A crowd psychology analysis of the riots

The difficulty we are faced with, as a society in the context of a ‘politics of riot’, is that meaningful dialogue to address this important question is almost impossible.

By Clifford Stott, senior lecturer in crowd psychology at the University of Liverpool, and chief scientific officer for pan-European football police training project
How did a peaceful protest on Saturday evening escalate to the serious rioting over consecutive nights on a scale not witnessed since the ‘inner city’ riots of the 1980s?
The difficulty we are faced with, as a society in the context of a ‘politics of riot’, is that meaningful dialogue to address this important question is almost impossible. 
What dominates at present are vitriolic debates loaded with moral indignation that are as much about pathologising crowd action, attributing blame and denying responsibility as they are about truth and objectivity.
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 through robust policing.
The spread of this ‘disorder’ to other areas such as Hackney, Peckham and Croydon is described as ‘copycat’; a notion that conveys that people are drawn into the looting and attacks not because of any meaningful processes but simply because they have seen these things going on.
Another feature that is a focus of media analysis is the potentially negative role played by the Blackberry mobile phone and its unique ‘closed’ and relatively anonymizing mass messaging system.
But this transition from peaceful to riotous crowds is, of course, one of the fundamental questions of crowd psychology.
In addressing it over the last thirty 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 behavior of these people in smashing up their ‘own communities’ may seem irrational to some but to the ‘rioters’ themselves these targets are highly meaningful. These meanings in turn always relate to their sense of themselves as a social group and of the illegitimacy of their relationship to others around them.
In this respect it is highly meaningful that these riots began in a context of the shooting of Mark Duggan. This incident represented for many within his community the ongoing antagonistic relationship they have with the Metropolitan Police that fed into the social and psychological dynamics of the events on Saturday night.
It is highly relevant that in the context of these riots people have taken the emerging opportunity to target shops selling high-end electrical goods, clothes and jewelry.
In this age of austerity, such items are becoming increasingly unobtainable to ever-larger sections of the working class and it should not be surprising that some are using the riots as an opportunity to obtain them. 
To render crowd action as meaningful and driven to a large degree by contextual issues is not to act as an apologist for these riots. Nor is it to accept as legitimate the attacks against ordinary working  people, businesses, homes and families.
In fact our work has played an important role in developing policing methods that prevent riots from happening. Our science also underpins many of the recent recommendations made by the HMIC following the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests.
These approaches do not rely on the reactive use of force.  Instead they prioritize proactive interventions based upon dialogue as a means for building and maintaining police legitimacy.
 Our argument then is that to render the riots meaningless is actually to deny the opportunity that we must take to understand them if we are to take the appropriate measures that will prevent them in the future.
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153 Responses to “A crowd psychology analysis of the riots”

  1. Too Many Sounds

    Psychologist Clifford Stott on the riots http://ow.ly/5YDff

  2. Craig

    Working class? That has long ceased to be meaningful in this context. Many of them have never worked a day in their life. How is it that immigrants (with all sorts of obstacles) can find work, yet British kids can’t? Possibly because there is no economic incentive (welfare without expectation of obligation). I would suggest that Stott is a voyeur of the spectacle but as he has no personal investment in it as far as the well being of his family (or himself), he can blather safely from the sidelines. Whilst I am a working person, I cannot afford many of those high end items (no I am not paying off a mortgage). I don’t feel compelled to loot. Or to kick someone’s head in for their trainers. I take the opposite view to Gracie. If folks such as yourself are the primary input for decision making on post riot response, I fear that the situation will only get worse and more riots will ensue.

  3. jude

    Men in suits and ties–Wall Street– caused exponentially more damage than these rioters could hope to accomplish, even if they kept it up for weeks. The suits who caused the damage will never see a day in jail; to the contrary, they will thrive. I’m betting that the people in the streets in London have NOT been thriving. Yet the world watches and wonders what’s going on? These riots, as senseless and awful as they are, pale in comparison to the destruction wrought by nicely dressed gents.
    Violence is wrong. No exceptions. Jail time ahead for people participating in the riots.
    I just wish that the criminal plundering of of the US economy had resulted in shock and outrage proportionate to the crime and the number of people harmed.

  4. Claire OT

    A crowd psychology analysis of the riots: http://bit.ly/ppkiNo : by @livuni 's Clifford Stott

  5. BendyGirl

    A crowd psychology analysis of the riots: http://bit.ly/ppkiNo : by @livuni 's Clifford Stott

  6. Seerwan Jafar

    RT @leftfootfwd: A crowd psychology analysis of the riots http://t.co/Qe8Enua

  7. Anon E Mouse

    jude – Perhaps you should explain that to the 40 individuals who had their homes and every single possession they owned burned out by mindless thugs with no respect for anyone except their greed or the workers now without jobs because the shops they worked in are destroyed.

    You mention the US financial system and I would just remind you of Enron and the jail sentences handed out for fraud over there dwarf anything the mamby pamby judges hand out over here.

    There is no correlation between wanton mindless violence which threatens people’s lives and corporate fraud and the sooner you silly Labour activists realise that the better.

  8. William Cass

    best article on the #londonriots yet: http://t.co/Pen84Bl

  9. Salvador Stebbins

    http://t.co/0RWfZPW A crowd psychology analysis of the riots – Left Foot Forward

  10. SimonB

    I’d like to see more detail in this analysis, this is very superficial. How have the findings been taken by peers? What are the social factors in these specific areas that have led to this violence? Why hasn’t it happened in areas with similar profiles?

  11. Mark Doidge

    RT @leftfootfwd: The always excellent Clifford Stott with a crowd psychology analysis of the riots http://t.co/vJScXAm

  12. Steve

    Unfortunately the article does sound like waffle. What specific proactive interventions do you suggest?
    The fact is, almost everything is made in China these days, hence very little manufacturing here. Jobs are scarce, times are hard and there is little that any govt. can do about it. A government can only borrow and then print so much extra money “quantitative easing” before we end up in a complete spiral. Unfortunately these thieves have chosen the temporary easy route to material satisfaction. My own view is that perhaps we should try the brutal approach. Its not nice at the time, but for the sake of innocent people I think it may be necessary. After that we have to seriously think how to educate our own citizens before they get this bad. A cancer requires serious treatment to save the rest of the body.

  13. holah

    RT @leftfootfwd: A crowd psychology analysis of the riots http://t.co/jzHLO2t

  14. Leon Wolfson

    Anon E Mouse – You’re right, there’s no comparison. Most of the rioters deserve a few years in jail. Most of the bankers deserve a few decades or more. Except, one side’s rich, so you won’t ConDemn them.

    There IS trouble around here. I don’t condone the actions taken by individuals. But the best way to STOP the trouble, rather than temporarily putting it on the back burner, is to deal with the issues behind it.

    SimonB – It takes a spark. It’s so, so important NOT to light that spark. There are other tinderboxes out there, no doubt…

  15. Anon E Mouse

    Leon Wolfson – I would have charged and jailed the bankers like they do in the States.

    Instead the Labour Party rewarded the bankers, city slickers and spivs like no UK government in history.

    The issues do not interest me. Left wing, politically correct psycho babble does not stop people having their whole lives destroyed.

    If you wish to live in a society where bad behaviour is excused then may I suggest you head to Hackney to speak to a woman and family who now live in the community centre because their flat was burned down this week.

    Perhaps you should explain your “tinderbox” theories and see how she feels. My guess is she will feel like the rest of decent normal people who just want to go about their lives not living in fear from feral criminals and thugs that roam unimpeded in our streets.

    You have a right to your opinion Wolfy Boy and even though you think the “root causes” are more important to address than families having their whole lives destroyed by morons who have free schooling, housing and money and then respond with violence because they are “disaffected” that’s up to you.

    I would have thought though since you yourself have been a victim who has been shot at, bombed and ambushed by a marauding gang (twice) you would have had some sympathy for the victims here….

  16. floramatos

    Psychologist Clifford Stott on the riots http://ow.ly/5YDff

  17. Jamie

    RT @leftfootfwd: A crowd psychology analysis of the riots http://t.co/jzHLO2t

  18. Philipp Sonderegger

    Crowd-Psychologist on: for looters their behaviour is meaningfull. http://j.mp/r0XcR4

  19. Marion Hubbard

    RT @leftfootfwd: A crowd psychology analysis of the riots http://t.co/jzHLO2t

  20. Elina Konstantinou

    A crowd psychology analysis of the riots – http://t.co/N303wYs

  21. Psychiatry_JC

    A crowd psychology analysis of the riots . http://bit.ly/rrPlct

  22. Neurology_JC

    A crowd psychology analysis of the riots . http://bit.ly/rrPlct

  23. King of Frogs

    Anon E Mouse – what a superb example of someone Not Getting the Point! No one, I repeat, no one here is trying to make excuses for the actions of the rioters nor is anyone forgetting about the victims here, some of whom, as you say, have been rendered homeless by the rioting. What this article is about, and the point you seem to be completely missing, is that to prevent this happening again, we need to understand why it happened at all – and if there’s one thing which wont help us to prevent us understanding and controlling such events is knee-jerk vitriol-spitting about how horrible it all is.

    Yes, of course its horrible, of course it needs to be stopped, of course damage has to be redressed, no one’s disagreeing with you there, you’re preaching to the choir. The importance of the kind of research Dr Scott does lies in its ability to *explain* the actions of riots and *understand* what leads to them. These things don’t just happen, events have causes.

    If it was just a bunch of selfish lazy “bad people” as you would have it, then why don’t these things happen all the time? There have been ample opportunities for rioting over the past 12 months, with all the demonstrations going on – why not then, why now? If you are so convinced that the rioters are just selfish, feckless, nasty people, then I challenge you to prove it – and no their actions as a crowd do not count as proof, many actions can have many causes, and just because something seems right in your gut doesn’t make it so. This is where science comes in, to figure out what causes are involved and what ones aren’t, without relying on intuition.

    These questions need to be answered, and the process of answering them is not in any way aplogising for the actions of rioters and is certainly not in any way showing a lack of sympathy for the victims of these events, its just trying to look at them objectively and work out ways to prevent them in the future. If you don’t have the strength of character to look at these things scientifically, then maybe you shouldn’t be commenting on them.

  24. Anon2

    Anon E Mouse — To explain is not to excuse. Finding the causes of harm is necessary for manipulating them in order to reduce the likelihood of future harm. Sure, punish the wrongdoers, but don’t think that’s going to prevent this from happening again.

  25. Ellie B

    “It is highly relevant that in the context of these riots people have taken the emerging opportunity to target shops selling high-end electrical goods, clothes and jewelry.

    In this age of austerity, such items are becoming increasingly unobtainable to ever-larger sections of the working class …”

    Of course bright, shiny things are a temptation – but these items are increasingly unobtainable for people across the whole social spectrum. This is not a class issue. There are many, many people who are struggling to make ends meet. Many people are angry. Many are frightened about their future prospects. Most are not violent; most are not looters. Common sense says that the roots of the violence lie in over-crowded classrooms, where kids get inadequate schooling and little personal attention (unless they misbehave). Many will have received poor parenting. Our modern culture does not seek to give its young people a code of conduct for decent living. Our kids are exposed to violent images and a glamorisation of lawlessness and immoral behaviour every day of their young lives(via TV soaps, computer games, violent movies – and often on the streets of their own communities). Their role models, in music, sport, the media are often self-seeking too. The majority of these kids are inarticulate and likely to be stuck within their cycle of disadvantage. Self-esteem for many comes not from personal achievement but from seeing themselves on (anti-)social media sites. Testosterone filled young men have always been thrill seekers ready to take a risk. As long as we continue to perpetuate a culture where ‘anything goes’ and where immorality and violence are glamorised, and where automation and computerisation are taking the place of community, discourse and human contact – this kind of behaviour will continue. These young people need to learn skills, crafts and professions that will give them a sense of belonging to a different strata of community; that will sustain them for the future – not land them in jail. It will take commitment, dialogue and a lot of hard work. I am not condoning what has happened – but these kids need help to recognise that they are individuals, not victims (of society). If they are so easily led, then so help us all in the future.

  26. Ed's Talking Balls

    ‘In this age of austerity, such items are becoming increasingly unobtainable to ever-larger sections of the working class and it should not be surprising that some are using the riots as an opportunity to obtain them.’

    The working classes may well struggle to buy some of these luxury items. That is the nature of our society: some people can afford things others can’t. The solution isn’t to take the immature and utterly outrageous attitude that, somehow, you are entitled to something simply because others have it and that you will stop at nothing to get your greedy mitts on said item.

    You want a plasma TV? Work for it and save up. That’s what the rest of us do.

    And no matter how hard most of us work, we’ll never be able to afford a house like Bill Gates. Does that mean we have a right to rob him? No. The middle classes can’t afford yachts and Caribbean islands and I’m sure many of us desire such things. This is the real world, not some fairytale (a point made excruciatingly clear due to the actions of selfish individuals who make others’ lives harder than they already were).

    Grow up. Life’s unfair. Those of us who were brought up rather than dragged up had that harsh but important lesson instilled in us from a very young age.

  27. Leon Wolfson

    I do, of course. But the duty of government is not to only look to the short term. Unless they take appropriate action – which does NOT mean punishing the poor – and in short order, this will happen again.

    It’s no theory, sadly, but backed by evidence from dozens of countries civil unrest. You’ll just blame the poor and call for more crackdowns every time though, a typically monomaniac response, devoid of leadership.

    Oh, and the Tories called for less bank regulation. So you have no grounds to stand on, as usual.

  28. Khephra Maley

    A crowd psychology analysis of the riots – http://j.mp/pSNKWt [ #uk #news #sociology #anthropos ]

  29. vaL Aguirre

    Una pequeña nota de la psicología de masas respecto a las protestas en Londres: http://t.co/osTBeu6

  30. Anon E Mouse

    Ed’s Talking Balls – The problem is the Labour Party was only elected by Middle England whilst Tony Blair was leader and because they have lost Scotland to the SNP they are now desperate for votes.

    Realising that the working classes would sooner vote for a monkey than the current Labour MP’s they are stuck and so have to start trawling for supporters amongst the real underclass.

    Labour will always have zombies like Leon Wolfson – literate but not clever but they won’t win elections for them – there just isn’t enough of his type available so off they go looking for votes.

    This rioting has occurred because Labour has pandered to the underclass and tries to convince them that they have rights to things and that they are victims. Social Workers now have “Service Users” and we now have a “Police Service” and not a “Force”. It is small wonder with the message Labour has sent out for the last decade that these feral criminals behave like this.

    If people are poor then they cannot afford things that people who are not poor have. In the old days when Labour represented the Working Classes they would have encouraged people to get jobs, night school whatever, to better themselves but now they just bribe them to stay workless.

    And to do the jobs these people should be doing they import foreigners which is straight forwardly racist to me. To have a foreigner cleaning the streets or flipping burgers to pay taxes to allow Brits to sit on their arses doing nothing and getting bored is madness.

    Labour needs to reboot the party ASAP. It needs a complete rethink but under the current leadership there is no way it will happen.

    Labour needs more Frank Fields and Charles Clarkes and less lying supporters like matthew fox and Leon Wolfson – those excuse merchants just put people off…

  31. Sophia Coles-Riley

    A crowd psychology analysis of the #ukriots http://t.co/lFMqJtE

  32. Ceri

    A crowd psychology analysis of the #ukriots http://t.co/lFMqJtE

  33. Tom Richardson

    The excellent Clifford Stott on crowd psychology in the #londonriots #ukriots: http://t.co/SOOTjwV

  34. rich faulding

    A crowd psychology analysis of the riots http://zite.to/qa2q4F ALL behaviour has meaning.

  35. Sophie Ballinger

    A crowd psychology analysis of the riots http://zite.to/qa2q4F ALL behaviour has meaning.

  36. Tim Duckett

    A crowd psychology analysis of the riots http://zite.to/qa2q4F ALL behaviour has meaning.

  37. Serena Snoad

    A crowd psychology analysis of the riots http://zite.to/qa2q4F ALL behaviour has meaning.

  38. Garry Ladd

    RT @leftfootfwd: A crowd psychology analysis of the riots http://t.co/5pvS9hz

  39. John Green


    There is a lot of muddled thinking in your article.

    Vicious rioting by mobs intent on creating havoc and destruction is bound to provoke vitriolic debate. I feel very vitriolic.

    Unfortunately our society is not “under attack from outsiders hell bent on ‘mindless criminality’”. This series of attacks came from the layer of scum that floats on the surface of our society. The riots were classically copycat in nature. What was witnessed in Tottenham on the first night appealed to scum in other areas who fancied some of the same action. There was nothing “irrational” in this. It was obvious to anyone with a television that the police could not cope and were standing back from intervening. While some pieces of scum were invited by Blackberry messages to participant, the majority saw their opportunity and jumped on their bikes.

    There is nothing surprising or significant in the fact that looting mobs go for merchandise with the highest value. It is ever thus. They would be stupid not to.

    One aspect of the riots that has disturbed many people is the vicious vindictiveness of those pieces of scum who, having broken into commercial properties and stolen what they lusted after, then ransacked the property and set it alight. They did this because they could and because, to them, it was fun. They wanted to get some “free stuff” as many admitted on camera. They were not “smashing up their own communities”. This scum has no community allegiance except in the context of gangland territorial feuds.

    The meaning behind these riots and the contextual issues are as follows:
    A) these rioters are the spawn, by and large, of useless parents
    B) many have refused to benefit from our educational system and have therefore rendered themselves unemployable
    C) they have no respect for any aspect of society
    D) they have a keen knowledge of their “rights” and a complete ignorance of their obligations and duties
    E) they have an obsession with, and an overwhelming sense of envy for, fame, celebrity, bling and personal possessions
    F) most have a belief in a lifestyle built around dropping out of school at an early age and claiming benefits for life, supplimented by crime and often drug-dealing

    This is how they earn the sobriquet “scum”.

    The “proactive intervention” that you are seeking is taking place at this moment. The very good news is that in excess of 1,600 pieces of scum have been arrested so far. More than half of these have appeared in court and been sentenced or referred to a county court. Some have begun prison sentences and the first evictions from social housing are taking place in Labour boroughs in Wandsworth, Liverpool and Manchester. Convicted students are being thrown out of college and hopefully some of this scum will lose their employment. We can only hope that the rest of the thick layer of scum floating on the surface of our society will take note.

    Clifford, please put a little more constructive thought into your future articles.

  40. Jim Thomerson

    In the 1960s, in the US Army National Guard, I received riot control training on two occasions in two different Divisions. Basic idea is that you go in in formation and hold formation. It is not individual against individual, but formation against individuals. The purpose is to break up the mob into smaller and smaller groups. The rioters are your friends and neighbors who are temporarily insane. Get them into small groups and they regain their sanity and go home. Perhaps this is the naivety of the ’60s but fortunately I did not have to put it into action.

  41. Ano Ny Xterminator

    @ the mouse
    It is indeed a shame all these kids are looting while they should in fact be primarily concerned with guillotineing all corporacratic right-wing basterds first and foremost.

  42. vicki whelan

    #riotsuk @leftfootfwd: A crowd psychology analysis of the riots http://t.co/2bFurOw

  43. Gustavo Von Pyedog

    RT @leftfootfwd: A crowd psychology analysis of the riots http://t.co/VhyoGOO

  44. Why did people end up torching cars… and where do we go from here? « Bike Club

    […] off all of the events of the week beginning 8 August as mindless violence. But, as Psychologist Dr. Clifford Stott writes, it is “highly relevant” to note which objects and commodities were targeted. In London, […]

  45. Molly Garboden

    #LFFMostRead2011: #10: A crowd psychology analysis of the riots: http://t.co/H7EceaUu by @CliffordStott, August 9th

  46. Edred Wilkinson

    #LFFMostRead2011: #10: A crowd psychology analysis of the riots: http://t.co/H7EceaUu by @CliffordStott, August 9th

  47. 45apl

    RT @leftfootfwd: #LFFMostRead2011: #10: A crowd psychology analysis of the riots: http://t.co/gZUUB59s by @CliffordStott, August 9th

  48. Trakgalvis

    RT @leftfootfwd: #LFFMostRead2011: #10: A crowd psychology analysis of the riots: http://t.co/pGZu1qNZ by @CliffordStott, August 9th

  49. David McMillan

    RT @leftfootfwd: #LFFMostRead2011: #10: A crowd psychology analysis of the riots: http://t.co/pGZu1qNZ by @CliffordStott, August 9th

  50. Clifford Stott

    #LFFMostRead2011: #10: A crowd psychology analysis of the riots: http://t.co/H7EceaUu by @CliffordStott, August 9th

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