Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The #londonriots have made it socially acceptable to riot now. At least every once in a while.

Rioting isn't a rational decision. It's an identity decision based on what you believe people like you would do. People in England have changed their beliefs about  rioting. Seeing people similar to themselves doing it caused the rioting to spread in the way it did.


The upshot: It’s now OK to riot. At least every once in a while.


How to believe it's OK to riot

I like to think that I make rational decisions, where I weigh up the pros and cons of doing something before I take action.

But there’s another theory that explains how I decide whether to do something: that before I take action I consult an ideal self-image and ask myself:


What would someone like me do in this situation?



No reasons, no accounting for what’s in my best interests, no concern for consequences.

Just: Is this something a person like me would do?

And despite the fact that I like to think I make rational decisions, I’ve seen evidence that I often make ‘identity decisions’. Some recent examples:
  • Lots of my friends were linking to Penny Red's article about the riots, ‘Panic on the streets of London’, so I decided to read it – and now I’m linking to it too.
  • People on a politics blog I lurk on became actively commenting about how ignoring a regular commentator’s posts was improving their reading experience, so I began ignoring him too (and found my reading experience marginally improved, but felt guilty I was succumbing to some sort of peer pressure / ostracism)

Identity decisions can explain a lot about the way the riots in England spread they way they did. To over-simplify, the thought process of a potential rioter would go: I’m watching people like me riot. … People like me riot.

It's okay for people like me to riot.


How to spread the belief that it's OK to riot

The second contributing factor to the spread of the riots is here: Scientists discover tipping point for the spread of ideas 
Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always (and rapidly) be adopted by the majority of the society.  
As an example, the ongoing events in Tunisia and Egypt appear to exhibit a similar process, according to Szymanski. “In those countries, dictators who were in power for decades were suddenly overthrown in just a few weeks.”  
“As agents of change start to convince more and more people, the situation begins to change,” Sreenivasan said. “People begin to question their own views at first and then completely adopt the new view to spread it even further….”
If you’re making an identity decision, you’re more likely to do something if you think people like you would do it:

People like me riot. People who are young, frustrated, or bored … we riot.

That’s a fairly precise population to spread a belief through. And it helped that this belief was being transmitted 24 hours a day on TV, radio, and every form of social media available.

You can see a demonstration of these two things combining here:

To use some of my ten-dollar words, the boundary of what is permissible has been expanded.

But really: It’s now OK to riot. At least every once in a while.


At the moment, this may be a temporary belief. If it becomes entrenched, though, the default way that people respond to situations of frustration, boredom, or to having persistent, intractable social problems that have been created over decades being ignored by authorities may change fundamentally. The key quote from Penny Red:

In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything:
"Yes," said the young man. "You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you?" 
"Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you." 
Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere ‘’’ 
There are communities all over the country that nobody paid attention to unless there had recently been a riot or a murdered child. Well, they’re paying attention now.




A final aside

It’s important to point out that I’m not commenting on the underlying reasons for why the riots happened – just why they spread. To take one final quote from Penny Red’s post:

Most of the people who will be writing, speaking and pontificating about the disorder this weekend have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up in a community where there are no jobs, no space to live or move, and the police are on the streets stopping-and-searching you as you come home from school.

I'm who Penny Red is talking about. I haven't watched much footage or read much commentary about the reasons for the riots. I don't live in England and I have a privileged upbringing. From my point of view, it seems there are AT LEAST seven conflicting or collaborating explanations circulating about why people wanted to riot:

  • A reaction to police mishandling of a shooting
  • Disrespect for authority after corruption scandals affecting politicians, the police and the media
  • Resentment from austerity imposed on the poor while the rich get away with benefiting from crashing the global financial system
  • Decades of joblessness and destruction of community
  • A permissive society
  • People have always rioted
  • Rioting gains attention where peaceful demonstrations have failed
  • Opportunists taking advantage to loot or cause chaos
This post is not commenting on that.
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