Are the London Riots a Result of Groupthink?

The recent riots in London are the worst the city has seen in years. However, the psychology that lies at the root of the mob mentality is apparent every day, everywhere. What spurs thousands of young people to damage and destroy inanimate objects? What prompts groups of people who have never met to commit criminal acts in seemingly orchestrated unison? What emotions are elicited that cause individuals who are conscientious when alone, to become unconscionable when united?

People succumb to peer-pressure in nearly every aspect of their lives. Children give in to the negative influences of friends. Adults overspend in order to keep up with the Jones’s. And oppressed youth rally together to release the frustration and anger they feel toward authority. Social media has made it incredibly easy for bands of people with a common grudge to join together and become formidable forces. And yet, most of these people, when alone, would never consider acting out in such ways.

Irving Janis termed this type of behavior as Groupthink. The individual thoughts of one person are overcome by the more powerful, more persuasive, thoughts of the group, while rationalization and experimentation are cast aside. Is this what happens in a riot situation? Is this why most of Los Angeles was under siege during the Rodney King riots? Is groupthink responsible for the recent rash of burglaries committed by flash mobs in the United States? Did our entire country develop a surge of patriotism as a result of groupthink following 9/11? Good or bad, the persuasive power of group cognition often suffocates individual intellect.

But you have to wonder; don’t these young Brits know what they are doing? Don’t they have even a little inkling of the financial, emotional and physical damage they are causing? They must realize, now that another life has been lost amidst the chaos, the senselessness of their actions. They must know that even though they might feel a little better after smashing in a window or throwing a few bricks, that someone will feel worse. And yet, they seem helpless to stop themselves.

If I was in the midst of a mob like that, I don’t know what I would do. Would I rush to help a shop owner try to secure their goods? Or out of fear for my own well-being, would I grab a few items off the shelves and disappear into the safety of the unruly crowd? Would I, like the children in Lord of the Flies, begin to shout, “Kill the pig, cut her throat, spill her blood?” I would like to think, as I sit here in my safe home, far from the crime that is unfolding all around me in the world that I would be strong enough to resist the pressure to conform. I would like to think that even if my own safety was in question, or the safety of my children, that I would have the resolve and conviction to do what is right. I would like to think that even if I experience a momentary lapse in judgment that my deeper self, my true character, would prevail and I would do what is right, no matter what the cost.

But I am not in London. I am not in a cult, at the mental mercy of someone else. I am not facing starvation on a desert island. So I guess I’ll never know. Until, that is, I am faced with that situation. And when and if that happens, I hope I have the support of grounded, guided people around me just in case I temporarily lose sight of my own morality.

© Copyright 2011 by Jen Wilson. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Kel

    Kel

    August 18th, 2011 at 12:24 PM

    I don’t understand this getting swept up in a mob mentality and acting out just because it feels safe to do so in a group setting! Wrong is wrong, no matter how much you get swept up in the emotions and actions of others. You are old enough and aware enough to know right from wrong. It is one thing to get swept up in a ground swell of emotion for something that contributes to the greater good, but if you allow it to overcome you and your thoughts and cause you to act in a manner that is against the law, then that is way foo base of how we are supposed to live our lives.

  • jake

    jake

    August 18th, 2011 at 7:11 PM

    “most of these people, when alone, would never consider acting out in such ways.”

    Spot on. It is the feeling of getting away scot-free even after going against authority that makes this happen. You know what would stop these rioters? If the cops had been armed with cameras, loads of them, rather than barricades or anything else, that would really discourage the rioters. If they know they’re gonna be taken pictures and videos of and be hunted down later, not even a fraction of them would continue!

  • Sam

    Sam

    August 19th, 2011 at 4:18 AM

    I really do wish that more people would choose to think for themselves rather than always following the pack. Individuality is a great thing you know.

  • naomi

    naomi

    August 19th, 2011 at 12:10 PM

    ever been out with your friends,done something stupid or risky and then thought to yourself whether you would have done the same if you were all by yourself?!that is exactly what happens in a crowd or mob.it’s the thrill plus rebellious instinct plus any hatred towards authority that makes such crowds go crazy.

  • Dian

    Dian

    August 19th, 2011 at 10:39 PM

    Stuff like this scares me to death. Who is to say that what has happened in London could not start to crop up all over the place. Let us all just pray that this was a one time thing and not something that is going to catch on and spread across the globe. We have enough heartaches here already.

  • S.L.K

    S.L.K

    August 20th, 2011 at 9:58 AM

    Its usually people who have this rage stuffed inside them that do acts like these. i mean, put a perfectly normal person in a situation wherein he can loot a store. 90% chances are that he will not do it, because he has no rage or anger against the government filled in him, he has no major issues in life and would not want to get caught up in the law.

    The people who would go ahead and loot the store are the ones that do not mind taking the risk with getting into trouble with the law.

  • Vanessa Ringwall

    Vanessa Ringwall

    August 20th, 2011 at 10:34 PM

    No, can’t agree. It’s caused by opportunists assuming they can get away with looting local stores and that’s as deep as it gets. They are all young adults and they can think for themselves. They chose to do it, same as you and I choose every day not to.

    I guarantee you we’ll discover as the cases begin to be processed by the British courts that many involved already had criminal records for petty crimes like theft and burglary, and were well known to the local police.

  • Mel Collins

    Mel Collins

    August 20th, 2011 at 11:08 PM

    I saw on BBC News that London’s Metropolitan Police are investigating almost 3300 cases related to the riots. They’ll catch them all and deal with them harshly. They cannot afford not to.

    See, there’s another agenda here. The last thing London needs is bad publicity with them being the 2012 Olympics host. They will want to show the world’s tourism industry and Olympic Committee that it is safe to come there and spend all your money. Being an Olympics host is an enormous boost to your local and national economy. London must be worrying now if this will affect that decision.

    They won the bid way back in 2005. You think they will let some punks ruin that? It’s not going to happen.

  • N.Lucas

    N.Lucas

    August 20th, 2011 at 11:58 PM

    “I would like to think that even if my own safety was in question, or the safety of my children, that I would have the resolve and conviction to do what is right.”

    So let me see if I understand what you said Jen: you would put what you think is doing what’s right above the safety of your own children? What a frightening thought.

    I would protect mine at ALL costs, even if it meant doing something opposite to my core belief system. They are your children! Why would you say you “would like to think” that you’d do that? I’m horrified you said that, quite frankly.

    So it would be okay for you not to steal because you think stealing’s wrong-even if you were told that if you didn’t your children would be harmed? Wow.

    No Mother of the Year Award winging its way soon to you LOL.

  • Up, Down and All Around... with Jen :-)

    Up, Down and All Around... with Jen :-)

    August 21st, 2011 at 10:25 AM

    @ NLucas – maybe I phrased that incorrectly. I know that I would do anything, and everything, to protect my children. If their lives were threatened, I would break laws, without hesitation. But if I were thrust into a mob situation and was forced to do unspeakable things just so that I myself would not have to face opposition or physical harm, I don’t know what I would do. I do believe everyone has free will. But I think there is a definite psychological shift that takes place when people are under siege. But make no mistake, I would protect my children, no matter what the cost. However, I do agree with you on one point, regardless of how much I would sacrifice for my kids, I have never won, and never expect to win, the Mother of the Year Award, mostly because of my hatred of cooking. :)

  • Keith Heyworth

    Keith Heyworth

    August 21st, 2011 at 4:36 PM

    They knew just fine what they were doing was wrong and made the decision, every one of them, to join in. (The only innocents in this are the store owners). Maybe it was easy or maybe it was hard to make that decision. What we do know is that it was inexcusable. Just because you are poor doesn’t mean you can behave like an animal. It was fueled by greed, not any sense of social outrage.

    They all need to be locked up, kicked out of their council homes, stripped of their benefits, and their wages arrested to pay back for the damages They are vandals and criminals, and are lucky they are not in the US because I’m sure there would have been police shooting rioters that wouldn’t back down when they attempted to regain control.

  • Dan Watson

    Dan Watson

    August 21st, 2011 at 5:45 PM

    When you’re already living a crappy and bored life, you don’t need much of a reason to get involved. This was a crowd of thugs who jumped on the bandwagon and the situation got bigger and bigger too fast for the police to contain quickly. I bet half of them have no clue what it was supposed to be over. They wanted to be able to brag to their buddies they were there.

    They will have plenty of time in jail to do that. These Neanderthals are in for a rude awakening. Nearly every street in London has CCTV cameras on them recording round the clock and are linked directly to the police stations. With their facial recognition technology capabilities, there’s no escape.

  • charles Merrill

    charles Merrill

    August 21st, 2011 at 7:27 PM

    The way the riots were getting so out of hand, I’m honestly surprised that they didn’t call the British Army in and shoot anyone who didn’t get down on the ground and comply with orders to cease. That’s how many other countries would handle this kind of thing.

    What was this even over anyway?

  • Kristin Logan

    Kristin Logan

    August 22nd, 2011 at 6:00 PM

    They didn’t come out with guns blazing because the United Kingdom is not a dictatorship in the habit of killing their own citizens! Good grief. Yes, the Army would have been a good deterrent by their sheer numbers alone. Nothing like seeing a tank or transport truck rolling down the road manned by armed soldiers in full combat gear to make you think twice about your actions I imagine.

    But, it’s insane to think that Parliament would have authorized a shoot-to-kill policy to contain the rioting. The majority of British police outside of the more specialized teams carry nothing more than batons, tasers and pepper spray. Guns are not standard issue anyway.

  • Lori Pasternak

    Lori Pasternak

    August 22nd, 2011 at 8:09 PM

    @charles Merrill-It happened because the police killed a guy in the street who pulled a loaded gun on them, something that happens every single day in America and practically every single time here, the perp is shot and killed and nobody bats an eyelid. Even if he hadn’t drawn it he still had an illegal gun on him. He was also a drug dealer.

    In the UK, a gun is a big deal because of gun control laws. You can’t just buy a gun in a local store like you can in the States. His family had started a peaceful protest which somehow morphed into this mess because it was hijacked by youths who wanted to loot and steal.

  • TiM VanderS

    TiM VanderS

    September 20th, 2011 at 5:25 PM

    Okay I am not going to hide anything, to be honest if I was amongst a mob I would probably (dare I say it) join in. “What” you say, “What is wrong with you!” well I don’t think anything is wrong with me, honestly I think many people would do the same thing. Just take a second to thing about this one, your in a crowd of people they all have the same motive, they are determined and best of all THEY ARE IN CONTROL. With little effort you to can run wild and be free to do what you wish, brake rules, break laws anything you want is allowed. No honestly would you have the will power to say “no” this isn’t right? Some of you yes, but most of you? Absolutely not, if this ever happens to you you’ll see what I mean.

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