UK looters

The recent riots got me philosophically thinking and the following analysis is the results of those thoughts. Much of the behavioural science is from the book “Predictably Irrational”, which I highly recommend.

I realised upon seeing the chaos on our streets that we were dealing with many different groups of people with different agendas. The following is my take on those who casually looted during the riots. Particularly these two idiots I heard on the radio:

The mechanisms used by such people to loot during the recent sequence of UK riots are not well understood. Normal analysis of the behaviour of people has one enormous presumption: that the person was rational at the moment they made their choice to loot. But, to me, this doesn’t tally with their actions. I say they were irrational choices, but they must have had some mechanisms to assist them in making their decisions and in later justifying them (so drunken and stupidly) on the radio.

The behaviour of those casually looting elicits a number of different reactions and comments from “normal” people. Most respond with a large slice of “they’re just wrong’ns” vindictive spleen. It is as if once someone has committed a crime they somehow stop being human altogether and are instantly transfigured into Martians. While I too have very little sympathy for the fate of people committing crimes like this, I do feel it is very important to understand what was going on in their minds in order to be able to prevent such happenings from occurring again. This is not just important in terms of stopping future crimes, but also important in terms of preventing ill thought out, knee-jerk reactions such as, for example, blaming social media.

In general, there are two worlds of behaviour:

The first is the “Social” world and this is the world of our friends and families. It is also a world in which money is very rarely mentioned. After all I don’t ask my friends to “pay” money for favours and I only hazily keep track of the balance of such favours between us. In this world I often work quite hard (as there is little I would not do for a friend) and the work is in my own time and at my own expense. This is a common enough concept that I am sure you recognise it.

In contrast to this friendly world, there is another. When payment is involved it puts us firmly in the “money” world that has different rules. There my time is valued according to my sense of self-worth and career. There I don’t do favours or work late and demand a significant reward for my time. For example I would always offer to buy my mate a pint at the bar and forget the cost, but I would immediately query the barkeep if he screwed up the bill.

This is also why your boss refers to the company team as a “family”. He wants you to work as if you are in the “social” world because you will work harder, longer and for less. However, he also clearly only wants to pay you from the “money” world. As the saying goes, “management is getting the maximum milk for the minimum amount of moo”.

Anyway, put simply, the looters are making their decisions in the money world. For example while most people wouldn’t steal directly from a friend or even a stranger (a social world rule), a faceless high street company is considered fair game. These corporations may be legally “people”, but in the terms of the looting, they have no human “face”.

The following mechanisms represent a slippery slope from simple looting to the sorts of muggings we (tragically) saw on the news. As social norms are eroded by the continual bad decision-making, eventually all sense of right and wrong (as dictated by society) is gone.

The first mechanism is to do with the price the people pay for the things they buy. Normally, buying things in London shops are relatively expensive. The cost of something, a Sony PlayStation for example, is a known thing. However, during the riot, the potential becomes for that price to fall to zero. “Zero” isn’t actually a price. “Zero” is in a whole world of its own. Temptation increases to the point where some people will loot PlayStations and justify it because it’s a faceless crime with no “real” victim. Indeed the looter thinks in terms of being the victim. In other words the price “zero” is the bridge between the “money” and “social” worlds, and is so alluring that even normal people will act against perceived social norms in its presence.

Why is this? Because of the second mechanism:

The second mechanism is to do with herding. When deciding what to do, the sensible thing is to balance the risk and the reward. The risk is arrest and imprisonment, the reward is the ability to have “something for nothing”. However, this is not actually the way we make decisions at all. It is quite hard to stop and make decisions based on sensible logical calculations, instead we simply base our decision on two things:

1. What we see others doing.

If we see others doing the thing we are considering, and crucially having a positive experience (in a crime example: such as they get away with it). Then we will be far more likely to take that choice ourselves. If we come across a $10 note, would we hand it into the police? Yes, perhaps. But, if we came across a millions pounds in the street, and hundreds of people were taking them as they blew away in the wind, would we be so inclined to hand the note it? Possibly not.

2. What we have previously done.

Once a choice has been made for the first time, and if the experience was positive, then we are very likely to take that choice a second time even, and this is the important part, if others are no longer doing it. We effectively use our memory of the prior event as the quick and easy shortcut to the future decision.

So, in a non-criminal example, if we see others buying coffee at Starbucks and enjoying it and we have bought coffee from there before and enjoyed it, then we are much more likely to repeat the experience. Now imagine that there was a sign saying “free coffee today!” outside and that temptation would be massive.

This is one of the reasons that crowds behave the way they do during a riot. They are full of people making all sorts of short-term decisions using the above mechanisms while all the time they are in a terrible place to make “right” choices. This is why people claim in court that they “went too far” or had a moment of “insanity”. In fact, they have behaved in a (unfortunately) automatic manner.

To combat this it is the behavioural conditioning of childhood, which is supposed to contain examples of the benefits of making socially accepted decisions. A person with these memories will have plenty of experience of the positive outcome being when they did not steal.
Finally, there is the related matter of those we look up to. If a person looks up to a particular person or group, then they are likely to act in accordance with how they (think) that group would act. This is doubly strong if it this is the person from the examples above.

So what does this tell us? Firstly that the people looting and fighting against the police are letting off rage against the (perceived) negative influence of the law on their decisions. The law, enforced by the police, is uncaring to their lack of satisfaction with their lives and struggles, and has no cares at all that they don’t have a footballer’s salary or a banker’s bonus. This uncaring has probably been there from all sorts of perceived authority figures all their lives; parents who say one thing and do another, brothers that steal, teachers who cower and a society seemingly having it all. After all this person has little and so all that stuff in the shops must be being enjoyed by others, right?

The second thing it tells us, is that many of these people have very little in their lives in the form of memories of people doing the “right” thing. Nothing that can be used to balance their decisions the way that society wants. This is usually a part of that person’s “tragic” story of drug abuse, parental violence, etc.

Thirdly, the looters are very aware of what others are doing in similar situations to they. This is the root of the whole “BBM” and “Facebook” social messaging issue. The net, the phone and their friends are all communicating a positive reinforcement of the looting action. As is the press in highlighting it on the news.

It seems clear to me that the government is missing a trick with threatening to shut such services down. A messaging system that works for one will also work for another and the police and government should be sending out the message over these mediums, not turning them off. The message should be a reinforcement of the negative outcomes that await looting and the positive outcomes that comes from being “good”.

So, to stop these sorts of crimes, these looters need to live lives full of positive reinforcement of “good” choices and negative reinforcement of “bad” choices.

Whose job is that?

This isn’t just the job of parents, but also of police, government and indeed the entire society as a whole. This is the larger and more difficult issue to deal with. Since their “wretched” lives don’t “naturally” contain these memory forming influences then society could “gift” them by opening lots of social programs in these areas. These can create these positive messages at all levels.

This of course requires us to care about these people and about society in general. Since most of us are not these people, why should we care?

That this is even a question highlights those greater problems that exist in our society. The job of fixing that is the governments. The government is a massive influence in all our lives whether we want it or not, but the social contract is two-way. On a grander stage, our treatment of other countries and even our way of making war should reflect our values we want our people to have, but all too often it is itself a “grab and loot” on a larger scale and therefore a message that reinforces the wrong decision in the mind of our potential looter. Unfortunately, our society rewards aggressive, self-serving and violent behaviour only as long as it is done by companies and in boardrooms. Alternatively, as long as it is performed by “famous” people (who are of course then role models for the negative reinforcement).

Nevertheless, these are larger aims, designed to change society slowly and will take a long time to implement. What can we do right now?

Ethical Training.

Yes, right now every single person convicted of looting, rioting and violence on our streets should (after their term in prison) be sent for training in what would basically amount to “how to make good decisions”. I have often remarked that the first step in avoiding a trap is knowing of its existence. To that end, training people to recognise the situation they were in and how to avoid making the wrong decisions (i.e. they committed the crime and got arrested) will be the most effective way of giving them the memories needed to react correctly when facing the same decisions in the future. This is generally known as rehabilitation.

For some this probably sounds too “liberal” and even that I am suggesting that society should “go easy” on crime, but on the contrary: the complete pillaring of the looters is a vital mechanism in changing behaviour. Indeed these measures will only work if the negative “down side” punishment is harsh enough to enable the lesson.

Only by understanding a thing can we stop a thing. Ignoring the fact that the usual incentive (prison) is not working and blaming the communication technology is worthless in the extreme. If we understand how someone makes the “wrong” decisions and appreciate that the mechanism this person used is essentially the same as ours then we highlight what is missing. These looters can be understood and by this understanding can they and the next generation be prevented from making the same mistakes.





If you have any comments on this article please keep in mind two things:

1. This blog is set to moderate comments. I wont post abusive commentary. I respect the opinions of others and I ask that you do the same.

2. Please leave comments that are a little more constructive than one line or one-word answers. If you want to debate this article, feel free, but keep in mind that this is not /b/ and childish bullshit simply won’t be published.




Bio: Philosopher, film maker, writer and IT expert. Occupation: IT Consultant, film-maker and writer. Interests: Debate, cooking, computer-gaming, reading, writing, videoing, martial arts, air­soft, movies, diving, skiing… (The list goes on — Basho is a philosopher and therefore into everything!)

  • KierO

    To quote Tommy Lee Jones in “Men in Black”:

    “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you
    know it.”

    The riots, as you so rightly surmised my friend was a complex recipe of
    different people with different motivations and facing different
    circumstances.  My over riding thought about it all is the ever increasing
    consumerism in this country.  We have gone from being a nation that
    produces to being a nation that consumes. It is the reason that we face a huge
    budget deficit and it is the reason that people feel the almost irrational need
    to have the latest and greatest, no matter the cost.

    If you can afford it, you buy it.
    If you can’t afford it, you borrow.
    If you can’t borrow, you steal it.

    Now that certain people in this country realise that
    circumstances beyond their control mean that they are never going to be able to
    afford certain things, and that their life, in all likely hood, is going down a
    predefined path of poverty and crime….they have nothing to lose.

    Just my 2 pence worth! ;

    • Anonymous

      Bang on Kiero. I sometimes weep for the future of our society. I hope that the government and people can create a new social contract, a way of forming the team that is to be found in some other countries. While we follow the teachings of Friedman and care little for anything but profit, while the corporation can be a person and commit evil int he name of profit, while governments are afraid of banks and by proxy the rich that own banks, while all these things – this country is in deep shit. I find it funny in the most harrowing way that the Prime Minister blamed Facebook and BBM! As if that had anything to do with it beyond the essentially practical management of the looters? Blaming social media is like blaming cars for bank robberies.

      • KierO

        Guns don’t kill people, PEOPLE kill people.

        Social Media doesn’t start riots, PEOPLE start riots.

        And I know EXACTLY what you mean about Banks! ;)

  • Trouble125

    well said sir…. however, just for fun…

    bbc says 1600 people were arrested during the riots in london.
    given that the population of gtr london is about 7.5 mil, then we can sumise that 0.02 percent of the population is more inclined to riot than the rest.
    given that in the average persons lifetime, they build a social relationship, whether postively or negatively, with about 1000 people, then we can deduce that 0.2  of those people are more likely to riot.


    or… someone you know, has an evil leg.

    (again, fully agree with you, i just like playing with maths…. if you twist numbers long enough, a statistic can say anything you like)

    • Anonymous

      Lol! I do have an evil leg! It keeps wanting to kick the asses of a few people in particular…

  • Anonymous

    I do have an answer for you, but since it such a big one – I am writing it up.

    • Trouble125

      well, i read his link….  gotta give the guy many points for effort, its some lovely rhetoric… though i was always taught to beware of over repeating similar words and phrases. i’m not going to argue with him here, as this is your house my freind, and therefore your honour to discuss….

      though one little shot across his bows, it tickles me that an article proclaiming the evils of the consumer driven society, sits next to an advert about the hq of this particular non-cult, where they are pleased to inform you of their lovely bar and cafe? surely they should just have a plot of land where i could grow my own coffee beans?

  • Anonymous

    The internet is a vast wilderness open to all. This means that you will easily find opinions and understandings so far out of line with your own that you are almost certain to be shocked and appalled at some of it.

    That’s fine.

    What’s a more insidious danger is that you can use the chaos of the web to represent opinions of things that you would “want” to be true.

    Your writing, on the link provided, is one such fantasy. You would wish that these rioters are in some way politically motivated by the same agenda as you. This is because you fantasise about using the same methods to obtain your ends, but don’t/won’t carry them out; you would rather cheer on others from the side-lines. I expect you justify this by having read the Wikipedia entry on Karl Marx and see yourself as some sort of intellectual.

    Let me assuage you of that notion.

    The rioters were not the vanguard of a social upheaval towards a communistic state by a rejection of capitalism. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. In the night of the long knives that will be the start of the revolution there is one absolute stage of violence: this is the moment when the workers seize the “means of production”. Notice the terms here, “workers” (Did you see workers rioting?) and “means of production” (what wealth generating apparatus was seized in the name of the people?). No my friend, these were not revolutionaries, these were wankers.

    I see no evidence whatsoever that these people were after social “change”. They were after personal enrichment at the expense of others. They were robbing, stealing, taking and carolising. These were people at the trough of capitalism, people mired in the culture of money, people sucking at the tits of Minerva, these were wankers. By cheering them on in blogs and twitters it is prats like you who lend them the false justification they barely can understand. Listen to the two girls in the mp3 I linked, they are not hard bitten communist theorists expounding the dogma of their found tribe, their pockets full of Trotsky and Lenin. They were two drunken girls repeating something they heard someone else say.

    Don’t confuse the chaos of rioting, something our culture has a VERY long history of (read a book: where do you think the riot act came from anyway?), with anti-capitalist uprisings reclaiming the streets and also don’t try to take the credit for actions you didn’t commit; you don’t have the right.

    As for my “dualism”, since the rioters don’t think like me (a Daoist) it was important to analyse them in a framework that is not outside their context. This is always a mistake whether you are applying modern ethics to ancient cultures, national feelings to other nations or even just communism to capitalism. That’s how wars start, that’s how genocide happens and that’s how you made your mistake.

    So, since these people are capitalist, I used a capitalist method to explain their actions. This wasn’t a philosophical position on my part; it was a scientific method for explaining and predicting behaviour. As Trouble pointed out in his comment, this is not a position a Daoist naturally holds; we tend towards Zen realism (for me there is no right and wrong in the world at all, simply what people do and what they don’t). I have written at length about what I think on this site and you are welcome to take a look and come at me if you have the minerals.

    Finally, it’s worth pointing out that everything I suggested to happen is now happening: social programs, pillorying of the criminals, ethics classes, the lot.

    That’s a mark of correct analysis.

    On the other hand, your analysis has not come to pass and the revolution has not yet been televised.

    That’s means you were talking rubbish.

    As Dr Johnston might say, “I refute you thus!”

  • axn

    how do you know these people were not workers? Besides, are not slum, no-place people precisely the new revolutionary subjects?
    I’ve just had enough of psycological explanations for social events…

    • Trouble125

      well, at a guess, the eleven year old writers were not workers…. just an thought i had, also, you can tell it was not the  ” workers “, by which i mean the large proportion of the population, honest, hard working type people, and we can tell it wasn’t them, because they were not there… let me give you an example…

      at the peterloo massacre, where the the army was actually used to disperse the crowd, and the riot act was read,  60,000 people  turned up…. 60,ooo.. thats 10 percent of the uk population…, not 1600 people, who lets face it, is way less than the average soda pop conference football league crowd….