The Psychology of the London Riots

The diffusion of responsibility, the broken windows theory, and the London riots.


I’ve been reading a lot about the British riots, including a post by fellow contributor Monica Tan, and I feel like most of the discussion is missing the point.

The funny thing about crowd psychology that most people miss is the concept of diffusion of responsibility. Basically, it means that the more people there are, the less responsibility each of them feels for what is going on. It’s a simple but powerful theory that helps to explain behavior that might otherwise signify the end of morality—most notably the murder of Kitty Genovese. Thus, individually, each rioter feels little responsibility for the actions of their neighbors or for their own actions. After all, if you are just one of a dozen people taking things from a shop, and you weren’t the first to take it, then it’s not really your fault. Besides, if you don’t take it, someone else will.

The other extremely useful theory in explaining this phenomenon is the broken windows theory of policing. Simply put, it says that if one window on a building is already broken, then people do not feel that bad about breaking another, and another.

William Bratton, the American consultant brought in at the behest of David Cameron in the wake of the riots, is the most famous proponent of the broken windows theory. Using ideas garnered from this idea, he is credited with helping to make New York City safe in the 1990s by simply policing fare jumpers and graffiti.

You can see test this for yourself. Find a crosswalk where everyone is waiting politely for the light, then cross the street while it is still red. Most likely, people will start to follow you, even though the circumstances have not changed.

I think that the entirety of the London riots can be explained without recourse to moral explanations involving anarchism or consumerism. I find nothing mysterious about young people with good jobs and no prior criminal activity taking things from shops that have already been broken into.

I find the quote from the forensic psychologist Kay Nooney most apropos:

These people aren’t interested in tuition fees. In constituency, it’s most similar to a prison riot: what will happen is that, usually in the segregation unit, nobody will ever know exactly, but a rumour will emanate that someone has been hurt in some way. There will be some form of moral outrage that takes its expression in self-interested revenge. There is no higher purpose, you just have a high volume of people with a history of impulsive behaviour, having a giant adventure.

When a group of outraged people gather together, all it takes is a small incident to provoke violent behavior. The more people there are, the easier it is for that to occur. As much as you complain about the lack of moral education, as we see from the background of many of the rioters, many of the looters are not your typical consumption-obsessed poor youth.

There is, of course, a separate distinction to be made regarding the causes of the riot itself. Riot behavior is nothing new and easily explainable. However, the societal ills that she speaks about—cuts in social services, unemployment, etc.—are real. In truth, they are definitely contributors to the riot, but not in the way people normally think. The best way to prevent riots is to keep citizens satisfied enough so that there won’t be a large group of disaffected and angry people all gathered in one place. Because once they assemble, your options are limited.

The point is not how to keep people from looting once a riot starts.  The point is how to keep a riot from starting in the first place.  While many people are deploring the harsh sentences handed out willy nilly (like six months for stealing bottled water), they have one benefit that people are overlooking.

If the shield of anonymity is no longer there, then responsibility no longer diffuses.  The whole reason why countries like Japan behave so orderly even in the wake of such a massive disaster as Fukushima is the notion of collective responsibility held by the Japanese.  Holding as many people responsible as they can for these riots will do a great deal to ensure that in the future, people will think twice about taking something out of a broken store window.