The behavioral science behind rioting

Some of the images coming out of Ferguson at night have been hard to digest. Violent clashes between protesters and police, the destruction of private property, and anger and angst are all visible. Many people, including President Obama, have condemned the fighting and friction taking hold of the city after dark. Behavioral experts said there is no excuse for violence, but the riots are happening for a reason.

Under the cover of darkness, protests turn into violence in Ferguson, Missouri where people have rioted for the past two nights. “At this point, they feel hopeless, they feel helpless, and they’re acting out,” said Jennifer Villarreal with Four Rivers behavioral Health. There is never an excuse for scenes of such destruction, but they can be explained. “They potentially have the feeling to feel like they have nothing to gain or lose by being a part of these riots. It’s not going to change the outcome of the decision for the negative or the positive,” she said.

The grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson is final in St. Louis County, but Villarreal said the three months people had to wait during the proceedings may have compounded emotions that were already volatile. “They’ve had repeated frustrations about something going on, and its taken so long for any resolution of any kind to come. This release of emotions that comes out can sometimes be really destructive,” she said.

Aggressive mobs were acting on anger in Ferguson to release the tensions that came when they learned there would be no trial. Villarreal said, “As time goes on, those reactions should be fading. We will see maybe a bit of a different kind of emotional aftermath after this.”   

There are of different kinds of mobs, and each has the potential for violence. In this instance, people are angry because of what they feel is an injustice. Mobs have also gotten violent after sports games or even during events like black Friday.

It has been widely reported that the rioters in Ferguson have been mostly teens or people in their early 20s. Villarreal said the brain isn’t fully developed until the age of 25, so young people may not be fully thinking about the long-term consequences of rioting in their own community. People are also more likely to act impulsively in large groups, because there’s a smaller chance of getting caught.


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