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Dr Malcolm Cross Headshot

Psychology can Help Explain, but not Justify, the London Riots

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As human beings we have no choice to but make sense of the events around us. What has been occupying a lot of our hearts and minds has been the recent outbreak of destruction, violence and disorder that has filled our streets over the preceding four days in London.

At first we looked to the immediate past - the death of a young man. We want for our own reassurance, an acceptable cause, we want to know if there is someone to blame, because quite rightly we are not comfortable with death on our streets. Was this an individual tragedy arising from a deep seated social problem or the consequence of the proper exercise of policing powers that might have had other outcomes under other circumstances?

What has ensued however has left more questions than answers. The nominal 'cause' for civil disorder has unambiguously ambushed and overtaken events that most recognise as so chaotic, destructive and self serving that it is difficult to relate the two: the events of the death of Mark Duggan on Thursday 4th August and the risk to human life, theft and destruction of public and private property up until today.

Psychologically there are at least two possible approaches to understanding these events: Those of social psychology which takes account of group behavior - the failure to act until someone else takes the lead or the propensity to the follow the crowd.

Individually, however, there are other mechanisms at work. We would not rob our friend's store; we would not throw rocks at strangers or set fire to a shop where our grandmother lived above. So why no concern for shopkeepers, grandmothers or strangers? The answer is that in the overwhelming energy of the moment, with a fictional sense of connection and belonging, we as a mass forget who we are. That is, we forget that it is us, the individual who will have to take responsibility for our actions.

We forget that we are not alone; and paradoxically, aloneness is what we are primarily struggling against. We have mothers, fathers and shopkeepers whom we rely upon and take joy out of sharing a welcome 'good morning' or being pleased that they remember our regular purchase or our names. In turn those people: mothers, fathers and shopkeepers have connections that are at risk under the present set of circumstances.

Psychology can explain why, but its function is not to excuse. Group actions have individual consequences. We should stop talking about how the police will deal with tonight as if further dangerous and destructive events will unfold as an inevitability. We should look forward to the intervention of individual mothers, fathers, grandparents asking: 'where is my loved one' whom I want to protect from this distressing and dangerous mess, regardless of which side of the barricade they are on.