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.
In reading Zoe Williams’ excellent Guardian piece on the psychology of looting, in which she analyzes the significance of London rioters doing away with consumer retail products, I was reminded of a vaguely analogous story in China, of a 17-year-old boy who sold his kidney to buy an iPad 2. Both stories seem to illustrate the extremities to which consumerism has driven us.
In the wake of the Olympic torch, chaos and pandemonium. In London, at least 30 people were arrested. Police tackled activists, including one that was intercepted bearing a fire extinguisher to take out the Olympic torch. In Paris, at least 20 people have been arrested and large parts of the planned torch relay canceled. Athletes and celebrities have been harassed by booing crowds waving pro-Tibet banners. One athlete in a wheelchair—a ping-pong champion carrying the Olympic torch—was pelted with bottles and fruit. The amount of security surrounding the torch resembles an entire pro football team’s worth of brawny bodyguards. Ladies and gentlemen, this situation has passed beyond political protest and into the realm of utter farce.