Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The Psychology Of The London Riots

The London riots are the manifestation of a value and attitude system that is based on sullen selfishness and a perverse sense of entitlement. The rioters, of course, claim that society has let them down. Well those of them who are capable of fairly sophisticated rationalisations do.

The riots are explicable in many ways. Idiocy, greed, criminality. These things however are surface manifestations of something far darker and deeper. A whole sub-class of young people have had their desires and needs tweaked in such sophisticated ways by consumer goods suppliers they have been become addicted to the labels and technologies that feed their ego centric craving for social identity.

When the opportunity to get hold of the materialistic baubles that are dangled in front of them 24/7 like high tech designer carrots they are already wound up into a feeding frenzy. As soon as the constraints (either physical, social or psychological) are removed then what we have seen with London riots is readily explained.

Add these extrinsic motivational factors to intrinsic factors that have been developed over decades of a particular type of socialisation that foregrounds entitlement and cosseting and you have the form of Frankenstein-esque petulance that we see on our TV screens today.

Working away underneath our society is a managerialist 'customer' discourse that has generated the twisted and unexpected side effects of the London riots. Years of fawning to people as customers in every walk of life has created an attitude of 'you owe me, I don't owe you anything'.

Its not just young people in the areas we see on TV either. Recently in a lecture on Imagination to some final year students, the lecturer was interrupted from someone at the back of the room who said "I don't need to listen to this crap! I just need you to tell me how to get a good grade".Why? because the student is being told he is a customer. They have been hot housed by the secondary education system and fed like chicks. Gaping mouths incessantly demanding sustenance and attention. Entirely passive and incapable of fending for themselves.

The rioters don't care. There is no point of appealing to a value set that simply doesn't recognise or 'get' the values and norms of our society in general. This is why stringent constraints need to be applied. The application of some straightforward Skinnerian reinforcement is probably the only way to teach these people the social limits of acceptable behavior.

In a liberal society rights come with responsibilities. The London rioters want rights without any responsibility and actually believe that it is OK to think that too. It is time to stop pandering to these self indulgent, poor me's and treat them with the stringency that is equivalent to their disregard for the rest of the community.


  1. Skinnerian reinforcement would surely only further develop their extrinsic motivation and thus further amorality. When schools use reward schemes with tech prizes as seemingly their only tool for teaching behaviour - and parents use rewards/bribery at home as their only tool - then it's hardly surprising these children don't develop any proper values.

  2. I would never suggest this is an either/or solution. What I would argue is that believing that you can exclusively rely on an appeal to moral values that are evidently non-existent is rather futile.

    In terms of the generative tendencies that influence the behavioural outcomes such as we have witnessed I agree that establishing appropriate values and beliefs early on in life is crucial. Yes there are systemic and long standing societal failures in education and parenting. I would argue that this due in no small measure to the pre-suppositions of relativistic post modernism that has pervaded social life and policy making for decades. A perspective that has argued that there are no absolute standards and that anything goes. The rioters cleary believe anything goes. They need to be disarmed of that point of view in a form of communication that is unequivocal, and robust enough to shock them out of their world view and expose them to the mind of the community in general on this matter.

    These people are not poor little darlings who are hard done by and misunderstood. They are violent, life thwarting, self interested, chancers, takers, and destroyers who have as at this moment abdicated their right to be listened too.

    Once they have had time to reflect after the duration of their punishment, then and only then might it be of value to sit with them to discuss their perspective and determine if their attitudes have changed.

    The options of positive and negative reinforcement in the context of the crimes they have committed should not be off the table. This is because the nature of the punishment will be of a similar category to the acts the perpetrators have carried out. i.e.quick and harsh. This means the meaning of the punishment, in all but the most forlorn cases, will be communicated and understood as a signal that the wider community find their behaviour unacceptable. We will speak to them in the language of their choice.