When Body and Mind Are out of Control; after Crowds Went on the Rampage Last Week in Portsmouth to Protest That a Paedophile Was Living in the Community, Ros Dodd Examines the Psychology of Mob Culture

Article excerpt

It started as a peaceful demonstration. About 50 people, some of them mothers with children in pushchairs, congregated outside the home of 'named and shamed' paedophile Victor Burnett, waving placards and banners.

They were, perhaps understandably, angry that a man said to have abused 140 children was living in their neighbourhood.

Before long, however, the quiet protest turned into a fully-fledged riot.

The crowd swelled to about 200, and by the time the rampaging mob had dispersed, a policeman had been injured by a flying rock, windows had been smashed and a Lada car, thought to belong to Burnett's sister, had been torched.

During the violent disturbance in the Paulsgrove area of Portsmouth last Thursday, local people carried enlarged versions of the picture of Burnett which appeared in the News of the World. The following day, the newspaper bowed to growing pressure and suspended its campaign of identifying paedophiles.

Although the tabloid has condemned the rioting and insists it was not its intention to provoke vigilante action, it was almost inevitable that some people would try to take the law into their own hands.

Paedophiles arouse more disgust and outrage in the public than any other type of criminal. The idea that anyone might get a sexual thrill out of violating a helpless child causes people to feel almost murderous towards offenders.

Hence, those who marched off to demonstrate outside 53-year-old Burnett's council flat felt they were justified in making their loathing felt.

As more and more people joined in Thursday's demonstration, the fury generated by the revelation such a man was living close to a primary school intensified.

Undoubtedly, many of the protesters were likely to be readers of the News of the World, whose target audience is people in low socio-economic groups with limited education.

Yet many of the riots that scar our nation from time to time are carefully orchestrated affairs and the organisers often highly-educated people with a mission to right the perceived wrongs of the world.

London's May Day anti-capitalist protest, for instance, was hijacked not by factory workers but by articulate anarchists. One of those who ended up in court, after being caught on video throwing missiles at police, was a 17-year-old Eton pupil.

The teenager, dressed in a T-shirt bearing the slogan 'Queen Mum hurry up and die', was also seen hurling a chair at McDonald's restaurant in Whitehall and smashing up a crash barrier.

Mob violence is self-feeding. As numbers swell, so protesters - even those whose intention is to demonstrate peacefully - find themselves getting swept along on a tide of aggression and out-of-control behaviour.

'There is a process called behavioural contagion, where emotions generated by the group spread like a viral infection and everyone gets infected by it,' says Dr Peter Marsh, co-director of the Social Issues and Research Centre in Oxford. 'Violent and aggressive behaviour is particularly triggered in this way.'

Another theory which attempts to explain why usually law-abiding people riot when they are in large groups is that being part of a mob affords a certain amount of anonymity.

'So you can say, 'it wasn't me; the crowd did it',' comments Dr Marsh.

'Also, the kind of norms and unwritten rules of behaviour which normally apply in an individual or small group context don't apply in large groups and it becomes a free-for-all.'

Dr Richard Crisp, a social psychologist at Birmingham University, agrees with this theory. 'When a 'mob' is formed, what tends to happen is a process called de-individuation, whereby people behave differently in the group to the way they would behave as an individual,' he explains. 'So people who are normally quite respectful start turning over cars.'

There is also a 'diffusion of responsibility', where people in a group no longer feel individually responsible for their actions. …