Coverage of riots increases anxiety

England experienced riots last week as unrest spread across London and then to other cities. Groups of youths were seen to loot shops and set buildings on fire - and there are fears the criminality may spark copycat riots in regions as yet unaffected by the disturbances.

As well as in the capital, outbreaks of similar criminal activity were seen in Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Nottingham and Liverpool.Much of the trouble appears to be caused by large groups of young people - raising concerns a mob mentality may be influencing more individuals to get involved.

Chartered Psychologist Dr Jennifer Wild, a member of the Society's Division of Clinical Psychology. said: "The violence we are seeing across London and the country is extremely concerning. Everyone will likely experience a rise in levels of fear and anxiety. This will have most impact on those directly affected by the violence as well as people with pre-existing anxiety problems who already suffer from high levels of fear."

Dr Susan Marchant-Haycox, a member of the British Psychological Society's Division of Health Psychology, said: "The riots over the last few days have shown how the media has gone overboard in reporting events - highlighting criminal crowd behaviour. Crowd violence is frightening as the dynamics at work concerns deindividuation - that is one act of violence against a person has a snowball effect in a crowd who participate in the violence because they lose their self awareness and self control. Front page pictures and television news coverage of violence in London and Birmingham are adding fuel to the fire - possibly resulting in more violence. Those involved are enjoying seeing their violence publicised in the media. The media should act responsibily".

Our Research Digest blog has a round-up of comments from behavioural experts and columnists as they attempt to make sense of the riots.

Following feedback on this story to our Twitter account, we've opened the comment section below, for your views on this issue. 

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In our opinions, the most convincing accounts have come from people in touch with and working in community projects with disaffected young people. We believe such voices need to be given far more air space, and we aim to be part of doing so. A soundly evidenced investigation needs to take into account the location of these events in a neoliberal and capitalist economy dominated by material wealth. We all need to consider the language we use, to make it much more inclusive – we are in this together. Everyone involved in the unrest is a part of our future, and in the words of one of our members, “we need to construct new futures, not replicate the same old pasts”.

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Perhaps another interesting question is 'why did some areas of the country see very little or no rioting at all?' Leeds and Bradford (which have seen their fair share of trouble in the past) remained relatively quiet. Low scale sporadic trouble in the Chapeltown area of Leeds never escalated, partly due to community (as well as police) intervention. Do strong communities lead to stronger community cohesion? I suspect so.

Now we are also seeing that those appearing in court on various chargers are from all walks of life and varying ages (law students and teaching staff included). What we must not do is fall into the trap of using the riots simply to support out own agendas - I would certainly agree with the previous poster that we need to examine how elements work together in order to produce a system where such anger and resentment spills over and destroys our communities.

I would just like to add from the Community Psychologists’ perspective that we think the recent events have also been precipitated by the fact that the ruling classes have lost their moral high ground, and not led by example, e.g. recent MP's expense scandal and bankers behaviour etc... The decay of the morality in the society has provided the marginalised young people a justification to behave that way...

It calls for a re-creation of community with role models and leadership... A lot that community psychologists can contribute...

On behalf of the Society's PR team, thank you to everyone who has left comments on this story and on the Research Digest stories. We have also tweeted the call for volunteers posted by Hayley Lewis.

As someone who is a chartered psychologist, a local government manager (at Croydon Council) and a resident (of Croydon), I have been handling the aftermath of the riots from different perspectives.

We're now beginning to see the trauma and distress emerge for those directly affected by the riots - those made homeless, who lost their livelihoods, or who witnessed the acts of violence and destruction. As such, I'm putting out a call to all psychologists, with the requisite skills, to come forward and volunteer some time to help us support those affected by the riots. This can be our way of helping with the #riotcleanup (to coin the Twitter trend).

This is something that hasn't just affected Croydon so why not contact your local council, in affected areas, and ask if they need your help?

If you are interested, willing and able please either drop a line to either the BPS Twitter feed @BPSOfficial, my own feed @haypsych, or even better my email address hayley.lewis@croydon.gov.uk

A member of the Community Psychology Section has noted in response to some of the calls in the media: “Yes, parents have a responsibility, although many are doing more than one job to make ends meet, and yes there are people motivated by greed, and yes the actions are criminal (and certainly these have badly hurt lots of ordinary, not well off people who are understandably very upset and angry); but the government (and we all) need to recognise and address the lack of feeling of being cared for by or identification with their communities and the authorities, which so many teenagers feel in poorer areas”.

A postgraduate student member notes: “My concern is that another generation of young people like the 1980s, will end up on the scrapheap. Since then poverty has increased and society has become even more segregated, whilst becoming more diverse... We need to play an important role in standing up for these people.”

We join a growing number of analysts who are encouraging considered research into both the precipitating and predisposing factors that led to these events at this juncture, and will be encouraging our members to undertake some of this. In our opinions, the most convincing accounts have come from people in touch with and working in community projects with disaffected young people. We believe such voices need to be given far more air space, and we aim to be part of doing so. A soundly evidenced investigation needs to take into account the location of these events in a neoliberal and capitalist economy dominated by material wealth. We all need to consider the language we use, to make it much more inclusive – we are in this together. Everyone involved in the unrest is a part of our future, and in the words of one of our members, “we need to construct new futures, not replicate the same old pasts”.

We need to watch our language!

Members of the BPS Community Psychology Section committee would like to voice their concerns about the actions and reactions of groups and individuals in media representations. Some of the members’ responses to the dominant messages in the news and public commentaries included: “Being dismayed by the widespread desire to just dismiss this national issue purely as 'mindless thuggery' … If it's so mindless why doesn't it happen all the time? Why now? … That's where we open up the social and political context that is not being discussed here.”
“Why did such large numbers of people choose looting to express protests? How have ‘ordinary’ people responded? How are those who were unwitting victims coping with the aftermath? What roles are social networking media playing?”
“Much has been made of the young people ‘turning on their own community’- but how do we make sense of communities ‘turning on’ their young people over a longer period of time? We need to go beyond simple explanations …”

In particular we have noted the polarising nature of much of the language, creating an 'us' and 'them' scenario. A PhD student notes “Such language deepens the divide, entrenches resentment, extends inequality, and promotes the existing discrimination against young people.” We have also been dismayed to hear the language of ‘war’ being used by officials against their own citizens. These messages further make young people 'other' to the communities they inhabit. It is clear that anger, hatred and exclusion are part of a vicious self-perpetuating cycle, and the challenge for all of us is to change this into a cycle working towards solutions. Members of the Community Psychology Section believe that we need to work together to offer alternative ways of addressing the issues.

Why the riots?

The neoliberal capitalism of Thatcher, Murdoch, Blair, Bush, Obama, China, the banks, Jonathan Ross, Richard Branson, has…..
Taught us that what is important is material possessions
Made whole sections of the population superfluous
Funded the gaining of possessions through high levels of personal and household debt
Destroyed traditional communities based on workplace, destroying the sources of self worth and responsibility
Ridiculed collective values, privatised and marginalised social provision
Commercialised childhood
Forced many working people into unemployment, underemployment or insecure, casual low wage work, stressing and undermining family life
Fetishised the trivial, the celebrity, cheapening culture and celebrating selfishness and boorishness
Encouraged rocketing inequality
Shown that exotic levels of violence against people and their towns and cities is just fine
Encouraged the import of cheap labour and thereby sown distrust and division among working people
Crashed, increasing poverty, inequality, precariousness, resentment and further weakened collective, social, cultural resources.

So why the surprise?

The riots are a result of a coming together of forces and processes. There is no simple explanation and no explanation in the behaviour of the individual looter.
To understand the riots requires an understanding of how economy, politics, ideology, belief, motivation, morality, socialisation and the dynamics of belonging and alienation work together as system and systems.
Don’t tell me that is an excuse, and don’t tell me how tough you are going to be. Tell me you see that this is complicated and it requires a completely different way of living our society.
As ye sow, so shall ye reap. The harvest of neoliberal capitalism is well and truly home.

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