The Riot Stuff

From the WebMD Archives

March 7, 2001 -- "Police Break Up Rowdy Crowd in Pioneer Square: 12 Arrested."

Headlines like this one, which appeared after a Mardi Gras riot in Seattle, are increasingly common. And Seattle's not unique: This year alone, Mardi Gras disturbances were also reported in Philadelphia; Austin, Texas; and Fresno, Calif. Beer bottles were thrown, stores were looted, hundreds of people were arrested, and a 20-year-old Seattle man died as a direct result of out-of-control crowd violence.

What is it that turns otherwise festive crowds dangerously violent?

In general, three factors are needed, says psychiatrist Scott Patten, MD, PhD, a faculty member at the University of Calgary in Alberta.

First you need a large crowd -- such as Mardi Gras revelers, the throngs of people who flock to New York City's Times Square on New Year's Eve, or the fans who take to the streets after a big sporting event.

Next, he says, certain aspects of crowd behavior need to be exhibited -- such as drinking alcohol, chanting, singing, and/or engaging in a group-like activity, such as wearing team colors.

"And the third and final factor is the length of time that the instigator or instigators are displaying the behavior," says Patten. "If the police or a bouncer at a bar doesn't remove this person rapidly, he or she will likely cause a domino effect.

"If you have a situation where one person manages to spread the violent behavior to one or more people before he or she is removed, then there will be an exponential spread, because each person will infect more people."

In other words, he says, violence, like an illness, can be contagious in certain circumstances."

"If this is true, we should be able to use some of the same mathematical methods used to predict outbreak patterns and target vaccination programs to predict the circumstances where violence may become an epidemic," says Patten.

"We were unable to be present during a riot to test the hypothesis directly, but we were able to predict circumstances where riots may break out," he says.

The solution to preventing riots, he says, lies in " really good policing." Quickly removing a violent person from a volatile environment can prevent riots from beginning.

In addition, he says, "it's important to plan cities and celebrations where there is not an excessive concentration of bars and/or large crowds at times of emotional arousal."

And it's not just a U.S. phenomenon.

"Hooliganism" is what the Brits call the unruly, uncontrollable behavior commonly after soccer and rugby matches. Once distinctly British, hooliganism has spread in recent years to Holland, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Hungary.

To curb such behavior, the British government has banned beer bottles at soccer matches and beefed up the police presence.

What is it that happens to people and animals when they are in groups?

"They tend to become less thought-oriented and dumber," says Stuart Twemlow, MD, director of the Erik Erikson Institute for Research and Education at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Mass.

"People act more stupidly than usual under the influence of group pressure and group dynamics, [and] this regression can lead to an outbreak of violent, sexual, and perverse impulses," he says. "There is a sort of 'pack mentality' or a herd instinct in human beings.

"People influence each other by direct modeling, suggestion, and subtle clues -- and this becomes especially magnified as the group gets larger and larger."

Our natural tendency toward social aggression knows no age limits, either. Witness the recent outbreaks of school shootings, prompted to some degree by the shooters' response to aggression-induced exclusion from their social group. And like crowd-centered violence, school violence also seems to be contagious. On the heels of Monday's shooting at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., another such incident took place today: One student opening fire on another student in a Williamsport, Pa., high school.