Could the riots happen again?

August 9, 2013

This week our Chairman, Daniel Finkelstein, focused his Times column (£) on the 2011 riots, arguing that we still really don’t know what happened two years ago – and that we urgently need to understand the events that triggered the riots and develop more sophisticated insights into the moral breakdown that was evident in the disorder that followed.

There are two further big issues relating to the riots that merit examination – namely, the cognitive dimension of the rioter’s behaviour and how this might link with the proliferation of social media.

Modern neuroscience suggests that as a species we are predominantly non-violent and cooperative because we have the ability to empathise. Experiments show that when we see others in pain, the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex are activated – the same regions of the brain that are activated when we feel pain ourselves. In other words, we literally feel their pain. And studies show that we feel it much more acutely when a member of our own family or ‘tribe’ is hurt.

Sometimes, though, that part of our makeup can be overridden. When people are (or become) more detached from us, or are perceived as different, we can feel less empathetic towards them. For example, there have been experiments where people have displayed reduced neural empathetic responses when pain has been inflicted on someone of a different race. And a study of rival Swiss football fans found strong empathetic responses when their own fans received an electric shock, but no response when the shock was applied to the opposition fans.

So the empathetic part of the brain can actually shut down altogether when we identify people as an adversary. Two years ago, when thousands of people rioted and looted without any apparent concern for the communities that they live in every day, it indicated that there was a shutdown in their cognitive responses – a temporary lack of empathy.

This may go some way to explaining the ‘moral breakdown’ that commentators have referred to. When you consider the rioters’ self-proclaimed motivations about anger at the police, authority in general and the middle classes, it makes more sense. The alienation that many rioters felt, especially from the police, remains a big challenge for law enforcement and for politicians. It must be tackled at every level.

There’s little doubt that that there’s something very perturbing about the pockets of our cities that contain thousands of young people – many of whom will self-identify as being anti-police, many of whom will have been in trouble with the law in the past, and many of whom are disaffected and lack opportunity – who could potentially be triggered into rioting/looting whenever the right set of circumstances mix together.

However, we’ve always had lots of disaffected young men (it’s mostly men) in poor, urban areas. Most Western countries do. And there have always been periodic incidents of turbulence. But what might be different now is the impact of social media. Not only do the likes of Twitter and BBM allow for the rapid organization of disorder and instant spreading of information that is difficult for the authorities to monitor, but they also allow for the proliferation of new networks – a far greater potential for people to feel part of ‘the tribe’, and anti-whatever it is that they’re angry about. You can see this in the way social unrest and disorder have spread in Syria, Egypt and other parts of the world.

The mixing of this sense of alienation and the rise of social networks is a potentially dangerous cocktail. In the short term, it might even mean that we’ll have to become more familiar with these kinds of disturbances. So as well as gaining a deeper understanding of what caused the riots two years ago, preventing and responding to the next one is the challenge that should be keeping policymakers awake at night.

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