Ask the Psychologist Issue #5: Demonstration, Rioting and Looting, WHY

Some people are asking the question, what should happen to people who demonstrate and may cause injury to others or damage others property. First one needs to distinguish between a demonstration, rioting and looting, regardless what the media calls it.

Demonstrations (Or Protesting) are a form of activism, usually taking the form of a public gathering of people in a peaceful rally or walking in a march. Thus, their opinion is demonstrated to be significant by gathering in a crowd associated with that opinion. Demonstrations are peaceful in nature and don’t have a purpose to injure or damage people or property. Martin Luther King, Jr., set the example for peaceful demonstrations and practiced his first amendment right.

 riot is a form of civil disorder commonly characterized by a group, lashing out in a violent public disturbance, with no focused purpose, except they are against authorityproperty or people.  This is criminal behavior and not a first amendment right.

One explanation of why people riot can be explained by De-Individualization  theory, which states that in typical crowd situations, factors such as anonymity, group unity, and arousal can weaken personal controls (e.g., guilt, shame, self-evaluating behavior) by distancing people from their personal identities and reducing their concern for social evaluation. This lack of restraint decreases an individual sensitivity to the environment and lessens rational forethought, which can lead to antisocial behavior. More recent theories have stated that De-Individualization Theory hinges upon a person being unable, due to the situation, to have strong awareness of their self as an object of attention. This lack of attention frees the individual from the necessity of normal social behavior.

Riots typically involve theft, vandalism, and destruction of property, public or private (Fires cause the most damage). The property targeted varies depending on the riot and the inclinations of those involved. Targets can include shops, cars, restaurants, state-owned institutions, police and religious buildings. When interviewed during a riot, participants cannot give a specific reason for their behavior, except generally stating, it is an opportunity to get property for free (Theft). The people generally victimized during a riot come from all walks of life and their race, religion and nationality don’t matter to the rioters.  

Looting, also referred to as sacking, ransacking, plundering, despoiling, despoliation, and pillaging, is the indiscriminate taking of goods by force where law and civil enforcement are temporarily ineffective or when rioting occurs.The proceeds of all these activities can be described as booty, loot, plunder, spoils, or pillage.

It can be tragic at times, when extreme measures have been taken to stop looting; such was the case in New Orleans some years ago when looting occurred after massive flooding.

A detachment of 300 National Guard troops had landed in New Orleans with the authorization to shoot and kill “hoodlums,” who were looting, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco stated.


Bart P. Billings,Ph.D.
COL SCNG-SC, Military Medical Directorate (Ret.)
Licensed Clinical Psychologist CA PSY 7656
Licensed Marriage, Family Therapist CA LMFT 4888

—Director/Founder International Military & Civilian Combat Stress Conference
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