Mob Violence: Psychological Myths, Facts, Solutions

The psychology of mob violence, looting, why it spreads and how to prevent it.

August 10, 2011, 6:42 PM

Aug. 11, 2011— -- ABC News consultant Dr. Michael Welner, one of America's top forensic psychiatrists, looks at the psychology and myths of mob violence/looting, why it spreads and how to prevent it.

How does mob violence happen, and how does it spread?

Mob violence, including looting, typically ignites with little planning. Many who join are young people attracted to excitement and the lure of defying authority. Typically, a small percentage of hardened criminal characters are found in mobs; they do have an important role in instigating the unbridled lawlessness and setting the vicious tone of its chaos. Alcohol is an important lubricant to fire-setting and other destructiveness for the sake of destroying.

People do not loot alone; mob violence and mayhem in groups diminish a sense in actors that they are accountable for robbery. Each looks around and sees the person next to him throwing a brick or Molotov cocktail, stealing and with no resistance from authority. And the atmosphere and mentality spread among those who are stimulation and thrill seeking, like flames.

Looting and violence typically perpetuate and even are copied elsewhere when the media and public authority explain away the behavior as "anger" and "disenchantment" by "disaffected youth." Such messages carry with them an entitlement that legitimizes lawlessness. A famous example of this was New York Mayor David Dinkins' response to Crown Heights rioters in Brooklyn in 1991. As marauders terrorized a neighborhood, Dinkins restrained police response with the explanation that rioters "needed to vent."

France's 2005 riots brought responses from academics and pundits of how this devolved behavior reflected poor opportunity for unintegrated youth. These sympathetic portrayals of criminal activity engender free-for-alls and loosen controls of others who might otherwise deliberate whether to break the law and join the mayhem. When institutions fail to repudiate pillaging, it lasts longer and gains momentum from others who are generally selfish but who would not otherwise engage in criminality. The opportunities of enabled chaos sweep people beyond their inhibitions to turn businesses into personal commissaries and piggy banks.

What are important myths about mob violence and looting?

That mob violence and looting equate with protest and are motivated by a quest for social change. Prosocial individuals willing to risk their safety by assembly and protest are evolved enough to know that they gain nothing for their causes by robbing from small businesses that serve their communities. So they don't do it, even when they are angriest. The figure standing in front of a tank at Tiananmen Square risked his own self with the military. He and his compatriots did not loot local businesses and attack others indiscriminately.

Rioters who rampaged in genteel Vancouver this year erupted after the Stanley Cup was lost; and in Detroit in 1984 after the World Series was won. Rioters at G-8 summits are essentially anarchists, advocates of chaos rather than social change. They exploit the likelihood that if they cause a disturbance, a feckless reporter will go searching for their grievance and give justification to others to join their "venting." It really is the case that some young people find excitement in creating mayhem, and instigators use a pretext to set things off.


Poverty is likewise not the cause of looting. Poverty is widespread in China and Russia. Mob violence and looting are nowhere to be found. Poverty is widespread in Africa and Asia, but mob violence and looting correlate only with gangs who amass arms and have the resources to rob those poorer than those gangs. Poverty did not cause anarchy during Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster overwhelming a city's resources did, along with criminal elements taking advantage of such disaster-inspired chaos.

Likewise, it is a myth that hopelessness instigates mob violence. Hopelessness engenders passivity, the opposite of violence.

When looting and mob violence events are reported as "people vs. government," such a message only feeds a public sense of identification with looters and their own willingness to participate. At the same time, this message engenders insecurity and a sense that government is losing control among the law abiding and further traumatizes a community.

Are you suggesting that mob violence and looting can be prevented?

Absolutely. It is instructive to see that mob violence does not occur everywhere, even in societies that have access to weapons and in which mass demonstration is permitted. Mass assembly is not the problem.

Fundamental to eliminating mob violence is to first identify it as criminality, rather than a social phenomenon. That responsibility rests upon elected leaders, community leaders, teachers, parents, mass media and police.

A brutal police force is not the solution. Nor is mere arrest. For perpetrators recognize that legal consequences of looting and destruction of property are limited, especially amid chaos. But there are other societal tools available to eliminate this behavior.

The media should emphasize the vulnerability and pathos of those victimized by random mob violence and looting. From the 89-year-old shopowner whose premises are destroyed to the friendly bystander who is pummeled into a fractured skull and irreversible brain damage, vivid examples of the senseless byproducts of mob violence and looting nurture a community's resolve to prevent them. The mass media can be particularly effective in massing empathy for these unfortunate victims of circumstance and in mobilizing public outrage toward those who unravel the fabric of daily order.

Amid this focus from the mass media, local communities have to reject looting as a shame to the community and repulsive behavior that embarrasses them. If this rejection occurs loudly in houses of worship, in schools, and among neighbors, then police and public officials can leverage such societal morals by exposing looters upon arrest and shaming them before their neighbors.

Yes, name names; of looters, their parents, their communities, name even the gang to which they might belong.

Perpetrator walks and publicizing the identities of looters amid a community rejection of looting humiliates the perpetrator. It creates a powerful disincentive where courts and justice cannot. And it punctures the anonymity of group violence in a way that gives prospective looters pause for that risk. Such a police policy is especially easy to achieve in England, given the proliferation of high-grade security cameras all across London and other cities.

Because many looters are young people, identifying the communities from which they originate is psychologically sound. To do so does not cause prejudice; the general public knows what is going on and is not fooled by political correctness.

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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