The Psychology of Rioting and Looting

Understanding Rioting Behavior and Looting.

Of recent there has been a lot of discussion about protests, and the riots and looting that came with some of the protests. Of course with this question in the United States is the question of legality of the riots and looting and the moral issues that they bring about. Which to me is interesting, because most of the studies on rioting behavior comes from the rioting and looting (which costs cities millions of dollars a year) after pro-sports games, and the local team loses. Yet these do not make the local or national news very much, and the moral and legal question behind them is never questioned. However, when rioting and looting occurs in the United States within the context of a social justice and equality context, the legality and morality of the issue is always raised. The other issue we should bring up before discussing the psychology of rioting and looting is the issue of opportunistic looting and antagonized rioting. Within any given chaotic system of event there will always be a small group of individuals who will try and take advantage of that chaos. For some that means taking the opportunity to use the looting to steal and take advantage of others for personal gain. For others, especially in the United States, there will be a few that will want to stoke the flames of anger, to “prove” the violent and uncontrollable tendency of the other side. Then creating a “savior” approach by having the system come in using even more violent techniques to subdue these out of control people, while maintaining this idea that they themselves are a peaceful and moral individuals. The problem is, these individuals are only a small percentage. While they can have a large impact on the outcomes of protests, riots, and looting – focusing on them will not solve the key issue that brings about the behaviors of rioting and looting in the first place. Mainly because the key factor for these groups to be effective is chaos, and if we can eliminate chaos we can reduce the effects of these small forces. 

So what is the Psychology of Rioting and Looting?

There are a lot of opinions of what causes rioting and looting. Some are based on the morality of the group, some on the emotional control of the situation, others – and I think rightfully so – focus on the responsibility of the individuals and groups that caused the pain the ignited the protests in the first place. Yet as I introduced in the beginning of this paper, rioting and looting behavior is not limited to social injustice or moral breaches, indeed, it occurs in recreational contexts such as sports. So to understand the psychology of rioting and looting behavior we have to do two things (1) we have to understand the behavior as occurring within the context of the situation, and (2) we have to look at the behavior from an emotionally neutral perspective. I state this because protesting for social justice and equality is far more important and emotionally charged then losing to the opposing team, but both situations can lead to looting and rioting. 

To understand the psychology of looting and rioting we need to start with the concept of identity. When we think of identity we think of all of our qualities, who we are, our beliefs, what we do, the roles we play in life, our personality. I am using the term identity very broadly, this has also been termed a person’s self concept, and in popular literature it often simply referred to as one’s personality. I like using the term identity, because an identity clearly defines one’s self, and whether we know of this self or not we all have a defined self within any given situation. Many parts of our identity is based upon some type of group membership. 

For many of these group memberships we find several psychological and physical similarities between our self as an individual and others in that group, that our identity as a member of that group and our self-identity become indistinguishable. We find this for many people of the same racial and ethnic group for this to be true, or for individuals who come from not only the same racial and/or ethnic group but also have a shared and collective social history. There are also individuals who have a weak sense of individual self-identity, who because of this find a group that they develop an identity through. we often find this with sport “super-fans”, far-right and far-left extremists, individuals who cannot see perspectives  outside their own group such as those who hold extreme religious or political views based on an established religious group belief or political party affiliation (not to be confused with belief systems based on self-study and self exploration not based on group affiliation). So why am I focusing on these two types of identities, and what do they have to do with rioting?

Remember what I said about these forms of identities, they become indistinguishable between the identity of the group and the identity of the individual. Now here a personal reflection activity, what happens when a person is personally insulted? When you are called stupid, dumb, or you constantly making a mistake? You are a loser? You are a waste? If you are like many individuals at first you defensive and maybe you behaviorally for a time you ignore or avoid the insults. You are strong right? You know better. But inside it tearing you up, you feel sad, you find your not being productive, at doctors office you mention how you are feeling and the doctor recommends maybe taking a drug. Your partner recommends changing jobs, if this is happening at work, if it happening in your personal life, you consider leaving the relationship. Now I want you to imaging none of these options are available to you, there are no psychological defenses, no doctors, and no escape. What would you do in this case? Well if you are human or a mammal species for that matter you will start doing self-destructive behaviors, such as self-harming behaviors both physically and psychologically, you most likely stop taking care of your health needs, you will start having self-hatred. Some of that self-hatred may turn externalized, this is often the case in relationship violence. In other words, you first do a form of self-protest “I am not what they say I am and I can change”, when that change does not happen, because you do not have access to the ability to make those changes that then turns into a form of self-looting and self-rioting. Not only do you start seeing the “I” you start referring to yourself in the second person “you” – “you are such an ugly worthless person”. 

Now let us take this to the group level to our two very different groups. The first group is individuals who have a shared racial and collective social history and the second who have a weak self-identity so they have gained a sense of identity through absorbing the identity of a group. The first group reflects the current protests in the United States. We have a group who have been treated very badly in the United States, they have done their fair share to build this country and have a shared identity to be very proud of, yet the identity they are “told” they have – through society’s actions – is one that is extremely negative and demeaning. 

The second group reflects what happens when a local sports team loses to a rival team. Both reflect the  same form of self-destructive behavior we talked about in the previous section but because the insult is happening on the social level the self-destruction is occurring on the social level. This is what research has found time and time again when it comes to the psychology of rioting and looting behavior. It is a form of self-destruction, of screaming for relief of the pain. They are often not looking for a savior, they simply looking for the psychological relief that they are worth something, more than what society or the world treats them. In the case of the super-sport’s fan which is a less serious form of what we are talking about, we need to recognize that their world is disconnected from having any true emotional connection with anything real accept for an artificial identity with an artificial reality. 

In the more serious case, the one that has been created by the ugliness of our culture and society in the United States, we have to face that. Everyone one of us, has a role to play in the behaviors that has resulted in the looting and rioting that is going on in the United State. Much of this comes from not understanding another group’s lived experience, and often times another group’s limited experience with another group. Two psychological and cognitive mechanisms inhibit us from understanding each other. 

The first is the ultimate attribution error and the second if the self-confirmation bias. I start with the ultimate attribution error, which is the fallacy to assume that the majority of other people have the same thoughts, beliefs, and perspectives that I (you) do as an individual, and those few that do not must have something wrong with them. They, those others, must be stupid, uninformed, or must be “brain washed” by some other person. This fallacy, sets us up to believe that my identity and the people I identify with are always right and knowledgeable. And leads some members of a group -especially those who lack autonomy from their group identity – not to see certain privileges or fallibilities of that group. 

The second thinking error is the self-confirmation bias. This occurs when a person thinks their ideas, knowledge, and beliefs are so correct that they ignore, deflect, and sometime unconsciously do not even see counter information and experiences that challenge their ideas, knowledge, and beliefs. Yet information that confirms their ideas, knowledge, and beliefs are often amplified and many time exaggerated to reinforce their world view. How in a country with so many different views and with a cultural history based on a division based on racial and skin color can we overcome these two psychological processes? 

Overcoming these issues, has to come from what is known as a superordinate psychological/social process. Superordinate means something that supersedes the needs of a group and requires groups to work together towards a common goal or meaning. An example of this is for a few years after 9/11 we saw the lowest rates of hate crime and discrimination, for the past 30 years in the United States. Why? because the United States had a superordinate goal: rebuild the country and find out who hurt us. Division between us slowed and we came together for a common purpose. It was not until 9/11 once again was made about race, “middle eastern Muslims” that  racism and group based hate crimes once again started to rise again in the United States. Indeed once it was made racial, prejudice in United States against any minority group, had a huge rebound effect. Finding this superordinate goal and purpose requires us to overcome our own self-serving biases and knowing we all think differently, but we all have the right to life liberty and pursuit of happiness that is not defined by a particular group or a particular power. 


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