Mob Violence: Psychological Myths, Facts, Solutions

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

ByABC News
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.