What’s up with Looting?

After the protests and riots following the police killing for Freddie Gray in Baltimore I emailed a bunch of folks I went to college and asked them what questions they would like answered, based on what they saw and read about the events.  I promised to explain why the events are perfectly explicable: we may be alarmed by such events, but we should not be surprised.

I got a number of interesting replies, and this post addresses looting.  I will follow up with other posts responding to additional queries.  One friend wrote:

I think that’s a puzzle for a lot of people. Unfortunately it reinforces so many nasty stereotypes.

Another asked:

Why do young men and women… loot their neighbors’ and friends’ businesses?

The canonical image: looters at CVS

The canonical image: looters at CVS

CNN’s coverage was prototypical: “chaos reigns” as looters rob whatever they are able to find in a CVS pharmacy.  Wolf Blitzer’s hyperbolic “Where are the police?” and “I’m shocked this could happen in America today” narrative has been both criticized and mocked.[1]

Yet, looting is a fascinating and disturbing social phenomenon.  Social order–the rareness of human’s attacking or stealing from one another–is vitally important to our daily lives, and so ubiquitous that we take it for granted.  Few human beings restrict their interactions to people they know: we rely daily on the conviction that strangers we walk past or interact with will neither harm us, nor take our property.  And if we stop and think about it, that fact is slightly alarming: how do we know they will not do so?

The famous musings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau are but three examples, widely known to many Americans, that invert the question and ask “Why would social order exist?”  Their answers are, roughly, that government, as Max Weber famously put it, claims a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of coercion, thus providing us each with an authority to whom to appeal when we are done wrong.  The “magic” of the solution is that people interact “in the shadow of government.” which is to say, avoid assault and theft because if they did not, they would be punished for it.  Communities, commerce, and so on accordingly become possible, and Steven Pinker chronicles the remarkable decline in homicide among our species as government has increasingly developed the capacity to enforce that monopoly claim.[2]

That background helps us understand why so many of us react with concern when we see images of looting.  It also suggests that we might do well to invert the question if we are to avoid the Wolf Blitzer response of shock and concern.  This image helps us get started.

Note that the man who has household goods from CVS is in front of burning police cars.[3] To explain the looting we need to account for two facts.

(1) No government’s police force is capable of coercing everyone.  They actually rely on voluntary compliance.

(2) It is very well established that human beings are opportunistic: the voluntary cooperation that social order hinges upon depends upon our belief that we could get caught it we misbehave.

Let’s begin with the second point.  As a recent article put it:

human cooperative behavior is thought to be largely maintained by the social sanctions and reputational costs which tend to fall on those who are not sufficiently prosocial and whose behavior becomes known to others.[4]

In plainer language, people will take stuff if they don’t believe others will find out.  That this is true is well established, both in laboratory experiments[5] and field experiments.  For example, placing signs claiming that thieves were being watched dramatically reduced bicycle theft in a European city.[6]  Importantly, the results suggest that males in particular respond to the belief that they are being monitored, both behaving more positively in such settings, and less opportunistically.

This, then, is the unpleasant implication: human beings change our behavior as we are being observed, and the males among us more so than the females.

This is where the police enter the equation.  Most of us believe, most of the time, that were we to brazenly take goods from a store and walk out, we are taking a non-trivial risk.  Yet, when police respond to protest by calling out all of their forces, and doing so in dramatic, visible fashion (e.g., wearing riot gear, patrolling in paramilitary vehicles) most everyone in the area will come to realize that the vast majority of the city is not being watched.  During normal times police are distributed here and there, and the dispatch center can send officers to a reported crime locale in reasonably short order.  That is not the case when the police congregate in riot gear in a handful of locations, and those who live there will pretty quickly come to appreciate this.[7]  That this is true could hardly be more dramatically made evident than by the destruction of police property, which send the signal “the cops can’t respond right now.”

What would be curious, indeed, then, is if property crimes did not increase during large public protests during which the police turn out in force, and stand around providing a target at which protestors can express their ire.  The more apparent it becomes that the police are concentrated in some areas, and unable to respond to property crimes they normally respond to, the more likely and widespread we should expect looting and theft to become.  And while we would not expect only males to rob and steal, we should expect that more males than females will do so.

Finally, a rarely appreciated irony of the “riot patrol” response of most governments to large groups of public protest is that it actually increases the likelihood of looting.  When we stop to think through what we know about human beings, social order and government, this is really not very hard to see.  That, in my view, is the most interesting aspect of all of this: politicians and police have a strong tendency to make themselves worse off, and very few of them realize it.  I will elaborate in a future post, but before getting to that one, I have some other questions to answer.  Stay tuned.


[1] In a future post I will explain why we should not be surprised by the type of narrative Blitzer supplied.

[2] Regrettably, Pinker grounds his argument not in Weber’s monopoly of legitimate coercion but an account of “civilizing,” which is something I am likely to grouse about in a future post someday.

[3] I do not know whether this image is real or created via Photoshop, but it does not matter.  I am not using it as a description of reality, but a device to make a point.

[4] The Watching Eyes Effect in the Dictator Game.

[5] Nobody’s Watching?

[6] Cycle Thieves, we are Watching You

[7] I discuss here the “cat and mouse” dynamic that can develop between protestors and police as the latter discern that the former cannot “police” all in the crowd.

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
This entry was posted in Baltimore 2015, Stump the Chump and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What’s up with Looting?

  1. Pingback: What’s up with Burning & Destruction? | Will Opines

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s