The Moral Psychology of the London Riots

11 08 2011

Many of us have been struggling to comprehend what psychology, what such vicious and destructive behaviour as we’ve seen over the past few days in London. Behaviour that many of us wouldn’t flinch at calling baldly immoral.

Yet much of the discourse has so far struggled to grasp the psychology behind these acts, psychology that looks on the surface to be wild and irrational. But there is a rhyme, and even a reason, to the rioters’ and looters’ behaviour. This is not to excuse the behaviour, but it’s crucial to understand the psychology behind it particularly if we’re to attempt to prevent such behaviour from occurring again in the future.

What qualifies as moral?

First off, the looting of shops, particularly struggling local small businesses, the disregard for property, the violence directed at bystanders, the muggings, the seemingly senseless arson – it all seems so clearly immoral.

And in one sense it is. Morality is generally conceived these days as concerning promoting the welfare of others. When you loot then burn someone’s shop, that’s hardly promoting their welfare.

However, this is not the way the looters see things. This is because morality hasn’t always been about promoting the welfare of others. In fact, for the vast majority of human history – including the period during which our moral faculty evolved – morality was primarily about promoting the welfare only of in-group members. Other people just didn’t count.

In fact, the secondary purpose of morality through most of history was to promote competition against out-group members. The liberal revolution of the Enlightenment changed this, spreading our in-group to include more and more groups, although such in-group preference and out-group vilification can be readily observed in more primitive moral codes, such as that advanced in the Old Testament.

While philosophically obsolete, this in-group/out-group distinction is still firmly embedded in our moral psychology. If you see someone pushed to the ground, and that person appears to belong to an out-group, however that’s defined (a foreigner; an individual from a different social class; a member of a rival football team, etc), your reaction will be very different to if that person is an in-group member, a friend of family member.

The key is that the in-group/out-group distinction is malleable. Your member of a rival football team may be out-group on Saturday, but when the World Cup is on, they might be your in-group.

But for the looters in Britain, the whole of society except, for their close friends, is their out-group. Inflicting harm against strangers doesn’t raise the same moral compunctions as it would in us.


One of the reasons for this particular out-group distinction is due to another aspect of our moral psychology: tribalism. Our evolved moral psychology is clever precisely because it’s flexible and conditional, and it can adapt to the environment around us.

If that environment is generally peaceful, with ample resources for all and plenty of opportunities to share in those resources, then our psychology softens. Our in-group widens, we’re more likely to trust strangers, our circle of concern widens (even including animals these days) and we’ll check our short-term self-interest confident that long-term cooperation will more than make up for it.

However, if that environment is hostile, with limited resources and fierce competition over them, then our psychology switches tracks. Trust breaks down and cooperation with strangers becomes highly risky, because the cost of being cheated are much higher as there’s less of a safety net.

In these kinds of environments – a microcosm of which can be observed in modern day prisons and ghettos – you get tribalism. This is because a small close knit coalition is going to be far more successful at survival and competition with others than going solo. In fact, in these kinds of environments, many feel compelled to join a tribe simply to avoid being one-against-many.

The tribes tend to be fiercely loyal internally, thus encouraging in-group cooperation and strengthening the group, and also explaining the often highly punitive acts inflicted against those who display disloyalty or who try to leave the group.

Individuals often display their group membership through costly signalling, such as wearing easily identifiable colours, clothing or tattoos that telegraph their membership to in-group and out-group members alike. That’s why it’s almost impossible to make tribal individuals wear ‘normal’ clothes – it’s not about arbitrary attire to them, it’s an example of disloyalty by telegraphing membership to the ‘mainstream’.

They also tend to be highly hierarchical, led by the strongest individuals who are most capable of keeping the group together and competing against others. The traits of a tribal leader – aggressiveness, lack of compunction against violence, rigid authority etc – are very different to the traits of a liberal social leader (which is one reason tribal societies, such as Afghanistan, have such trouble transitioning to democracy).

When an individual becomes immersed in this tribal culture, their worldview changes. Rivalries and competition between groups makes the world appear even more hostile, thus reinforcing tribal behaviour. Strong tendencies towards group conformity prevent exploring new behaviours and alternative paths. Strength is valued above intelligence, impulsive behaviour more than temperance.

On risk and impulsiveness: when one is young, without a family, without property and with a highly competitive environment where status is gained through daring acts, then risk-taking and impulsive behaviour is rewarded. Pausing before doing something dangerous, or pausing to consider the concern of others, is seen as a sign of weakness.

Changing course

Now, I stress that not all these phenomena will be observed in all cases, but many of them would apply to the so-called ‘neds’ – the ‘no education delinquents’ – who are involved in the rioting and looting.

To them, the odds are stacked against them. Their environment is hostile. Welfare provides for the basics, but when everyone has the same council flat and same dole wage, other metrics must stand in for status. The stakes are low, so risk-taking is high. Tribal allegiance to their peer-group takes precedence over everything else, including going to school and getting an education – ironically, the main tool they could employ to lift themselves out of welfare and into wealth.

But there are things that can be done to shift the more negative aspects of this psychology. One of them is to change perception.

Because, while our moral psychology is highly flexible and conditional, responding to the environment, it’s not actually responding directly to the environment as such, but the individual’s perception of the environment. If the world looks hostile, they’ll respond in kind. If it appears benign, they’ll change their moral and behavioural track more readily.

Strengthening communities, avoiding having clusters of disadvantage that become entrenched, and even just cleaning the streets and removing graffiti can make a difference to perceptions.

In-group boundaries are also negotiable. Another aspect of our moral psychology is empathy, and when separated from peer-group steering, most individuals are able to empathise. By placing individuals in community service helping members of their local community on a one-on-one basis, away from the eyes of their peer group, can broaden in-group bonds outside their tribe.

Choice is also a big one. Many disadvantaged youths feel they have no choice but to go tribal. To not do so is to invite being victimised by other groups and to miss out on the rewards of group membership – both material and psychological.

So other options need to be made available. Whether that’s coalitions of a more constructive sort, as churches used to provide. Or, for the non-religious, community groups, school groups etc. Getting youths to engage with these without relapsing into tribal behaviour is not easy, and it requires the support of parents – another tricky point. But it can be done.

Education is also crucial – which hardly needs to be said. But education doesn’t only give people knowledge and skills to get a better job, but it also provides the cognitive tools for more sophisticated problem solving and decision making. If people are trained to think about long-term consequences to their actions, and trained to employ inhibitory mechanisms to prevent short-term behaviour, then they’ll benefit in just about everything else they do in life.

Ultimately, the solutions to the problems faced by Britain at the moment are complex, but solving them begins with understanding the psychology of the people looting the shops. Far from being irrational, they’re actually behaving in a fairly rational, if shortsighted, manner given the way they perceive the world to be.

So we need to not only change those perceptions so the world isn’t as hostile as they think but, more importantly, we need to make sure the works actually isn’t as hostile as they think.




5 responses

12 08 2011

The only thing I didn’t understand—what do graffiti have to do with it?

12 08 2011
Mark Sloan

Tim, the moral principle “Altruistic acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in social groups are moral” is consistent with your above very sensible comments about 1) both ancient and modern views on morality and 2) your suggested social approaches to reducing future “tribal” and individual violence and criminality as in these riots.

“Altruistic acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in social groups” may be easier to justify to skeptics if they are understood as winning game theory strategies in environments where synergistic benefits of cooperation are available. As you point out, the trick to encouraging moral behavior within culture wide social groups (in the post enlightenment sense of morality) in hostile environments is to change the environment to make these moral behaviors winning strategies in the short term, which they often now are NOT, as well as in the long term.

But what environment changes ought societies focus money and intellectual effort on to improve the situation? That is a tough question and I expect the best answers will be circumstance dependent. Game theory shows that punishment of illegal behavior is key, with the goal being to increase future benefits of cooperation. Evolutionary psychology tells us that the psychological benefits of cooperation are often more important than material benefits (with the exception of personal safety and simple survival). Could encouragement of neighborhood soccer teams and music competitions, and neighborhood based care of the infirm provide more psychological benefits and encouragement of moral behavior than increasing the size of the dole? Perhaps.

12 08 2011
Tim Dean

@simbel That’s a slightly obtuse reference to a study by David Sloan Wilson that found people behave less altruistically in environments that have graffiti and litter, and more altruistically in environments that are clean.

@Mark The solutions to encouraging prosocial behaviour and trust – one of the prime lubricants of cooperation – are curly indeed. But I agree that environment is one big way to do it. Encouraging community participation is another. That’s one reason why I’m interested in replacing the community-focused aspects of religion with secular alternatives.

12 08 2011
David M

“Far from being irrational, they’re actually behaving in a fairly rational, if shortsighted, manner given the way they perceive the world to be.”

Isn’t the way one perceives the world to be a fundamental test of their rationality? A conspiracy theorist, for instance, might see conspiracies everywhere, and, due to the nature of those conspiracies, it may be rational to assassinate a political leader. But for the most part, being a conspiracy theorist is not rational.

Who are the rioters’ out-groups? If you look at this video, you’ll get the sense that the rioters themselves don’t know. It’s either the police, the government, the rich, or some combination of the above.

I’m sure your in-group out-group moral theory has some truth to it, but I don’t think it’s fully explanatory in cases like these where the rioters are not literally embattled. They are only loosely, abstractly embattled, and it is far from obvious that the natural reaction to this should be violence. After all, why no violence on this scale before?

12 08 2011
Tim Dean

Hi David,

You’re absolutely right that in many ways the way one perceives the world is indeed a test of their rationality. But I’m making the point that given the way many of the rioters see the world (arguably an irrational worldview – and certainly a short-sighted and self-defeating one), then they’re behaving rationally within those bounds. I’m making the point because many have dismissed them as being entirely irrational end-to-end, which risks missing the underlying rhyme and reason that is driving much of their behaviour.

And I’d suggest that self-reporting from the rioters won’t necessarily illuminate their actual reasons for behaving. Their in-group is their mates, and their class in general, which is perceived as being unified under the banner of the dispossessed and forgotten, the ones the system is treating unfairly, thus they deserve to get their own back. Whom they actually identify as being the target is less important than the fact that everyone except their in-group is the out-group.

And it’s true they’re not strictly embattled – they live within a remarkably accommodating welfare state. However they perceive themselves as being embattled, and ultimately it’s perceptions, not reality, that count.

Why no violence like this before? I think this kind of behaviour requires a trigger to tip behaviour of a few over the edge, whereby it’s perceived by others as being possible and permissible for them to do so too. There’s a threshold to reach – but once reached, the mob tips over the edge.

And it has happened before – often triggered by a single act, such as the trial of the police who beat Rodney King sparking riots in L.A.

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