Predicting a riot: Social inequality leads to vandalism in experiments

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Researchers at UCL found that social inequality can lead to collective violence in an experiment setting.

The Nuffield Foundation funded the project. It was initiated following the 2011 London riots. Researchers sought to understand the roots of antisocial group behavior. Today's findings were published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Professor Daniel C. Richardson, UCL Psychology & Language Sciences, is the lead researcher. He said that rioters are often seen as a form of'societal self-harm'. People in riots can cause damage to their environment and put themselves at risk of being injured or arrested, but they don't have anything to gain.

"Different explanations of rioting fall into three categories: the 'bad apples' explanation, which blames individuals for criminality, the social identification explanation, where rioters see a common problem and collective action as a way to solve it, and the relative deprivation explanation, where people see a gap in what they have and what is rightfully theirs.

"Our findings add weight to the social identity, relative deprivation explanations of collective violence while suggesting that individual crime may not necessarily be involved."

A series of 19 experiments was conducted with 171 participants. Two groups played at the same time an interactive mobile game called Parklife. In this game, teams created a virtual park.

The game was rigged half the time in favor of one team. This became obvious when both teams could see their parks on a screen. The disadvantaged team became frustrated and began to vandalize other parks. Vandalism was an option in the game, but it was destructive as it took away from improving the park. While it took twice as much work to build a park for disabled teams, it was equally easy to vandalise either team's property.

The unequal games saw the disadvantaged team vandalize more park features than the other team, and build fewer features themselves, since they were focusing their efforts on vandalism.

Participants only engaged in vandalism when others were building their own features. Researchers say this demonstrates spontaneous coordination among the group, even though they weren't allowed to communicate with one another.

Researchers did not find any differences in the vandalism rates due to personal characteristics such as political affiliations or social groups. However, the researchers found that people responded stronger to inequality when they were told about the characteristics of their fellow teammates.

Professor Richardson stated: "Here, we show that collective behavior can emerge even when there is weak social identification. This is because the group has been randomly assigned to a group made up of strangers.

"We found no evidence that any one personality or demographic is responsible for intergroup violence. This means that we do not believe that particular people are the only ones who cause it. Riots are caused by situations and not individuals, so it is wrong to stigmatize the people involved in a riot rather than investigating the root causes.

"Instead, however, we found that intergroup conflict is directly affected by inequality between groups. This suggests that economic inequality could be reduced to maintain public safety.

"Next, we will study how people might respond to social inequity experiences based on their social membership and personal life histories."

Catherine Dennison, Welfare Program Director at the Nuffield Foundation, stated that "This research helps us better understand what influences collective violent behavior and how inequality can affect people's behavior." This is in addition to the increasing evidence on the effects of inequality on peoples' outcomes, including their overall health and education.

More information: Proceedings of the Royal Society B (2021): We predict a Riot: Inequity and relative deprivation, as well as collective destruction in the laboratory. Information from the Journal: Proceedings of Royal Society B. We predict a Riot: Inequity and relative deprivation as well as collective destruction in our lab (2021). rspb.royalsocietypublishing.or .1098/rspb.2020.3091