The Psychology Behind Riots

What the riots and uniformed forces have in common.

In light of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, and the aftermath of this injustice, it is imperative we understand the psychology behind the reaction to Floyd’s death and it’s similarity to the actions of the police.

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Let’s begin by defining our terms. A riot is defined by Merriam-Webster, as a violent public disorder specifically: a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with a common intent.

Riots are not a new concept. They date back as early as 44 BC (and probably even earlier) when after the assassination of Julius Caesar, a mob took pieces of burning wood and attacked the houses of Brutus and Cassius (those who murdered Caesar).

Riots are born from an incidence of injustice, but it’s important to note that an individual cannot enact a riot. Integral to the definition is the group association.

So in order to understand riots, we must understand group psychology. In riots, there are true groups meaning that there is a degree of social cohesion, so they share the same interests or values. In this case, specifically, the overarching sentiment would be protesting the death of George Floyd, the evident racism in America, and the structures that support that racism.

So what can begin as a peaceful protest can rapidly devolve into riots due to group polarization. Group polarization is the tendency of people to make decisions that are more extreme when they are in a group setting as opposed to a decision made alone or independently. This is enhanced by the anonymity factor or deindividuation. This is a concept inherent in groups in which there is a diminishing understanding of one’s sense of individuality. So an individual’s perception of self will decrease making a person more willing to engage in antisocial or violent behavior because they believe they are protected by the group. Also given the current pandemic and the use of masks, this is probably augmented as facial recognition becomes more difficult with face coverings. This explains the looting, vandalism, and arson.

The bystander effect is also evident in riots. This theory states that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when there are other people present. The more people there are, the less likely one of them is to help. In the famous case of Kitty Genovese, she was stabbed, sexually assaulted, and murdered. Despite numerous witnesses, there was no intervention or police calls. Diffusion of responsibility occurred, each witness saw the event and assumed that others would take action, but no one did. This explains the heinous beatings by riot members, with no assistance from bystanders.

Interestingly enough, this very much mirrors uniformed authority’s behavior (e.g. police, soldiers, etc). Police officers are also subjected to group polarization, deindividuation, and the bystander effect.

In the video of George Floyd’s murder, we can hear Floyd’s plea for his breath, and not a single officer comes to his aid.

The main difference between police officers and those who riot is the position of authority and power. They are arbiters of the law. This power is signified by their uniforms, which can actually aid in deindividaution. Police officers all share a uniform and they are all tasked with the same role making them a true group.

In a 2017 study by McMaster University, a team of cognitive neuroscientists suggested that a uniform can automatically affect how we perceive others. This can create a bias towards those considered to be of low social status. In this study, in particular, their test subjects wearing police uniforms exhibited biased attention toward hoodie-wearing individuals.

We can also see an extreme version of this in the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. This unethical experiment attempted to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on the struggle between prisoners and officers. The test subjects were assigned roles and quickly embraced them, with some “guards” enforcing authoritarian measures and psychological torture on their “prisoners”.

We can also see this power act out in real life in the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse cases. Personnel in the early stages of the Iraq War committed numerous human rights violations against detainees including physical and sexual abuse, torture, rape, sodomy, and murder.

Violent behavior is not unique to riots. It’s common to groups, typically groups with power or perceived power, or groups that are agitated by corruption like in the case of George Floyd.

The anger for the injustice that occurred to George Floyd is palpable. It is understandable.

I am by no means condoning violent behavior, but it is evident to see the root cause and the cyclical perpetuation of violence.

What the police did is unreconcilable, but in cases of police brutality and riots, the results tend to be the same. Violence. The only exception is that this mob violence is instigated by the deeply rooted oppression of black people in America, whereas police violence stems from systematic racism, combined with a power trip.

I don’t know what the solution is. I don’t know how to fix something so deeply ingrained in America’s culture as racism especially when judicially speaking the law has set a precedent of equality. What we are actually facing is de facto racism, whereby the spirit of the law is ignored.

I know that riots can work (e.g the Stonewall riots), but the pure chaos that is ensuing is also hardly palatable (but even more unpalatable is the unconstitutional treatment of black people in America).

The cities that we are watching burn aren’t those of the rich or those in power, they are those that are filled with minorities. These cities don’t receive the funding they need. How will they rebuild? How will they come back from this especially during this pandemic?

Systematic racism must be crushed. Police brutality must be eradicated. But what do we until then?


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