Ferguson – The Psychology of Riots and Poverty

The rare non-NJ-specific post. Because most of us were watching last night, and some of us may be attending gatherings today in Montclair, Cherry Hill, Newark, Princeton or elsewhere. Promoted by Rosi. 

I'm not going to sit here and Monday morning quarterback the jury's decision. I don't have all the evidence, you don't have all the evidence the grand jury saw. We just…don't…know. But I wanted to address something else.

I've seen a lot of people decrying the rioting and looting behavior. While I agree – it's reprehensible, I also like to come at this from a psychological perspective. Some people – usually conservatives come at this with an eye towards compassion for the people whose property is being damaged and the horrible behavior of the rioters. Others come at this with an additional compassion for the rioters themselves. Conservatives are far more likely though to be “for” the police and good people who are being damaged. Why? 

Psychologically – if you read some of Jonathan Haidt's work – you will learn about the moral pillars that are at work in our brains (and some theorize these are more hard wired in our brain, than actually instilled from environment). Conservatives lean on all of them, but tend towards the authority, loyalty and sanctity just a bit more – whereas liberals tend towards the care and fairness pillars more. You can read more about the moral pillars here and I highly recommend his book on the subject.

Essentially though – what I see is that conservatives value playing by the rules more, respecting authority and living a “good life”. Liberals care more about justice, fairness, and caring for others. These are important to consider when assessing the divide over this verdict. Conservatives care more about the good people, the business owners, and the police. Liberals understand about those things, but they also are able to examine and weigh more heavily the additional forces at work behind the minds of the rioters – they care more, and want to help the people in the community more -especially the underpriveleged.

There are two psychological forces at work in the minds of rioters. One is anger. That might seem obvious – but anger spreads and is fueled by anger around you. Last night I was watching an episode of a show called “Brain Games” – it's a show about the psychology and physiology of the brain. It illustrated exactly what was going on in Ferguson. Anger breeds anger. Essentially – when you are yelled at in an angry fashion – your brain activates the hormones that would protect you, and that makes you angry too. They illustrated this by having a guy in a dunk tank nastily heckle the people trying to dunk him. They got more and more angry – and kept trying to dunk him. If you consider this – it's not hard to understand that the angry people on the street – breed a vicious cycle of anger that is hard to stop. It's built into the physiology of our brains. Now – most of us in most situations have the ability to stop and take a minute for rational thought and get it under control – but if you're surrounded by it – it's near impossible to do that. You would literally have to walk away and go hide in a quiet corner to do that. So the rioters essentially continue the cycle until they have a release. The release comes in the form of physical violence. This physiological response to anger in the brain isn't really something that can be debated scientifically – it's well, well proven.

Now – that's the first half of what I see going on. The second half is this: Being poor causes poor decision making because poor people are always thinking in the short term. This is something I just came across recently with this article. Essentially – when you're poor, you're never thinking of what's going to happen long term. You're always one repair bill away from a dead car, you're always one sick day away from losing your job, you're always one step away from not paying for rent, food, or both. This short term thinking about the large aspects of your life leads to your brain being conditioned to think this way in all aspects – so combine the anger I just illustrated, along with poor short term thinking – and you get exactly what is now happening in Ferguson. You have poor, uneducated people who don't have many prospects, and their anger begets the rioting behavior because they don't see how their collective behavior is viewed outside of their community – they only see the short term anger and release.

Last –  I want to compare Ferguson to another place that has seen a lot of demonstrations lately – Hong Kong. Hong Kong's demonstrations for an independent more democratic form of government have been going on for months. But they have rarely become violent. Why is that? I think it's because the people there aren't poor. The quality of life of the demonstrators is better than in Ferguson, and because of that – the anger isn't shortsighted. The issue isn't about the short term goal/decision of the verdict, it's about the long term goal of democracy. The protests are from people who are capable of mostly pulling back to rational thought. The stakes are much different. Not all protests end in riots. The ones that do, are because the people essentially have nothing to lose, nor do they have anything to gain. That doesn't make it right, it just explains it.

 So how do we move forward? My hope is that some conservatives read this and gain a better understanding of what's going on inside the brains of the people on the streets there. I temper my hope though, knowing that when I present things in a psychologically analytical way – they are often dismissed by conservatives. I often hear the statement from them if I analyze their line of thinking “I am what I am”. Which also means “They are who they are”. The people of Ferguson are who they are because of the outside conditions that are shaping their collective reaction. Poor people make poor decisions, angry people beget more angry people. This does not change in the short term. Long term what it means is that Ferguson is an example of our poor communities, and that needs to be addressed. For me – this whole thing highlights the political and economic divide that is becoming wider and wider here in the USA. Our poor communities need our help – but hey – that's just the liberal in me coming out. After all – I am what I am.

Comments (3)

  1. dbkurz415

    Rob, I agree with you that Poverty is The Enemy. And it is tragic because the amount of funding that it would take to raise the poor to a decent standard of being is so unbelievably minimal compared to what we’ve wasted on wars over the past two decades.

    That being said, I also must fault the rioters. This is America, and democracy isn’t completely dead yet. There is real value in getting and remaining organized, politically and socially.  

  2. marshwren

    for the “rioting” (by demonstrators as well as police) than psychology–which itself is only the engineered consequence of decades of horrendously bad public policy decisions.

    Start with the baseline of endemic racial bigotry and anti-lower class bias that has characterized US society since its very founding (with brief departures therefrom during the paternalistic Progressive Era, the New Deal and Great Society).

    Beginning in the late 1970’s there was a resurgence of conservatism, the result of white middle/working class resentment against the civil rights era and the Vietnam War (specifically “hippies” and “radicals) that gave rise to the Reagan counter-revolution, and an unending stream of anti-social, economy-destroying legislation, much of it supported by Democrats.

    Among them being:

    Exporting manufacturing jobs–mostly to destroy the white, working-class, unionized base of the Democratic Party; to replace it with a 3rd World service economy; increase permanent unemployment.

    Privatization of public services–for the sole purpose of busting public employee unions.

    The militarization of civilian police forces (both in terms of equipment, training and tactical doctrine); coupled with harsher, longer sentencing for crimes (including mandatory sentences, prohibiting judicial discretion, three-strikes, etc).

    Anti-tax policies that shifted the tax burden away from the (progressive) income and corporate taxes, and towards (regressive) sales taxes, fees for permits and licenses, and turning municipal courts into revenue generators in lieu of raising property taxes.

    A US Supreme Court that keeps expanding the “citizenship rights” of corporations at the expense of ordinary citizens, and functionally allows plutocrats (the GOP) and hedge funds (Democrats) to dictate who gets nominated/elected.

    We’ve now devolved to the point where these anti-social, anti-economic polices are converging in places like Ferguson and Newark; and what we’re witnessing there is just the beginning of many worse things to come.

    I find it is easier to understand the psychology of the times in terms of the policies that created it, rather than understanding the policies in terms of the psychology.


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