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Crowd psychology is a mysterious thing: get a large group of people together and suddenly they go nuts – or maybe they don’t. It’s like mixing together red and blue paint, but unexpectedly getting green. It is by no means a new idea that people act differently in crowds. Classical theories of crowd psychology were pioneered by scholars such as Sigmund Freud and Gustave Le Bon, who believed that crowds cause the minds of individual members to merge and form a collective way of thinking. Individual morals are sometimes corroded, emotions may be intensified. Above all, this theory states that it is this collective crowd consciousness, and not the individuals, that determine a public’s actions.
Convergence theory, on the other hand, states that crowd behaviour is not dictated by the entire crowd, but rather by particular like-minded individuals. People who share existing beliefs and values come together to create a reaction that is representative of widespread feeling, not always irrational mob thoughts.

Historically, crowds have been responsible for dramatic changes in societies, and this summer has proved no different. Although the recent riots seen in London and Vancouver are radically different they both show that crowd psychology is more relevant than ever. What causes average people, such as you and I, to flip cars, loot stores, destroy public and private property, and light shit on fire? What is it that causes people to riot? Is it a case of individuals losing their moral identity in a large crowd? Or is it a case of convergence, similar people coming together to act in a way that is truly representative of their feelings?

Columbia University’s Tory Higgins believes that riots like those in London typically occur because people feel “ineffective” or “powerless.” “In situations like this,” he says, “there is a long period – prior to the riot – of feeling that you’re not in control of your own life. They basically don’t feel respected or that they’re making a difference.”

Higgins’ theory seems to effectively illustrate what happened in London. As is well known, the catalyst of the riots in London was the death of Mark Duggan, a black man shot by the police. Even earlier, the Broadwater Farm riot in Tottenham in 1985, which involved the death of an African-Caribbean woman during a police search of her home, tension has existed between the largely white police force and the local African-Caribbean people of Tottenham, who have long suffered from generational unemployment and poverty. Since then, this tension has only escalated, so that Duggan’s death became part of “the historical sense of injustice at deaths in custody,” according to Claudia Webb, chairperson of Operation Trident – a Metropolitan Police Service unit set up to investigate and inform people about racial firearm crimes, specifically related to the sale of illegal drugs.

Though the response to Duggan’s death began as a peaceful protest, it quickly escalated into riots showing attitudes of hatred and anti-police sentiment, as well as destruction, theft, and violence. The prolonged feelings of disrespect, racial discrimination, and powerlessness in this case make the London riots seem like an example of convergence. But at the same time, it is hard to determine if individuals would have taken similar actions without the influence of the crowd.

While Higgins’ thoughts appear to explain what happened in London, they don’t quite line up with the situation in Vancouver. So what may have happened there? Aly Kassam, a U2 Neuroscience student, was present in Vancouver during the time of the riot, describes the atmosphere he felt amongst Canucks fans in the days leading up to the riot. Kassam says that Vancouver fans were “calmer than most hockey fans.” According to Kassam, no one was cheering, and most remained seated during the games that led up to that fateful night, and even during the majority of the final game. It was a calm-before-the-storm type of situation.

“Everyone seemed to be under control, relaxed. No one appeared to be drinking, and cops were there the whole time. It wasn’t until the last five minutes or so, when they knew they were going to lose, that things started to get really, really weird,” he tells me. “A fight broke out and one guy got knocked out almost right away. Then someone flipped a car and lit it on fire.”

Kassam also says that Vancouver fans seemed to have come to the game prepared to riot, regardless of whether or not they won. One of the rioters brought a homemade bomb, which was later thrown into a Starbucks, to the game. “I got the vibe that they wanted to live up to the riot in ’94,” said Kassam. 1994 was the last time the Canucks advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, when they lost to the New York Rangers and a riot of similar proportions broke out.

Author Bill Buford wrote a book titled Among the Thugs, wherein he describes his experience taking part in a British soccer mob, and which offers insight into why sports riots flare up. He writes, “I had not expected the violence to be so pleasurable… This is, if you like, the answer to the million-dollar question: why do young males riot? They do it for the same reason that another generation drank too much or smoked dope.” In this way the Vancouver riots may epitomize classical theories of crowd psychology: normal people’s values and morals are eroded away by the crowd, resulting in irrational and senseless destruction.

Whether or not riots are a result of classical mob thought or convergence, recent examples have at least had one thing in common: social media. In London, the anti-police sentiment was spread by youths via BlackBerry Messenger (BBM). Messages on BBM can not only reach a large number of people instantly, they are also encrypted and private, unlike posts on Twitter or Facebook, making it the perfect medium for organizing flash mobs and other demonstrations without notifying authorities. Messages inciting people to “unite and hit the streets” had police struggling to keep up and control the violence.

“Doesn’t matter if the police arrive cos we’ll just chase dem out because as you’ve seen on the news, they are NOT ON DIS TING. Everyone meet at 7 at stratford park and let’s get rich,” one BBM user broadcasted. Social networking technologies like BBM give crowds a whole new way to gather.

In Vancouver, rioters posed for pictures, and onlookers took videos of the destruction to be posted on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. These images are now being used to identify and incriminate riot participants. Online “shaming campaign” sites have also been created. Unfortunately, it seems that Vancouver’s online response has not been entirely positive: many social media users threatened riot participants and their families with messages of hate and vigilante justice. “The mob mentality has moved into cyberspace for the first time,” says UBC sociologist Christopher Schneider. The anonymity historically created by crowds can now be created even if one is all alone in their home. The internet allows the users to perform mob actions without all of the risks.

However, it is important to keep in mind that the mentality of crowds does not necessarily have to be that of an angry mob. Take the impromptu clean-up efforts of Vancouverites after the riot: Facebook events and group pages were created almost immediately, urging people to come together to clean the streets of Vancouver. The streets were cleaned quickly, and those who helped created a “citizen’s wall,” where Vancouverites could gather to impart messages of support. It is a perfect example of convergence theory: like-minded people coming together to form a crowd.

In the end, there is no one answer to the question, “why do people riot?” There is no one reason why people act differently in crowds. People riot for different reasons in different places. Is the crowd just an enabler, allowing existing feelings and thoughts to be expressed through collective actions? Or is the crowd itself the creator of an entirely different and irrational mob mentality? The “why” behind crowd psychology may very well remain a mystery for years to come, but one thing remains certain: ordinary people will always be able to gain power by acting collectively. Only time will tell how this power will be used or abused.