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Who’s to blame when a riot breaks out?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on June 25, 2011

Psychology of a riot

As everyone listening to our show should know; after the devastating loss of Vancouver in game 7 for the Stanley Cup a riot erupted downtown. I thought this a good opportunity to turn a negative event into a learning opportunity and examine the psychology of riots. There are some issues that may arise later that may also be of interest, such as the preparedness of the city or the response (over or under) of the police force, but for now we shall limit ourselves to psychology.

Physical pre-conditions

Before we start with the psychology we should first address the physical conditions that help create the conditions for the riot. First we had a highly charged emotional event; we had a large number of people concentrated in a very small space; and we lacked a path for the rapid dispersal of this group after the game.

Group identity

Sporting games, more so than any other activity in our modern society, glories in group identity. We looked around as the final games approached and you could see everyone wearing their ‘team’ jersey (not its special name, not a shirt but a jersey; further emphasizing its purpose not as a fashion statement but as a signal of group identity). At the game itself, face painting the team colours, the group activities such as “the wave”, “towel waving” and the like; all serve to strip the individual’s identity and replace it with that of the group…we are no longer one but many.


These factors that create the group identity also create a situation of de-individualization; where the individual no longer feels personal responsibility for their actions but accepts the diffuse, and illusionary, moral responsibility of the group…which of course is now more a mob.

Perceived injury to the group

Obviously the identity was provided by the Cunucks…the growing sense that this team was OUR team and their wins were OUR wins. This allows for an USE-vs.-THEM condition to exist. Then the perceived injury occurred…i.e. we lost or were robbed of the Stanley Cup…this now unified group felt the instinctive urge to defend “us” from “them” and because the them had not real physical cause, it was directed at whatever was handy…the city itself. I point out that irony here, a team that they have no control or actual ownership of seems to be more apart of them than the actual city they live, work and actually own/control (as in property or via elections).

Emotional relevance

Now, we often have group identity…during our last election we were “NDP” or “Green” or “Liberal” or “Evi…er conservative” and yet, at least in our society, this did to rioting in the streets. Most events are either not that important to our lives (sadly hockey seems more important that the governance of our country) or less sustains (the Olympics were ‘important’ but ‘team Canada’ really only existed for weeks, were as the Cunucks have been ‘our team’ for decades) or less dramatic (many other sports games have the “big game” but a set game, because of the ‘best of 7’ nature of the Stanley cup, each ‘extra’ game ramps up the emotional fervour.

So we have Game 7, Stanley Cup, home game, possible first win ever…the emotional stakes on this game were extremely high. Add in the escapist elements…i.e. we hear of war, declining economics, job insecurity, reality…the desire to, if only for a while, to feel like you and YOUR team are the best in the world only increased the level of emotion. Of course the level of emotion people feel for the game varies for individual to individual; however those downtown had taken on the group identity, in such an environment emotions becomes very contagious.

Emotional chain reaction

Humans are pack animals; as such we are very much in tune with the emotions of those of our group. We have specialized cells in our brains, called mirror neurons, which not only allow us to see what others are doing but to feel as though we were the ones doing it ourselves. These emotional link is what has allowed humans to create such interconnected and complex societies…it also means that when a certain number of people have a strong emotion in one direction, that emotion will sweep through the group like a nuclear chain reaction…every member, although perhaps reacting in different ways, feels that strong emotion which intern amplifies and perpetuates it.

The loss of the Cunucks created in some more than others a sense of anger and a need to ‘retaliate’, because of the number of people concentrated downtown, this group formed a critical mass which resulted in the explosive riot.

False consensus

When we see someone express a strong emotion we empathize with that person…we also project our own reasons for that expression. So, one person is upset about the game, another is angry for they think the whole cup is a fixed game, another lost money on a bet, another upset at being a loser again, another upset about the rich getting rewarded even when they lose, another…and so on and so on. Although there may be an infinite number of justifications for each individual to react violently, they project their personal reasons on the mob as a whole and a feel justified in their feeling, which created a feedback loop.

The more isolated the group and ironically, limited in size, the strong this feedback loop becomes. When we look at riots it is rarely actually thousands acting violent but small ‘bands’ that actually perpetrate the acts. Think of these as eddies or tornadoes in the larger storm, who are feeding off the local emotions of the ‘band’ while feeling embolden by the passive acquiesce of the larger group that are bystanders to their actions.

Bystander effect

Now we should step back and remember that the number of people who actually participated in the violence was a small fraction of the number of people who were actually present. From the fall-out afterwards, it seems apparent that the vast majority of people who were a part of ‘the mob’ thought the violence unacceptable and yet little was done by this majority to stop the bands of aggressors. How could this happen?

This is a result of the bystander’s effect. Ironically enough, the larger the group of people the less any individual feels responsible to act.  In the same way people who do the violence do not feel personally culpable because moral responsibility is given up to the crowed; so also the bystander assume that someone else will act (call the police, physically intervene, etc.) to stop the action. No one like to be first and the greater the group the greater the peer pressure is to NOT stand out; thus the ‘non-violent’ crowed stands by and does nothing.

The Celebrity Effect

One of the new elements in a modern riot is the ever present social media…be it the 24/7 news cycle or the ubiquitous cell-phone cam. The effect of this is to almost goad people into ‘performing’ for the camera’s…a ready-made audience of the YouTube universe waiting for the person or group to do that ‘memorable’ thing be it jumping over an ad-hoc bomb fire in the street, through a brick through a store front or just lie down on the street and make-out like there was no tomorrow.


It is interesting that after a riot, there is almost always a collective sense of guilt and remorse by the city/group for the actions that happened. The population in mass cannot understand how their own people could perpetrate such violence in their own city…this also leads to a degree of vengeance by the population on those they blame for ‘causing’ the violence. This is where we hear about how the riots were ‘organized by anarchists’ or the like.


The irony is the very same mob psychology that created the riot also plays its role in created the scapegoat. We as a people do not like the idea that we are capable of such meaningless violence…the ‘us’ is the city and the ‘them’ are the rioters…the injury the riot itself…and so it follows the same mob logic down to the point where people are fired from jobs for just being photographed on the scene; no trial, no attempt to understand the how or the why…guilt by association.

Human psychology is weird.


2 Responses to “Who’s to blame when a riot breaks out?”

  1. Alma Miller said

    Mob mentality, alcohol, and other scape goats, are ridiculous mentalities that are good for nothing ANYWHERE, ANYTIME.
    Just leave and leave your boyfriend, girlfriend, best friend, family member there and LEAVE.
    People are guilty just by being there and deserve to be tried and punished by the MAXIMUM the courts allow period.
    You people should be permanently banned from sport stadiums for a period of 10 years.
    You rioters are disgusting.


  2. […] Who’s to blame when a riot breaks out? […]

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