On August 6, 2011, two days after the shooting of Mark Duggan by the Metropolitan Police, what started off as a peaceful protest in response to the police handling of the shooting and a call for justice turned into a full-scale riot in Tottenham, North London. The city descended into chaos as over 300 rioters battled police using makeshift weapons and petrol bombs, set fire to police cars, double-decker buses, and shops, and rampantly looted. The riot resulted in 26 police officers injured, several citizens hospitalized, and 55 rioters arrested. The riot in Tottenham was only the first in a series that popped up across London, as similar disturbances in Peckham, Battersea, Birmingham, and Salfrod sprung up in the following days. As a response to the unrest, the government funded a study by the National Centre for Social Research to look into the motivation of and triggers behind young people’s participation in the riots.
Interviewing over 200 people primarily from the areas affected, the resulting study found that there was not one simple explanation but instead, the young people, both participants and non-participants, were influenced by a series of “nudge” and “tug” factors. Researchers were able to categorize situational, personal, family/community and societal factors that either helped to “nudge” them into getting involved (facilitators) and others which helped to “tug” them away from involvement (inhibitors).This struggle between nudge factors such as peer pressure and tug factors such as fear of getting caught and the struggle between the emotional and rational mind demonstrate the concept of the brain as a team of rivals as discussed in Ch. 5 of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman. In considering the risks of getting involved, many young people who chose not to participate frequently described “being able to counter impulsive ‘here-and-now thinking’, with thoughts about their future plans or long-term goals, and what they had to lose.”
The study also cites that a primary motivation for participation in the riots was “not individual badness or disadvantage so much as the urge to join in.” Rioters cited the strong influence and trigger of the “party atmosphere, adrenaline and hype”, which they found “encouraging”. As explored in social psychology and neuroscience, peer pressure and “simple herd behaviour” are surprisingly significant drivers of our behavior as our brains are “hardwired” to imitate. Does this mean that rioters are less culpable for their criminal behavior because they were merely following human instinct? As the study demonstrated, there are a large number of factors that the brain considers in making a decision to either to join or not join in the rioting, destructive behaviors, and looting. Many young people said they were motivated by “the thrill of getting free stuff – things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to have”, and antipathy towards the police. Neurological encouraged herd behavior is definitively less of a clear cut influence than the tumor growing in the right frontal lobe in the case of the “sudden pedophile”and is just one factor in a large number of other factors that the brain considered. While it may have made a difference, the real question regarding herd behavior’s role in the riots is not in determining culpability, but rather in determining how the government and pro-social groups can deter similar riots from happening in the future. These groups should look at the totality of nudge and tug factors, and seek to minimize nudge factors such as feelings of “having nothing to lose” and boredom while maximizing tug factors, such as building attachments to a community and providing chances for “jobs, prospects, and aspirations”.
Morrell, Gareth. “The August Riots in England: Understanding the Involvement of Young People.” National Centre for Social Research.
Taylor, Matthew. “Brain Science and the Law: Should We Understand More and Condemn Less?” The Guardian. 3 Nov. 2011.
Taylor, Matthew, and Paul Lewis. “Opportunism and Dissatisfaction with Police Drove Rioters, Study Finds.” The Guardian. 3 Nov. 2011.