This is the second in a series of posts in which I answer some questions spurred by the protests and rioting in Baltimore following the police killing of Freddie Gray. In the first post I explained why people loot. In this post I address the questions:
Why do rioters trash their own neighborhoods?
Why do young men and women burn down affordable housing for their own neighbors and cut firehoses attempting to put out fires?
The question really has two parts:
(1) Why burn / wreck stuff?
(2) Why do it where you live?
The answer to each is jarringly simple.
(1) Burning and wrecking stuff is awesome. Human beings, especially males, love it.
(2) People do stuff where they are.
Let’s explore each.
All human beings know that fire is captivating, scary, and thrilling. Some of us are more drawn to (playing with) fire than others, but we all love fire in at least some of its forms. Now consider a typical image from Baltimore:
As I noted in my first post, this sort of destruction is unnerving because of what it implies about social order and our safety. But compare it with the trailer for what it likely to be a summer blockbuster:
I don’t need to tell you that these types of images dominate the Action/Adventure film genre. The genre appeals more to males than females, and more to younger than the older people, and it it is the most popular genre:
Importantly, that young males like to destroy stuff is celebrated in comics such as Calvin & Hobbes and Dennis the Menace. But are these representations of the fun of burning and destruction in popular culture supported by scientific research? Do they occur with frequency in the world?
The answers are “Yes, and yes.” Let’s begin with the empirical world, and as one of hundreds of such examples, you may recall the recent story about fraternity members from University of Michigan trashing a ski resort in Boyne, MI.
And, of course, there is the sports riot: burning and destruction that occurs in the wake of a sporting championship (either loss or victory). I was amidst the crowds in Georgetown after the Redskins’s Super Bowl win in 1983 and Chicago after the Bears win in 1985 and saw small groups engage in destruction in both celebrations. They looked like they were having fun, and the vast majority of the crowd cheered them on lustily.
And then there’s this company: “A San Diego entrepreneur has found a perfect business for frustrating times: Selling customers breakables to fling against walls.”
What of science that supports the entertainment value of burning and destruction? Check this out from Why we are Drawn to Fire:
In societies in which fire is an everyday tool… fire play starts to wind down [by age 7]. Here in the West, many or most of us never get to that point. “The motives that drive fire learning are only incompletely satisfied, with the result that, throughout life, fire retains greater allure or fascination than would normally be the case.”
As for “smashing stuff,” doing so is especially appealing in response to frustration. More specifically, expressing anger is an innately satisfying response to frustration: this is why we generally feel better if we curse, swear, throw an object, or break something in response to frustration, and why a company that offers such a service might succeed.
One irony of contemporary protest policing–putting lines of riot police and paramilitary vehicles out on the street–is that it is quite likely to contributes to frustration among protestors. Those who gather in public to protest are well aware that they have a legal right to do so. Few respond positively to a phalanx of police dressed for battle.
This response is not limited to issues such as police killings of unarmed black men: it is universal. For example, several years ago ESPN unwittingly televised this dynamic live when it covered students at Penn State protesting the university’s decision to fire football coach Joe Paterno. I watched in frustration as the riot police deployed, unwittingly creating a target at which students–who had been aimlessly milling about to that point–could focus attention, get even more frustrated, and eventually vent anger.
Returning to the burning and destruction we witnessed recently in Baltimore, we are able to see that there is nothing surprising about the fact that people, and young males in particular, participated in opportunities to burn and destroy. It is both fun and an emotionally pleasing response to frustration. Undoubtedly some of those who participated were more motivated by the fun whereas others by venting frustration. We want to believe that none of our family, friends nor we ourselves would burn and destroy, but that is not likely, especially among those young and male.
Finally, in my first post of this series I noted how police response to large public protests communicates that our chances of getting caught for engaging in illegal activity are considerably lower than when police are spread out on standard patrol. Witnessing people, in person or on via video media, break the law without sanction confirms that perception. Participation in burning and destruction is a mix of psychological motivation (fun and venting) and rational calculation (might I get caught). Contemporary deployment of riot police to face off peaceful protestors often produces unintended consequences that should not surprise us.
 “In the United States, children’s natural inclination to learn about fire is evidenced by the hundreds of deaths that occur each year due to “fire play,” or the deliberate setting of a fire for no purpose beyond the fire itself.” Why we are Drawn to Fire.
 Researchers estimated that “Calvin’s destructive tendencies cost his parents approximately $15,955.50 over the course of the strip’s 10 years.”
 It turns out that back in the early 80s a pledge class of my own fraternity also trashed some hotel rooms, as recorded below.
 The Nika Riots of 432 AD are believed to be the first sports riot.
 Frustration-aggression hypothesis: Examination and reformulation. Berkowitz, Leonard. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 106(1), Jul 1989, 59-73.
Relative Deprivation: A Theoretical and Meta-Analytic Review. Heather J. Smith, Thomas F. Pettigrew, Gina M. Pippin & Silvana Bialosiewicz. Pers Soc Psychol Rev August 2012, 16(3): 203-232
 Policing Protest: The Control of Mass Demonstrations in Western Democracies. 1998. Donatella Della Porta, Herbert Reiter Reiter (eds). Univ of Minn Press; Seeing Blue: A Police-Centered Explanation of Protest Policing. Jennifer Earl and Sarah Soule (2006) Mobilization 11(2) 145-164; Describing and Accounting for the Trends in US Protest Policing, 1960−1995. Patrick Rafail, Sarah A. Soule & John D. McCarthy Journal of Conflict Resolution 2012 vol. 56(4) 736-765.