TMA 01: Explaining Rioting and Looting Behaviours Using Contagion and De-individuation Theories

TMA 01: Explaining Rioting and Looting Behaviours Using Contagion and De-individuation Theories

Rioting and looting behaviour are usually associated with crowds. A crowd is a group of people that have gathered together in unruly or disorganised way. These people are usually united by a common need or characteristic. A good example of a group gathered in this manner is like a food riot. Under this respect, starving people are motivated by a biological need to eat, and if necessary grab by force. Crowds are viewed as something pathological, strange and monstrous. At the same time, other people view it with fascination and awe (Knowles, 2001). Several theories have been coined with an attempt of trying to explain how crowds work and what motivates them. To have a good idea of why people loot and riot, the report shall examine the connection of these behaviours with contagion and de-individuation theories. Other relevant theories will also come into play.

De-individuation is that process whereby an individual is immersed into a group to a point where he loses his personal identity and becomes part of the collective unit. Past theorists have viewed de-individuation as a catalyst for anti-normative and dis-inhibited behaviour among crowds, which “is responsive to the immediate demands of a situation” (Dixon & Mahendran, 2012). This usually results to disruption and chaos since the grievances being raised cannot be addressed immediately. Despite de-individuation having its fair share of positive attributes, generic research tends to focus on the negative consequences associated with crowd anonymity. The notion is usually triggered by the detrimental effects involved with antisocial behaviours like vandalism, violence and looting that accompany hooliganism and rioting. Generally, the theory of de-individuation inspires more negative than affirmative action. This arises because individuals’ personal controls such as self-evaluating behaviour, shame and guilt are weakened. People are distanced from their own personal identities hence reducing the concern they have for social evaluation (Knowles, 2001). The lack of restraint triggers individual sensitivity and reduces rational forethought.

Contagion theory on the other hand postulates that crowds tend to make people act in various ways. It suggests that crowds tend to exert some sort of hypnotic influence on the individuals involved. The anonymity of belonging to a group combined with the hypnotic influence results to emotionally charged irrational behaviour. Just like a disease, the frenzy associated with a crowd is contagious (Knowles, 2001). It feeds upon itself and grows with time. In the long-run, a crowd develops its own life whereby, emotions are stirred and people are driven towards violent and irrational behaviour. People follow what their vocal counterparts are doing without thinking of the consequences that might arise (Breckler, Olson & Wiggins, 2006).

The objective of this report is to analyse how de-individuation and contagion theories explain the behaviour of looting and rioting.

Different people hold different views regarding how these theories explain looting and rioting behaviour. However, there are explanations that show these behaviours can be explained using the above theories. In de-individuation theory, Le Bon postulates that anonymity is a salient feature that helps to comprehend the relationship that exists between individuals and groups. According to Festinger et al (1952), anonymity experienced in a crowd usually results to impulsive, dis-inhibited behaviour that prompts individuals to demand immediate action towards a particular situation (Dixon & Mahendran, 2012). This means that anonymity plays a huge role in trying to expound on this theory. It also explains various factors of group behaviour and surmising of people’s actions during riots.

Zimbardo’s 1969 experiment tried to show various effects that come along with anonymity. This experiment was based on Stanley Milgram’s study of 1961, whereby participants of a “learning exercise” were bestowed with a role of a “teacher”. They were instructed to administer contrasting degrees of electric shock to a learner every time a mistake was committed. From the results, it was apparent that individuals with cloaked identities administered longer shocks compared to those participants who had the ability of retaining their individual identities (Dixon & Mahendran, 2012). This is a favourable example of how anonymity can dis-inhibit actions emanating from an individual. To some extent, it also explains that the ‘cloaked’ condition might result to intensified aggression. This suggests that individuals who get lost in group situations are also prone to such reactions hence collaborating the idea behind de-individuation. There are other examples that can be used in order to support this theory. This includes the Ku Klux Klan, whose members wear white robes in attempt of concealing their identity, facilitating harmful and racist behaviour. Being anonymous in a crowd makes people release aggressive, unconscious and primitive instincts. They are more likely to act impulsively without internalising the consequences of their actions.

The concept of anonymity entailed in de-individuation can be used to explain the rioting and looting experienced in London in August 2011. It is believed that the riots were sparked when a peaceful demonstration at Tottenham police station resulted to the shooting of Mark Duggan (Dixon & Mahendran, 2012). Most people involved in the riots and looting did not necessary involve themselves due to this occurrence. The mere presence of being in a crowd gave them a notion that they were anonymous, and no action or offence that they committed would be traced back to them.  This gave them the ability to act irrationally, aggressively and in a primitive way. It was an opportunity for some to loot that one store whose products they always envy, but cannot afford.

Le Bon also devised contagion theory. He referred to it as a concept of emotions and thoughts which engulf a group. He concluded that people’s unconscious thoughts create a collective and an uncivilised mind that induces uninhibited behaviour within such an environment (Knowles, 2001). The theory of contagion is valid since it can be largely applied in theories relating to looting and rioting. However, the concept is flawed due to Le Bon’s reported contempt for crowds and lack of definite scientific research. Nevertheless, the contagion concept is very critical in the understanding of de-individuation, which occurs in crowds mainly during riots. This is because crowd members are unable to resist ideas being passed in a crowd.  The aspect might lead members of the crowd to sacrifice personal interests in pursuit of fulfilling the crowd’s interest.  This is an indication of their irrationality. Contagion is mainly an effect of suggestibility. These are the emotions and ideas that sweep unhindered through the crowd. People in a crowd become unconscious since their personality is swept away in the process.

Going with the riots and looting experienced in London, very few people knew what had triggered the public’s reaction. Most of the people depended on rumours and took the initiative of going to the streets.  To many, the death of the 16 year old demonstrator and Mark Duggan came as a rumour, but they still wanted to riot and loot in the name of police being unfair (Castella & McClatchey, 2011). The crowd that was rioting initially had created hypnotic influence to the general public. Just like a disease, the riots and looting spread in other areas of London like Enfield, Croydon, Brixton and Clapham Junction (Dixon & Mahendran, 2012). Other cities like Birmingham and Manchester were also affected. This shows that these people were influenced to riot and loot based on the actions of their counterparts in other regions.

Despite de-individuation and contagion giving explanations for looting and rioting, social identity could also offer a favourable explanation of the same. Social identity is a theory used to explain behaviours in groups. It is a person’s sense of who they are based on which group they belong to. A good example is fans in a football match. Here, the fans are wearing similar jerseys and chanting to similar songs in a distinct way. This kind of experience tends to alter an individual’s psychology. The crowd brims with anticipation, passion, excitement and is emotionally charged. This makes them to react differently as opposed to how they would react as individuals (Dixon & Mahendran, 2012). A similar stance is taken by a crowd that has a social identity during rioting and looting. They all work in unison with the idea that they are fighting for what belongs to them as a group. Everyone reacts in a similar fashion regardless of who initiates an action. This is because in social identity, group membership is not something artificial or foreign attached to a person. It is a true, vital and real part of the individual.

In conclusion, it is apparent that de-individuation and contagion theories provide explanations for looting and rioting. De-individuation uses anonymity in its explanation while contagion makes use of loss of consciousness in the crowd mentality. However, these two theories alone cannot explain the actions of onlookers that are involved in such behaviours. This makes it appropriate to include the social identity theory that contradicts the ideas of unconsciousness and anonymity. It emphasises on conformity to shared group norms that give a purpose and sense of belonging to people. Generally, it would be reasonable to assert that contagion, de-individuation and social identity are all relevant concepts of explaining rioting and looting.




Breckler, S. J., Olson, J. M., & Wiggins, E. C. (2006). Social psychology alive. Belmont, CA:             Thomson/Wadsworth.

Castella, T., & McClatchey, C. (2011). ‘UK riots: What turns people into looters?’ BBC News Magazine.        (accessed 15 October 2014).

Dixon, J., & Mahendran, K. (2012). ‘Crowds’ in Holloway, W., Lucy, H., Phoenix, A. And Lewis, G (eds)             Social Psychology Matters, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Knowles, R. T. (2001). Psychological foundations of moral education and character          development: an integrated theory of moral development (2nd ed.). Washington,        D.C.: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy.



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