Comment: How psychological techniques can help explain the riots

First things first: don't confuse correlation with causality.

By Ewan Cameron

One of the more unpredictable outcomes of the rioting and looting that rocked the UK last week was an apparent earnest desire for people to understand 'why' it happened. This was not a question asked when MPs fiddled their expenses or when journalists hacked phones. Perhaps the destruction of property proved a more tangible concern. Certainly, the ensuing media coverage has given voice to many disparate and conflicting theories on causality.

How, then, should we evaluate the utility of theories espoused by government spokespersons, pundits, newspaper editorials and your right-wing mum? Luckily, criminal and forensic psychologists have been trying to explain violent disorder and theft for years, and given their regular bullying by the 'harder' sciences, have plenty of experience in justifying their robust techniques and principles.

Rule number one comes printed underneath the eyelids of all psychologists – don't confuse correlation with causality. Over the last week, the average UK television viewer will probably have absorbed several hours of riot footage, making us all observers of behaviour, subconsciously ticking off items on our mental clipboards. Most of us are savvy enough to dismiss obviously flawed conclusions such as 'riots are caused by the presence of police officers', even though the police are present in much of the footage. However, many are keen to espouse poverty as the 'cause' of the rioting. It's certainly present in many London and northern English urban areas. Equally so in the case of social inequality, poor housing conditions and unemployment. Before we draw conclusions, consider rule number two.

Rule number two – the validity of any theory is related to how well it fits the data. Any explanation for rioting behaviour should account for all types of rioters, and (this is the tricky part) for those who did not riot. This means that poverty and unemployment, though present, aren't sufficient as an explanation. As has been widely documented, the rioters included organic chefs and millionaires' daughters, and though there were a lot of people involved in the riots, most residents of the affected areas did not riot at all. If we are to understand why rioting happened, we need an explanation that tells us more about the people involved, and that means looking closer. Psychology often explains behaviours by looking at the thoughts and feelings that precede it, and the attitudes and beliefs that led to those. These were writ large all over the audio and visual footage of the riots – verbalisations of entitlement to take what one wants, anti-social beliefs that the police are legitimate targets for violent assault, feelings of exhilaration and excitement from destroying with impunity. It seems that organic chefs and inner city gang members do have something in common after all.

Rule number three – all behaviour is communication. This means that in order to understand the criminal who loots from a local corner-shop and can drive a car at a stranger, we need to find a way to relate to them and understand their motivation. This is something which forensic psychologists do on a daily basis, though in practice it bears little relation to the glamorised Silence of the Lambs fantasy that motivates most applicants to psychology courses. Luckily, figuring out the motivation of rioters is like figuring out the motivation of your fridge. Light goes on. Light goes off. It's not going to do anything that's not written in the manual. A person with the attitudes and beliefs we identified above doesn't need a massive push to engage in criminal behaviour and really we could be asking the question – why doesn't a riot happen every weekend?

Rule number four – Don't reinvent the wheel. When applied to the debate about rioting, this rule means we should look at what we already know about the causes of anti-social and criminal behaviour. Psychologists have spent years evaluating and assessing offenders and, using empirically valid techniques, establishing a list of theories and known 'risk factors' for anti-social behaviour. When it comes to violence and property theft, believe it or not, beliefs about the benefits of conducting violence and property theft are recognised as 'causal'. Whilst unfortunately confirming in some the misconception that psychologists are chancers and con artists, this finding is actually quite important in helping us discern between proposed strategies for tackling anti-social behaviour. Strategies which challenge, or help to avoid, attitudes and beliefs that support criminal behaviour are better than, say, strategies which tackle other spurious and non-causal factors, such as boot-camps which attempt to make offenders somehow march their way to better lives.

By insisting on these rules, we can better assess the many views being offered about 'why' the riots happened. Who knows, we might start asking these questions more often when criminal behaviour occurs, perhaps of our MPs and tabloid journalists?

Ewan Cameron is a provisional psychologist working in Victoria, Australia.

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