Mob Violence: Psychological Myths, Facts, Solutions

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Why is shame such an effective deterrent?

Rioters and looters make such choices only because the group affords them anonymity, and the scope of destruction makes their actions banal. Most people who loot and riot would never do so unless they were one of an anonymous crowd. Their mayhem remains in fantasy. They act in a group because they know they won't be exposed.

Rioters and looters have no respect for society or other faceless victims. But they are selfish enough to be sensitive to shaming themselves or their loved ones.

Parents have to assume greater responsibility in controlling their children. All too often, parents tacitly approve when junior brings home a TV set that "someone gave to me." When families and communities are identified, pressure builds within the community to control its own renegade elements to avoid bringing unwanted attention and shame.

Even gangs who are embarrassed by the actions of one particular outlaw will double down on elements that bring unwanted attention to criminal enterprises that prefer to operate away from scrutiny.

When it comes to mob control, the answers must begin within the self, the family, the community in addition to the police. The media and public institutions can inspire such vital self-restraint by how they establish societal red lines, including that which makes preying upon one's neighbor unacceptable.

Racist speech has been eliminated through public shaming; the level of scorn and repudiation directed toward ignorant epithets ruins careers and isolates people at all socioeconomic strata. It's time to learn from this example to contain another such scourge, mob violence and looting, before it continues to be emulated by opportunists elsewhere.

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner is chairman of The Forensic Panel and an associate professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine. He has been the principal forensic psychiatrist in some of the most complex cases of recent years, including Andrea Yates' child-killing, Elizabeth Smart's kidnapper, wrestler David Benoit's psychological autopsy and the testamentary fitness of Hong Kong billionaire Nina Wang. Welner is also coordinating landmark research of an evidence-driven Depravity Standard measure to assess the worst of crimes, which invites direct participation of the general public.

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