Cost vs Benefit of Rioting

A big news topic right now are the London Riots, and it has got me thinking about why they happened and whether we can expect more of this around the world.

The simplest way to think about the riots is on an individual level. Why would someone like you or me go out on the street, cause damage and trouble for other people?

Having just watched this TED talk by Dan Ariely about why we (sometimes) cheat and steal. He made a very good point about Cost vs Benefit.

If you have nothing to lose and you are at the bottom of the food chain, then whatever you do, can only result in something “better” (for you).

This is the case for so many people in the UK (and around the world). We have been through a financial crisis, right now we are facing a second-round debt crisis. There are millions more people who are unemployed, living off the state – losing money they invested in their retirements and much worse. These people are at their wits end  - “nothing to lose”.

They would hesitate very little if they were presented with an opportunity to make their situation better – even if ever so slightly.

Therefore, what they need is a catalyst. At which stage they JUMP into the opportunity.

This is what I observe happening in London right now. The catalyst (whether true or false) was the provocative shooting of Mark Dugan. For a small group of people who had been abused by the police, UK government and even their own citizens, seeing this happen was a catalyst – they choose to act. A small group of people were the first movers, and it was from them that a riot was started.

From this small group a movement was formed – other people at the bottom merely had to join the movement and they could take advantage of many things that would make their lives “better”.

So the cost vs benefit analysis:

Cost: Jail time for rioting / looting (theft, vandalism).

Likelihood of getting caught prior to the riot: high.

Likelihood once riots had started: low

Benefit: Free TV’s, food, anything they they could steal. This makes life a lot better.

So prior to the riots, people had the choice to steal or just get by – but there would be a high chance they would get caught because they were on their own not in a large group. So the Cost > Benefit prior to the riots.

However, once the riots started and reached reasonable mass, there is a sense of anonymity in the group “I won’t be caught, because they won’t know it’s me.” So now, the probability of getting caught goes down and the Cost < Benefit once the riot protects your identity.

For this reason, more and more people are joining the riots and taking the opportunity to “improve” their situation without the risk of getting caught.

Now, I don’t think this is a London-only phenomenon. There are desperate people all over the world, the USA, Europe – never mind China, India and many other developing nations. So, the question remains…what will be the next catalyst?

What do you think about the London Riots and where they are headed?

Further reading:

2 Comments to “Cost vs Benefit of Rioting”

Snap! Your article alludes to the kind of crass opportunism we have seen on the street and quite rightly sounds an alarm for other nations. But when the political and economic leaders of nations demonstrate themselves set a very low moral standard, it is unsurprising that people feel frustrated and disenfranchised.

My own take on this problem.

August 15, 2011 Reply

I think you are utterly right! The leaders our nation, as well as too many around the world, are doing a poor job of leading us to the future. I have gradually lost faith in government to enact change and empower vision within our people. It’s sad that in 2011 our elected “leaders” fall short.

Perhaps it is time for a more democratic decision making system, where we can appoint leaders to make decisions on certain topics, and have a direct impact on the result as citizens…instead of falling for election promises and misgivings by political leaders.

Thanks for the comment, there is more on your blog

August 17, 2011 Reply

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