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

Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: The campaigning is over. So now we wait...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
In this handout provided by NASA from the the Earth-orbiting International Space Station, weather system Arthur travels up the east coast of the United States in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida in space. The robotic arm of the Space Station Remote Manipulator System or Canadarm2 is seen at upper right. According to reports, Arthur has begun moving steadily northward at around 5 kt. and the tropical storm is expected to strike the North Carolina Outer Banks  

Thanks to government investment, commercial space travel is becoming a reality

Richard Branson
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week