The psychology behind riots and looting: The August 2011 English Riots

Published on August 24, 2011


Recent news of widespread rioting and looting in several English cities has shocked most people both in England and the rest of the world.  One widely reported video on TV was particularly disturbing and perhaps even more distressful to Asians, was that of the young Malaysian student, Ashraf Rossli, being helped up by several rioters only to be subsequently robbed by these same persons. The complete slow and methodical way these perpetrators opened his packsack and stole what they wanted revealed a complete lack of empathy for their victim.  In contrast was the endearing optimism and forgiveness of Ashraf who in a subsequent TV interview demonstrated no anger towards his abusers as well as a determination to continue his studies in England.

The question arises as to what possibly could have caused such apparently senseless violence and wanton looting in one of the most advanced countries in the world.  In listening to the House of Commons debate on Thursday, it seemed that the dominant mood was anger among the MPs who generally advocated severe punishment of the law breakers.  In face of the outrage, there were only a few MPs who rather mutely suggested that poverty and unemployment were underlying factors which needed to be addressed.  This highly political debate of course was not an appropriate place to rationally discuss possible solutions to the problem.  Instead the MPs saw the question simplistically as two mutually exclusive alternatives i.e. to punish the looters or to help these communities cope better with their economic and social problems.

I think it is here that psychological knowledge can rescue the debate from such simplistic formulations.  The purpose of this article is to describe very briefly existing psychological knowledge and how it can be used to help understand riots, how to deal with them and how to prevent them in the future.


What happens during a riot:  the rioters do not represent the majority of community members 

As mentioned above, MPs and the general public in England have concluded that there were only two ways to cope with the riots: severely punish the looters or help these communities cope better with their social problems.  However an understanding of what actually happens during a riot and looting helps avoid such over simplistic responding.  In a recent paper aptly called “Burn, Baby, Burn”, Jonathan Bean (2000) points out that looters in the United States (US) riots of the 1960s and 1970s constituted only a small minority of those living in the community and were definitely not those community members who dedicated their time to improving their communities through enlightened and peaceful means.  Surveys taken after several riots have shown clearly that most community members did not approve of the rioting and looting.  They believed the looters were acting out of pure self interest. Moreover the rioters and looters were actually making it more difficult for those who were trying to improve the lot of their community through peaceful, legal, and orderly means. 

The minority status of the rioters raises the important question of why there is this sub group of unreflecting, short-sighted, and asocial individuals.  What factors lead to these individuals developing such distorted sense of values and acting in such maladaptive ways?  The answer to this question is complex but the important point is that the solution to such riots and looting is not to just punish the subgroup. In fact this will not help even change the behaviour of this subgroup and does nothing to help those in the disadvantaged communities and prevent similar disturbances in the future.


Possible factors contributing to, or causing, the rioting and looting in 2011 in England

The recent rioting in England is of course just the latest in a long history of such riots the world over.  Psychologists and sociologists have researched the series of riots which occurred in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States (US), most recently being the 1992 Los Angeles riot.  Detroit was the city recording the most such disturbances.

I grew up in Windsor, Ontario, Canada and can remember looking across the Detroit river and seeing the night sky lit up with bright orange with fires set by rioters in the poorer ghettoes of Detroit. As usual in such riots, the buildings being burned were mainly in their own community. For a detailed account see At that time, my friends and I would wonder why people would be so distraught as to destroy their own neighbourhood. Similarly 50 years later, many Londoners cannot understand the self destructive behaviour of rioters there. However, much research of past riots and looting episodes has elucidated a number of likely causal factors for such behaviours and these are described briefly below.

Initial triggering event

Often there is a triggering event which initiated the resulting chaos. In Detroit in 1967 it was a police raid on a “blind pig” which was an illegal bar frequented by African Americans. In the 1992 L.A. riot, it was the acquittal of three white and one hispanic police officers who had been videotaped beating the black motorist Rodney King.  In the subsequent six days, thousands of people rioted and looted. And in the current 2011 English riot it was the death of Mark Duggan, father of four, who apparently was shot by police while they were investigating a gun crime.  However, none of these triggering events is sufficient to explain the magnitude and duration of the subsequent terrible events. Instead the ensuing chaos was fed and maintained by a web of pre-existing factors.

A high police official called the killing of Duggan “extremely regrettable” but went on to say "It is absolutely tragic that someone has died, but that does not give a criminal minority the right to destroy businesses" and "steal from their local community," he said.  While this is true in a legal sense it ignores the underlying long existing social conditions such as poverty, unemployment, and racial tensions.

Chronic Unemployment or Under-employment

Research has shown poverty and chronic unemployment can be causally related to a variety of serious psychological and social problems (Dance,2011; Karsten and Moser, 2009).  The recent budget cuts by the conservative government in England has lead to a variety of economic stressors such as fewer job opportunities, particularly for young people, but also for older members of the workforce.  It is reported that  community centres have been closed in the inner city areas which would particularly affect  young people and reduce their receiving of positive social support in the face of diminished job opportunities.

Diminished/maladaptive identity or self

Humans are a highly social species. This way of life evolved because being in a group increased our access to resources such as food and shelter.  In fact for a highly social species such as ourselves, belonging to a group is a basic necessity for survival.  Moreover a large part of one’s sense of personal identity comes from identifying with a group e.g. our family or the larger community.  If you happen to belong to a group which does not have access to as many resources as other groups in your vicinity, you will grow angry at the perceived unfairness.  Inner city areas tend to have pockets of poverty and high unemployment and persons in such circumstances perceive the deprivation as inequality and in turn feel diminished and disempowered - disempowered to such an extent that even burning their own communities makes them feel powerful hence the chant of the 1960s rioters “Burn Baby Burn”.

Prime Minister David Cameron has alluded to gangs as playing a causative role in the riots saying that they are “at the heart of all the violence". Moreover gangs have been implicated in  the riots of the 60s in numerous US cities and also the 92 LA riot.  But again, a bit of reflection leads one to ask why gangs play such a pivotal role in these poor inner city areas. 

From the viewpoint as mentioned above that man has for evolutionary reasons, an extremely strong need and drive to belong to a group. If one finds himself in a group he cannot identify with, he will form a group he does identify with e.g. a tough  motorcycle gangs. It is interesting to think about the lack of gangs in Asia compared to the west.  There are certainly criminal gangs in Asia but there is little evidence of gangs quite comparable to the gangs of the west.  This is an area which would be interesting to research further.

Powerlessness and social unrest

Baistow  (2000) has recently discussed the evidence for a sense of powerlessness as being a significant factor in the many riots of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States.  It seems that many in areas of poverty, poor educational opportunities and severe limitations in career possibilities would lead to a diminished sense of personal empowerment not only in the black ghettoes of the US but in the poor inner city areas of England.  It also seems logical that becoming a member of a gang not only gives you a sense being a respected member of a group but also increases your sense of personal empowerment through identification with the power of the gang as a whole.  However further research on this hypothesis is necessary.  It seems likely that having a African American as president of the US has increased the sense of personal empowerment of many but this remains to be shown empirically. 

Vastly increased communication capability and its maladaptive use

The use of cell phones and the internet among the poor including the poor of the inner cities of England may have contributed to the rapid spread of rioting and looting in the recent riots.  It is reported that people in the riot areas in England used social media such as Twitter and Blackberry to communicate with each other.  News reports say that many false reports of further killings by police were used to incite violence. Also social media were used to rapidly communicate information e.g. what store or street to meet up and start looting.  It seems likely social media is providing a new way for like minded individuals to link up, bond psychologically, and exchange practical information. Social media has the potential to promote positive as well as negative consequences and deserves extensive research with respect to the social change process.


Concluding remarks

No simple single solution  It seems that that British government is advocating severe punishment of looters and gang members as a way to placate public anger over the riots.  A former New York and Los Angeles police chief, Bill Bratton, has been invited to advise the British government on tackling the problems of street gangs. However even  Bratton’s approach is not just punitive in nature but also involves having the police co-operate with local social agencies of all kinds which would be helpful.  On the basis of research on the causes of previous riots in the US, what is required is an even more holistic approach addressing the several underlying factors described above. 

The purpose of this article was to discuss very briefly existing psychological knowledge and expertise about riots.  However it is very important to understand that the issues are very complex, many questions remain, and there is an urgent need for more research on the causes and prevention of riots and looting.



Baistow, K. (2000). Problems of powerlessness: psychological explanations of social inequality and civil unrest in post-was America. History of the Human Sciences. 13(2), 95-116.

Bean, J.J. (2000). Burn, Baby, Burn": Small Business in the Urban Riots of the 1960s.The Independent Review. 5(2), 165-187.

Dance, A. (2011). The unemployment crisis. Monitor on Psychology. March, 28-31.

Karsten, J.P., & Moser, K.  (2009). Unemployment impairs mental health: Meta-analyses. Journal of Vocational Behavior. 74, 264-282.

Lachman S. J. (1996). Psychological perspective for a theory of behavior during riots.Psychological Reports. 79(3 Pt 1), 739-44.

Ruback R.B. & Singh, P. (2008). Inequality in Hindu-Muslim Riots:  A test of two Biases.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 38 (4), 982-998.

Quarantelli, E.I., & Dynes, R. (1970). Property Norms and Lootings: Their Patterns in Community Crises.  Phylon. 31(2), 168-182.

Category(s):Aggression & Violence

Written by:

Brian Scott

Dr. Scott is a clinical psychologist based in Singapore with three decades of counseling and psychotherapy experience in helping adults with many kinds of psychological difficulties. These include anxiety, depression, addictions (cybersex, love), and Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Adult ADHD).

Brian Scott belongs to Scott Psychological Centre in Singapore

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