Sunday, 14 August 2011

The behavioural 'why' of the London riots

The copycat factor has only been mentioned in passing. Herd behaviour/social copying is a mechanism at the core of what I describe in my book ‘Homo Imitans’. Triggering behaviours is easy, social imitation follows if the followers can see and feel how easy, advantageous, and ‘rewarding’ the act can be. For example that breaking into a shop and steeling has no immediate negative consequences. It will take just a few to do this for others to join in. The difference is between people who don’t feel this is ‘rewarding’ and the ones who do. The later ( the looters) are ‘just’ doing what they can do. In this respect the answer to the question ‘why they do it?’ is strictly speaking ‘because they can’. I myself cannot, for example, because the simple mental picture of me doing it is not only not rewarding but revolting. My education has shaped my library of consequences in a way that blocks some behaviours as producing a reward, a positive consequence.

So, give as many million explanations as you wish, you will go backwards in arguments and you’ll hit education, early years, parenting and an early-years social environment. The idea that current cuts for example have anything to do with this is an insult to the imagination and to anybody with a reasonable IQ. That this comes from some politicians is just a sign of their brain calibre. That they are given airtime, a tragedy. I am far from trying to simplify the chain of events and saying ‘it is just social copying/imitation/herd behaviour/copycat effect’. As I said before it is easy to trace back to ‘reward systems’ and hit education. But, at the same time, we need to acknowledge that once something like that has started, the scale up ( and the scale down) are incredibly easy and what it was ‘a mechanism’ turns into ‘a cause’, an automatic, self-reinforcing, repetitive easy to copy. In small scale, the mechanism follow the same principles behind suicide clusters or group hysteria. Understanding the nature of ‘homo imitans’ has practical consequences.

Social copying and imitation work equally on the positive side. See altruism behaviour x your brain feels there is a positive reward ( for your values an beliefs for example) x other people do = altruism will spread. So, back to the ‘educational library’ of good or bad, goodness and evil. The scale up mechanism is the visibility. If I see dozens of people in my neighbourhood helping old people living alone, I am in the path of imitating ( right library provided!) If I don’t see anybody, I may or may not do it myself. If I can see looters on screen or 24/7 coverage or receive tweeters saying come and copy, it’s all fun, nothing negative happens, we are hundreds, your brain will consult ‘the library’ and will say, go on, now you can. I am afraid we are incredibly unsophisticated copying machines. I am not saying for a minute ‘ and that is all that matters’ to understand but, for those in a position of political responsibility, it would be worth acknowledging this so that we can all go back to the mother of all ‘library building: education

The ‘why’ repertoire provided by the perpetrators will be as broad as artificial. Cognitive dissonance, the ability of the brain to match our actions with justifications, is a fantastic library of reasons: because there is noting to do for youth, because we are unemployed, because we don’t have respect, because we are not treated like persons, because they are not jobs, because we are angry with society, because the capitalist world, because the bankers get paid a lot, because there is social injustice... Please add your own. These are all ‘facts’ in search of a link with an action. You might as well add the Pope visit to the list. Surely, somebody, somewhere must call the emperor of the arguments as the most naked of the emperors and stop anybody on newsnight or question time or radio 4 from carrying on beyond 2 milliseconds. (Give airtime to stupid arguments and these will spread like looting behaviours in our brains)

What we have seen is critical masses of individuals given the opportunity to exercise highly rewarding behaviours (for them) usually outside their possibilities suddenly within reach, following other critical masses, reaching thresholds where ‘the acts become the norm’, scaled up by the ability of social media to provide 24/7 ‘social proof’ (it is happening, I can do it, others are doing, my vales system says this is great, I am doing it). Twitter and texting make the connectivity possible and instantaneous so the scale up is robust. No doubt about that. Modern network theory marrying behavioural and social sciences can explain the reality of the past weeks. We will have to be careful in analysing the ‘why’.

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