The Psychology of Looting

September 1, 2005, 3:23 PM

Sept. 2, 2005 — -- Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures, and there have been few places in America more desperate -- or increasingly lawless -- than New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation.

The images of Katrina's wrath have varied in the days since the hurricane ripped through the Gulf Coast and ravaged The Big Easy. People have been seen standing on the rooftops of their submerged homes, holding signs that say, "Help Us"; authorities have reported seeing bodies floating in the water and corpses rotting in the streets amid concerns of an outbreak of disease; displaced, dehydrated Katrina survivors have been transferred from evacuation shelters in Louisiana's Superdome to a temporary new home in Houston's Astrodome.

And there has been looting and lawlessness, from residents taking food, diapers and other necessities from abandoned grocery stores to people lugging TV sets and beer in areas not submerged in dirty floodwater. New Orleans appeared to descend into anarchy, with reports of rapes in the Superdome and local law enforcement officials not showing up to combat arson, gunfire and carjackings in the streets.

The promise of the dispersion of 10,000 additional National Guard troops to maintain order did little to soothe increasingly angry Katrina victims who have endured the lack of running water, sweltering conditions and stench in the Superdome or otherwise suffered as they waited for authorities to come to their rescue. In these kinds of desperate, and apparently lawless, conditions, experts say people will throw away their normal sense of ethics and do anything to survive.

"When you have a situation as extreme as Katrina, people have lost their sense of security, control, protection and shelter," said David Sattler, associate professor of psychology at Western Washington University. "They fall into basic rules of survival mode. Some feel that they're going to do what they need to do to survive. They're going to do what they need to do to get the basic necessities."

In an exclusive interview with "Good Morning America's" Diane Sawyer, President Bush said there should be a no-tolerance approach to looters.

"I think there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this, whether it be looting or price gouging at the gasoline pump, or taking advantage of charitable giving or insurance fraud," Bush said. "And I've made that clear to our attorney general. The citizens ought to be working together."

But some believe that desperate survivors who ran out of basic necessities, or took food for their families and hungry children and could no longer wait for rescuers to come should not be blamed in a disaster as extreme as Katrina.

"This is a life-and-death situation. From the perspective of the looter, 'Who knows what tomorrow will bring?' " said Joseph Napoli, co-author of "Resiliency in the Face of Disaster and Terrorism: 10 Things to Do to Survive." "The late-night comedians have joked about those who were carrying TVs. On my television screen I saw people taking the basic necessities -- food and supplies. And can we really fault them for that?"

Television viewers may be more sympathetic to people seen stealing food, diapers and other necessities. But they may not be as forgiving to the looter who took a television in the aftermath of Katrina. Some of the Katrina victims may have a stronger sense of morals than others, experts say.

Other Katrina victims may have followed a mob mentality and concluded that they could participate in looting activities since others were doing it.

"Under such intense situations, under crowd pressure, if so many others are doing it, then others are going to do it," Napoli said. "Introductory free offers are a very successful sales strategy. But in situations like these, people can go too far in satisfying their intense needs."

But the explanation may also go beyond morality and mob mentality.

Some looters may have been driven to the edge by literally seeing their world turned upside down and all remnants of their homes and neighborhoods wiped out by Katrina. Others may have latent character traits that Katrina's aftermath ignited and may participate in looting only under these circumstances.

Socioeconomic status before Katrina made landfall also may have planted the roots of looting and lawlessness in some hurricane survivors.

"You may have someone who is of lower income, has minimum resources, minimal possessions and living day to day and -- this is very important -- has no insurance. No rental insurance, no housing insurance," said Sattler. "They have no means of recovering what little they had and probably, if someone in the household does have a job, they may not have a job to return to when they are let back into their communities, and they don't know when they will have a source of income again. They may see this unguarded TV and think, 'I can take this and maybe I can sell this in a week and make a little bit of money.""

Many people have been shocked by the images of looting and violence. According to Sattler, those viewers are just not accustomed to being without the barest of essentials, like running water, and are not used to seeing Americans in that kind of situation. However, the aftermath of Katrina only reflects the spectrum of daily human emotions and actions, but under extreme circumstances.

"Why are we shocked? We are seeing an intense array of usual human behavior," said Napoli. "Some people are going to take things, some people are going to be honest and some are going to be dishonest. What's shocking others is the intensity in which we're seeing it."

"But," Napoli continued. "This is not an ordinary situation. Any disaster causes chaos and disorder. That's why we work so hard to maintain an orderly society."

Still, the havoc and grief sparked by Hurricane Katrina has inspired acts of generosity. Americans have donated millions to various charities and residents across the nation have reportedly offered to open their homes to some Katrina evacuees.

"It is in times like these when we see how much we need each other," said Sattler. "I don't think this is being done out of fear that this could happen to me and I would hope someone would help me out. I think it speaks genuinely highly of humanity. Really, this isn't a story of the looters. Only a small percentage of people are looting. It is about the heroes and those who help others in need."

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