Friday, September 23, 2005

Looter Logic

[Cross-posted on The Agitator.]

Eugene Volokh:
The AP reports on some incidents [of looting], and quotes Houston Police Capt. Dwayne Ready, who makes a good point -- in a way obvious, but perhaps not entirely clear to every one:
"I think the key element in looting is the fact that those who would not otherwise engage themselves in criminal activity (join in) and believe they will be able to hide in the crowd,” Ready said. “It’s the difference between an unlawful assembly and a riot. Essentially (looting) is theft but I think its [sic] when the crowd believes they can hide against the anonymity of a large crowd engaged in the same kind of conduct."
And as long as we're making good-though-obvious points, it's worth noting that looting provides relatively direct evidence of the deterrence hypothesis. Some analysts (criminologists, sociologists, etc.) claim that the probability and severity of punishment don't really affect the amount of crime that occurs. But looting happens primarily because people realize that if lots of other people are stealing too, law enforcement resources must be spread thinner, and thus the chance of any one thief getting caught falls.


Glen said...

Seems to me the /bulk/ of the looting is about social norms: if "everybody does it" then it must be the thing to do, regardless of whether it's legal or punishable. Or envy: If everybody else is looting, I'm a sucker not to loot too.

My hunch is that people behave honestly when they see others behaving honestly, and people loot when they see others loot. We're essentially herd animals.

But I supposed you'd say the instigators - the /first/ looters whose actions changed the social dynamic, were opportunisticly responding to lack of deterrence. Certainly possible. (Or we could blame it on the media for /publicising/ those first actions...)

Alonso said...

"We're essentially herd animals."

Speak for yourself, please.

Glen said...

"Speak for yourself, please."

Clearly somebody who's never been to a football game. :-)

Blar said...

Ready is talking about what social psychologists call deindividuation, which is when people feel like an anonymous part of a crowd rather than an identifiable individual who is responsible for his own actions. Deindividuation is generally associated with a lower probability of being caught and punished, but we shouldn't draw too strong a conclusion about deterrence from this because:

1. Deindividuation effects occur even when the probability of being caught really isn't that low (e.g. unruly fans who feel like part of a crowd but can be singled out by security guards and cameras).

2. Deindividuation increases behaviors like aggression even when punishment is not a possibility for (as in a psychology experiment).

and, most importantly,

3. People often want to apply deterrence theory to situations where deindividuation does not apply, and the fact that people act in accordance with deindividuation & deterrence theories in situations where both apply tells us little about these situations.

Some research supports Glen's claim that social norms are more important than anonymity.

Ben said...

I heard a social worker say that Katrina looting was partly the result of a panicking population of junkies situated in a region where the narcotic distribution system had failed. Gas prices might not have been the only prices soaring. To some people drugs are more important than food.

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