© 2011 Jonnie Burned out car on Clarence road after the 08/08/11 riots, with the words "Welcom [sic] to Hackney" spray-painted on the bonnet in green.

Why There Was Anarchy in the UK

This isn’t a socio-political treatise or a cynical comment on the state of my home nation, it’s a post about the psychology of copying.  Over 2700 people have been arrested in the UK in the past week on suspicion of being involved in the rioting that spread through England’s cities like a wild fire.  The unrest started on the evening of Saturday August 6th in a small area of North London after an initially peaceful protest against the shooting of Mark Duggan by police earlier in the week.  A single retail park in Tottenham was the target.  The following night rioting and looting occurred in several  London boroughs.  On Monday night, the same boroughs ignited again, together with many more throughout London, and unrest sprung up in Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and 4 other cities.  On Tuesday, the unrest spread to yet more urban areas, while the police were getting on top of those in London.  It was only with the night of Wednesday August 10th, upon the deployment of an unprecedented force of police and the growing defiance of local citizens desperate to protect their property and restore their communities that the looters of England were overcome and the riots were snuffed out.

About half of those who have appeared in court are under 18, and three quarters are under 25 – last week’s looting was a young man’s sport (although some women were also arrested).  From the pleas published in Britain’s hungry papers, it’s clear that most of the youth were swept up in the excitement, throwing their cares away and joining in on a mass law-break, indulging in a collective material gluttony.  “Why would you pass up free stuff?” said one.  “Everyone else was doing it,” said another.

Psychology textbooks give us numerous examples of experiments in which personal responsibility is sacrificed all too easily when the collective behaviour of the crowd takes over.  We are familiar with the defences of brutal prison guards and those who push buttons to electrocute actors who give wrong answers.  We are a social creature, and as such, prone to abandoning sense when the actions of those around us will us to.  But what was at the core of the violence in English cities last week?

Biologists studying social behaviour in animals have spent the last few decades attempting to decode the wildly complex and varied copycat actions of everything from ants to chimpanzees.  Broadly speaking they define three types of copying (pet names are my own):

  1. Aping: where one individual consciously and meaningfully mimics the actions of another.
  2. Parroting: where one individual mimics the actions of another.
  3. Fishing: where one individual and another do the same behaviour in apparent synchrony.

The last one is not that clever.  I’ve called it “fishing” because even fish do it.  Incredible as it may sound, a fish can learn a behaviour from television.  Experiments show that a fish that has never eaten ants’ eggs will ignore them when dropped into its tank.  However, upon watching another fish eat ants’ eggs on a television program, it will gorge on ant’s eggs when they are next encountered.  In other words, fish can copy another fish.  Animal behaviourists tend to conclude that the fish is merely using a newly associated stimulus to trigger a behaviour that it would do ordinarily.  In Britain, this infectious habit-translation has also been seen in populations of blue tits - small garden birds that will readily copy each other’s “clever” trick of pecking the cream from the top of milk bottles.  (Britain is so cold, we leave our milk bottles on the doorstep).  The action of pecking is something the tits do anyway, it’s the stimulus – the bottle top – that’s novel.      

Parroting is a bit smarter.  It involves unthinkingly copying novel actions – behaviours that the animal would not do ordinarily – like saying “pieces of eight”.  However, aping is leagues above.  With aping, the mimicking individual is able to determine which of the actions that its model performs are meaningful, and which are not.  It copies only the meaningful actions, and ignores the others.  For example, when I was about four, my mum taught me how to tie shoelaces.  She must have been patient because four year-olds are pretty rubbish at learning psychomotor tasks.  But one thing I would have been good at is spotting which of her actions were meaningful.  If she looked at her watch during a demonstration, I would have known that looking at your wrist was not part of the essential action – I wouldn’t have copied that bit.  This takes a remarkable bit of cause-and-effect intelligence.  Very few animals have it.  Apes, of course, can partake in a little aping, but not even chimpanzees can stretch to tying shoelaces.

The transferral of ideas in this way is at the heart of every cultural thing that we do.  Our amazing and unequalled capacity for copying the ideas of others is our species’ USP.  But it can also get us into trouble.

Gary Slutkin is an epidemiologist who has changed his focus from studying the spread of contagious diseases to studying the spread of contagious behaviours.  He says that violent behaviours spread like a disease and for the same reasons.  Just as poor sanitation and overcrowding breed disease, mass unemployment and community alienation breed group violence.  He suggests that if we work to prevent such social environments from developing we will reduce the incidence of rioting.  But in order to respond to urgent problems, he proposes an immediate “course of shots” – sending members of the troubled communities trained in negotiation in to high tension situations to interrupt the spread of destructive behaviours – a sort of behavioural containment action.  Two weeks before the meltdown of London, his “CeaseFire” workers successfully defused a potentially violent situation following an almost identical grassroots protest at the shooting of a victim by police.

My question is this: was England’s copycat violence fishing, parroting or aping?  In other words how mindful was it?  Were last week’s looters conscious criminals, kids wrapped up in the moment, compelled to try something new or an unconscious crowd acting like a bunch of tits?  The unique capabilities of our species mean that, undoubtedly, all three were at play in any one situation.  I’m not excusing their actions.  I’m just pointing out that ideas act like organisms, disease-causing organisms in this case, and if you want to police their spread, you have to interrupt their transmission as Slutkin suggests.  Certainly the UK public are now busy punishing the hosts of these diseased ideas.  Yesterday, two men in their early twenties were sentenced to four years in prison for trying to arrange a copycat riot on Facebook.  In the event, their plans failed to materialise, but, it appears, we humans are so aware of our vulnerability to contagious ideas, that simply releasing a malignant strain on such an omnipotent vector is enough to turn a judge to judicial violence.  And his aggressive sentencing is now being copied by other judges up and down the land as the heated political environment fuels a damaged nation’s revenge. 

Burned out car on Clarence Road after the 08/08/11 riots.

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