England riots: what drives people into the streets

The underlying reasons for this apparent feral behaviour are complex and individual motivations will vary, but there are some underlying psychological themes which may help us understand why the rioting was so contagious and why so many people were compelled to join the looting and rampaging through the streets of England. These riots are not protests against anything specific, but they do manifest a collective call by people for improvements in their own lives. This problem, where it occurs, is so deep that it is plainly naive to expect that people caught up in it should know better or be able to help themselves.

This article features observations from a clinical psychologist specialising in forensic psychology (who has asked to remain anonymous). She explains that her day-to-day work is “with people who are at the absolute margins of society – the forgotten – the kind of people the ruling classes wish didn’t exist. They are not wanted by society and they are aware of this fact, and they feel stigmatised as a result of it.” The over-riding feelings amongst those she works with is along the lines of “I don’t belong to the daytime, I don’t go out during the day because I’m not part of that world. That’s why I go out at night”.

It is not surprising that people in this situation go into the streets with impunity, they just don’t care when they feel so far removed from society. There is no point telling them that “they should think about their futures” or that “the parents should make sure they know where their children are”. The parents themselves form part of this group of disaffected people, and many of the 15 & 16 year old youths committing these acts may already be parents themselves. This group may be part of a minority, but are the result of a deep inter-generational problem which clearly has a severe impact on the broader society and economy of England, not to mention global reputation.

“Politicians should avoid intellectualising the situation too much, the causes are simple but the political class is often not able to articulate solutions along the lines that people in this situation can understand” Dr X says. Some people simply feel that the system and incumbent ideology has failed them because they are so overwhelmed by their own problems, and they have lost the hope to change it. Simplistically they can’t understand why the economy has directed wealth towards banker bonuses (easy to vilify) but not towards improving their lives. Dr X explains that “the well-meaning welfare state can lock people at ‘the bottom’ into a cycle of dependency and disenfranchisement – escalating into a genuinely disaffected group of people that is waiting for a reason to vent their frustrations.”

Tough policing and severe criminal sentences is certainly necessary to re-establish law and order, but it won’t resolve the underlying problems.

Lack of identity and purpose

“This extreme behaviour is typically caused by people who lack identity and a sense of role in society, sheer mindless boredom.” Dr X expands, “their lives consist of intense day-in-day-out mind numbing boredom. The only way they can find their identity is to do something like looting and rioting, which raises their adrenalin levels in the way others are stimulated by achieving success in life. It gives them a sense of purpose and defines ‘their role’ in society.”

These are people with no prospect of a job and no sense of wanting one, probably because their parents don’t have one and they have few role models to show them otherwise. They often will not even try get a job because they have no idea how to get a job, they are frequently too illiterate to fill in a form and do not have the confidence to ask potential employers if they need someone to work for them. They do not have the skills to present themselves well and this only reinforces a sense of low self-worth. Low self-esteem is often ingrained from day one because their parents have low self-esteem. People in this category are intimidated by job centres because their social skills and literacy levels are so poor. Nobody wants to look stupid or be embarrassed.

This scenario can breed mental health problems, feeling unwanted by society can make people paranoid. When combined with drug addiction and isolation this can escalate into severe mental health problems or even serious anti-social behaviour, further reducing the prospect of employment.

It is ineffectual to blame the parents

Many shocked people say that the authorities should tell the parents to be ‘better parents’ but this simply won’t work. The problem is that children in these circumstances are either friends with their parents or hate their parents, parents don’t fulfil the traditional role of ‘parent’ and there is no sense of authority or boundaries. The parents themselves often grew up in this sort of environment, lacking an understanding of any sort of structure or how to put it right.

To help explain why someone may have been drawn to the riots, the psychologist outlined a typical scenario of a day in the life of the people she works with: “They might wake up late morning or early afternoon. They might share a bedroom with half-siblings from separate relationships. Their mother/father (typically a single parent) will send them to the shop to pick up basics like sugar, milk, bread and tea. They’re also told to pick up a few cans of beer for the parent and get some for themselves. The parent is possibly an alcoholic and unemployed. The children will come back to spend the afternoon watching TV and drinking beer. They are convinced that there is no possibility of work and can’t imagine a future different to that of their parents. If their parents do work then it is often on minimum wage. But benefits pay more, and why humiliate yourself at the job centre with your inability spell. They might have a partner but this often results in unplanned pregnancy because they don’t have the money for condoms or the wherewithal to think ahead and get some from the family planning clinic. It may even be convenient because it means they’ll get more money from the State. They use drugs to escape from the mind numbing boredom and unwanted negative feelings arising from stigma and lack of belonging. They get addicted and then start needing money and the only way they know how to feed this habit is with money earned from crime.”

How it can expand so quickly around the country

People see others around the country with whom they can identify, whether its because they are wearing hoodies and look similar or appear to be similar personal situations. They see people doing things that they can identify with and they imitate it because by doing so it improves their own sense of purpose and identity. Now its them in the news, and not politicians or prospective olympians.

Don’t blame the wrong thing

This problem does not occur because disaffected people feel they have a ‘right’ to take the things they are stealing or that they are evil. It is naive to just blame the parents, of course poor parenting is a large part of the problem, but just telling the parents what to do doesn’t help because it doesn’t acknowledge that the parents are themselves in difficulty. These difficulties are caused by layer upon layer of problems which are often inter-generational and take over groups of society. These problems are not directly linked to Government cuts but can be exacerbated when supporting services and infrastructure is withdrawn, or the fear of cuts takes away the little hope that is there.

The solution will require long-term investment into building self-sufficient communities, and to harness the frustrations of disaffected people for positive benefit by giving them a healthy purpose in life.

“This starts with the very basics” the psychologist concludes, “people need the confidence to imagine what success or achievement might be like. When they don’t know any different, it’s difficult to explain to them that there is more to life than television, a few beers and endless days of nothing – however it can be done. It takes time and patient people who can show them. These problems are so deeply ingrained that they may not get it first time and they will make mistakes along the way.” She elaborates further, “The only way for me to explain it to people not in this situation is to ask them to imagine what it would take to mug someone at knife-point and take their belongings without remorse. You just couldn’t get into that head-space first time round – well, it’s the same in reverse.”

Update 12 Aug 2011. See also:

Caring costs – but so do riots by Camila Batmanghelidjh:
‘These rioters feel they don’t actually belong to the community. For years, they’ve felt cut adrift from society’read more

Britain burns the colour of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Gautam Malkani:
‘In A Clockwork Orange … Burgess captures his delinquent protagonists’ complete lack of political motivation, but without dismissing their actions as simple opportunism. Numbed by the dullness of their existence, Alex and his gang of “droogs” revel in demonic violence to stave off the demon of boredom. The only way for them to feel alive is to be literally “alive and kicking”. For Burgess there is nothing paradoxical about an apathetic rampage.’read more.

…and a revealing story from the streets of Hackney (via @alberto_cottica & @danmcquillan):

Update 19 Aug 2011. See also:

I predicted a riot: City sage who saw there was trouble ahead by Tom Peck: ‘Sir Ronald warned back then [2007] of the widening gap between rich and poor and said: “Entrepreneurial economies which have high rates of growth and high rates of job creation do lead to great divergences in wealth. When economic situations get bad, it takes a spark to ignite a violent reaction.” ‘… read more.

Update 21 Aug 2011. See also:

Nouriel Roubini: Social unrest will spread by Globes’ correspondent: ‘ “Recent popular demonstrations, from the Middle East to Israel to the UK, and rising popular anger in China – and soon enough in other advanced economies and emerging markets – are all driven by the same issues and tensions: growing inequality, poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness,” says Dr. Nouriel Roubini. ‘… read more… and original here.


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