How Riots Work

Mob Mentality

An angry mob confronts riot police in South Korea.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

When a group of people has assembled because they're emotional and angry about something, it only takes one act of violence to whip the crowd into a fury. Others will follow the initial rioter's lead and begin destroying property or hurting people. A lot of research has been conducted into the mindset of a violent mob. Being part of a group can destroy people's inhibitions, making them do things they'd never otherwise do. They lose their individual values and principles and adopt the group's principles, which, during a riot, are usually to cause destruction and avoid detection. This standard can seem to be a just and righteous one, since the mobs assembled after an act of perceived inequality or unfairness, and the communal emotion can make the cause seem even more important. Being in the midst of a mob can be exciting and powerful, and it can make people feel invisible -- they are part of a huge group, and they won't be detected or held responsible for their actions.

This research may help to explain why so many riots occur in prison and at sporting events. In these situations, there is already a heightened sense of group solidarity -- everyone is wearing the same thing (either a jumpsuit or team colors) and has the same goal (in the case of prisoners, freedom or better living conditions in the jail might be the goal, while sports fans are obviously hoping for a win or disappointed in a loss). When you consider the fact that alcohol is consumed at sports events, the atmosphere seems even more ripe for a mob to become disruptive.


The longer a riot continues, however, the harder it may be to find people who remember why everyone assembled in the first place. While participants feel their actions are justified, they may not be able to articulate the specific act that motivated the riot, and often as a result, damage is done to property or people that can't even be tied to the riot's trigger. Some people will show up simply to loot the damaged businesses and homes. Many of the victims of riot violence did nothing to deserve their fate other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So how can dangerous mobs be stopped? We'll explore riot control tactics on the next page.