A black man is wrongfully killed by police during an attempted arrest. First relatives and neighbors take to the streets, protesting the police’s use of undue force. Soon riots spread throughout the city and country as people loot, set fires, and destroy property. Eventually the chaos becomes less about “the cause” than the opportunism of anarchy. No, this was not Los Angeles of 1991; this was London of August 2011, and authorities are still trying to figure out what went wrong.
Police shootings are tragic but not particularly rare, and Mark Duggan was not savagely beaten to death by (later acquitted) police officers as was Rodney King. So why Duggan, why now, and why so much concern? According to “[a] government-funded study of the motivations of young people who took part in August’s rioting,” it had little to do with concern for Duggan at all. Rather, the study found that the youth who constituted the majority of the rioting factions “were driven by a combination of excitement, opportunism…and antipathy towards the police.” Most disturbingly, researchers found that bored youth viewed this mass rioting as “something to do,” and some participants even perceived the riots as a “party atmosphere,” a free alternative to a club with the bonus of looting while you party.
Since these unsettling findings, Britain has more than ever been interested in explaining and treating undesirable behavior through neuroscience, as explored by the new BBC Radio 4 series “Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Society.” In its premiere episode last Tuesday, “Brain Culture opens in a school in the South of England where staff are using the insights of neuroscience to help children who lack empathic reactions.” The headteacher explains that teachers once discouraged children with this so-called “‘callous and unemotional’ syndrome” by explaining to them how much harm they were doing to the other children. But rather than adjust their behavior, these children became even more inflammatory and hurtful. Now, the headteacher explains, they are working to “painstakingly” teach these children to learn how to feel emotion by having them “grade reactions like fear or happiness on a numerical scale” in order to learn how to respond to emotions.
In a country desperate to find a cure to youths’ apathy before more riots can break out, these “breakthroughs” are likely to inspire false hope. Although therapeutic methods such as emotion-gauging may prove effective among children who are merely bored opportunists when it comes to criminal behavior, for students with true psychopathy misdiagnosed as “callous and unemotional” syndrome, this therapy will do little. In fact, research has shown that introducing psychopaths to such group therapy in which they learn the harm that they inflict upon others “makes psychopaths worse” in the future because they better learn how to hurt and manipulate people’s emotions. As the school even observed, “the more they are told off, the angrier and more frustrated they become.” So although it would be nice to think that there is a cure-all emotion therapy to correct England’s disillusioned and apathetic youth, Brain Culture commentators and school therapists must acknowledge that such therapy used on psychopaths may do more harm than good.