens reminded me of this. When the sun shone and the money poured in they laughed and danced in the street, and felt good about themselves. When the economic bubble burst and times got hard, they blamed others and kicked out. They vented their emotion, and made it clear to themselves that it was nothing whatsoever to do with them.

Perhaps they were just trying to keep their optimistic focus, albeit in a violent and extreme way, in trying times. Perhaps civil action is all to do with individual psychological adaptation, when life as we know it seems to be falling apart.

Professor Geoffrey Beattie is Head of School and Dean of Psychological Sciences at the University of Manchester

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