Why was London burning?

The moment is arriving to try to understand what has been happening on the streets. It is complex, of course. However, as I listen to what experts and punters are trading, one concept strikes me as particularly useful. It’s the psychological phenomenon of group conscience.

The modern world teaches us that we are individuals. Autonomy and rights are the moral ideals that shape our age. But at best, that’s only half the story. We are social animals, as Aristotle observed, meaning not that we like to socialise, but that our identity is primarily collective. My family, my gang, my team, my nation are where I feel most fully myself and we will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain that sense of belonging.

This is what group conscience protects and enforces. It keeps you in, even if that means keeping others out.
It can be likened to the way birds wheel and swirl in the air. The science suggests that they obey just one or two rules. Head for the centre. Mimic your neighbour. They are the rules of the group. We humans are driven by similar compulsions, as the psychologist Bert Hellinger explains. We long to know our place.

What, then, of the rioters? There is a lot of outraged comment about why youths don’t know the difference between right and wrong. But I warm to those who point out that this is necessary but by itself also misses the point. Like the birds, the looters are not primarily acting as self-autonomous individuals. They are copycats – doing what their mates are doing; doing what other gangs are doing. This also explains why the violence spreads, and why that is so alarmingly hard to control.

As journalists interview rioters, this is what you hear them say. ‘It was fun.’ ‘We show we can do what we want to.’ ‘It’s time for payback.’ These are collective sentiments. The morality these guys obey is that of the group. And unsettlingly, it can be half good as well as bad. Some of their values, it seems, are driven by a sense of rage and injustice. Others are driven by the culture of greed that opportunistically puts its hand in the till – a value embodied in many other groups too, it should be said.

In fact, we are all the same. The difference is that our groups probably follow values that are mostly, thankfully, pro-social. Group conscience has been heart-warmingly demonstrated by #RiotCleanUp: ‘It’s a movement’ declares Dan Thompson, the organiser of the broom army. It has also been on display amongst the vigilantes seeking to protect their property – though they must be careful to monitor the rules they obey.

Heading for the centre and mimicking your neighbour are powerful urges that can lead anyone astray.