OPINION9 August 2011

The London riots and Herd behaviour

As the riots spread throughout London and the rest of the country last night, I grabbed for my edition of Herd to see what it held to explain behaviour such as this.

In the book, author Mark Earls talks about how people’s behaviour can be influenced by a “system that is primed”. A great example he gives is the anger caused by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross in October 2008 when they left what was widely considered to be an offensive message on an elderly actor’s answer machine.

While the original broadcast generated just two complaints, the priming of the system – talk of overpaid celebrities, bad manners, complaints about the youth of today, as well as a bit of stirring by the Daily Mail – ultimately led to 40,000 complaints and public outrage.

And as with the riots, the system has been primed:

  • Talk about the failings of the police force – illustrated by the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell in 2005, the death of Ian Tomlinson at G20 protests in 2009, and the police’s role in the News of the World hacking and bribery scandal to mention but a few
  • The bleak economic outlook and the constant talk of government cuts and council cuts.
  • The uprisings spreading across the Arab world.

All of these stories getting into the zeitgeist – rather than just the shooting of a Tottenham man by police last week – are likely to be some of the things that are truly responsible for the rioting.

@RESEARCH LIVE

4 Comments

9 years ago

While I agree in some respects, if the system has been primed why is it only youths who are rioting in the streets? Surely they are being opportunistic? I'm not sure the Arab uprisings had anything to do with a bunch of thugs stealing TV's and clothes from struggling retailers. It may be a deeper sociological trait which I have defined as "c*ntism" (will be a laugh to see if this gets published!)

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9 years ago

Yes Fake Researcher, many of those arrested were in their thirties and employed - out of 6.25 million 14-21 year olds how many took part? 2000? 10,000? At most about 1% of young people were involved. I too look to Mark Earls Herd for inspiration and I think we see group behaviour at play and simply copying. Some of the looters were criminals, people for whom this was easier than their normal robbing and thieving, but listen to many of the others being interviewed and you can see they were simply carried along by the buzz. People were saying things like "everyone else was doing it". If we had interviewed most of those rioters a week before it would have been impossible to predict, and by the time many of them are appearing in court they are struggling to explain exactly why they did it. If predicting rioting and looting is so hard, it does note bode well for assessing a subtle change in some brand message or packaging.

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9 years ago

The looters took all your real books??!! That's terrible.

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9 years ago

@Ray - interesting stats you've come up with there. Reading between the lines your saying that it wasn't a youth riot, rather an older group? I still believe the reasons for 'priming' are a little far fetched in this case. But hey, maybe my thin slicing abilities aren't as good as others?

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