Vancouver Riot: Psychology (Not Hooligans) Responsible for the Chaos

Bobby Brooks@BrooksBetsAnalyst IIIJune 16, 2011

VANCOUVER, BC - JUNE 15:  Riot police walk in the street as a couple kiss on June 15, 2011 in Vancouver, Canada. Vancouver broke out in riots after their hockey team the Vancouver Canucks lost in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
Rich Lam/Getty Images

As I sat at home watching the Vancouver riots unfold in front of me, I was amazed at how ill-informed the newscasters and on-site reporters were about such an event.

The truth behind a riot is much more complicated than a mere "hooligan" explanation.

That is the easy and lazy explanation of things.

Underneath it all, there are more dynamic variables at play, interacting at a rapid pace.

I'll try to keep the pretentious jargon to a minimum, but let's take a closer look at the true causes of the Vancouver riots.

First of all, let's tackle the hooligan aspect of this from the top.

The characteristics of riot participants are generally people who are young, unemployed, poor, lack education and fanatical in their commitment to the team.   Being a fan is a big part of their way of life, and they are intensively affected by their team's loss.

Yes, there are always going to be members of the crowd that aren't die-hard fans and have other motives, but the problem goes way beyond looking at individuals.

Pre-existing Conditions

To begin with, the Vancouver Canucks have a history of losing and failed expectations.  This is an organization that has never won a Cup in its 40-year history and has been to the finals twice before.

Game 7 was a case of missed opportunities, as the team was favored to win the Cup coming into the season, playoffs and final series.  They had a 2-0 and 3-2 series lead.  Fans expected the team to win.

Physical Environment

The physical landscape of downtown Vancouver is very congested, and over 100,000 fans packed into a small area.  Most of these fans traveled from nearby areas to get there, so getting out of the city immediately after the game wasn't that easy.  

Buses stopped running, bridges were closed down and there were significant stalls with the Skytrain system.  This left a large mass of people isolated in the downtown core. 

Cultural and sub-cultural norms

In 1994, the fans downtown came unraveled in a similar riot, so the precedent had already been set for this to happen again.  Mob violence had already been established as a sub-cultural norm years ago.  

Losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals is just the kind of justification needed to set the wheels in motion, and to hear the Vancouver police say that they weren't expecting a riot was nothing short of idiotic. 

With an incident-free Olympic Games and multiple years of fireworks celebrations under its belt, the city likely felt complacent, but none of those events had the same dynamic of a Game 7 finals loss.

Social conditions

A significant portion of Vancouver metropolitan society has never exactly trusted the police.  This shouldn't come as a surprise as I'm sure it's the same in many cities around the world. 

This pre-existing negative orientation towards the enforcement groups walking around downtown is always a contributing factor in mob violence.  This makes it much more likely that mob violence will occur when you combine that with a Game 7 loss and an instigating event.

Instigating event

In the 2011 Vancouver riot, we had two significant instigating events.  One was the loss by the Canucks.  That immediately sparked an outrage by the crowd watching outside. 

Fans began to throw bottles and other objects at the big outdoor screen, and it didn't take long until the closest car became a target.  Once that car was fully ablaze, it put the wheels in motion for the rest of the night.  Police went into their formation and instantly created an "us vs. them" scenario.

Group Dynamics

This is where we really start to get into the crux of the matter.  Overreactions by the police is one of the most overlooked aspects of riots.  I have to give the Vancouver police a lot of credit this time around because, unlike in 1994, the police had a plan of action this time. 

I know it might not appear that way when you wake up and see all the YouTube clips and reports from the news media, but for the most part, the police held their ground and advanced incrementally throughout the night. 

Outbursts of direct violence were met with resistance, but there were very few incidents where rogue cops went on the rampage.  Chaotic attempts at crowd control in 1994 resulted in much more direct violence and hysteria than with the one we saw last night.

Instead, the police were very transparent with their intentions, and used symbols of power in formation and the use of loud speakers rather than openly attacking fans senselessly.  This way, the looting and crowd violence was restricted to isolated areas.  

A lot of times, it is the lack of understanding by police agencies that escalate and contribute to riots, but the riot squads used patience rather than initiative to deal with this situation.  If they would have instigated violence against the crowds in the first couple hours after the game, the riot could have become much more bloody and catastrophic than it was.

Does this mean the plan of action was perfect?  Not entirely. As mentioned, the physical environment and lack of transportation out of the downtown core worked in contrast to the plan implemented by police.

Psychology of a Mob

A number of psychological factors are working together that turn good ole "Johnny" into out-of-control trouble-maker.

Most importantly are a trio of concepts.

Emotion contagion: This is known as the emotion that gets triggered in a crowd and spreads like wildfire.  It can be positive or negative. 

During the Vancouver Olympics, the nationalistic euphoria seen among the people in the streets was the good side of the coin.  Last night, we saw the bad.  Once the first match was lit, the mob mentality was set in motion

Deindividuation: This happens at almost every sporting event.  When you dress up in team gear, wear face paint, and so on, you lose your sense of self and become part of a greater identity.  The crowd began to think with a group mind rather than an individual one. 

The loss by the Canucks represented a shared definition of the situation, and thus a shared purpose took over.  People freely express their feelings and often exaggerate their emotions in a crowd, and this is in stark contrast to the tendency to hide your emotions in public. 

The role of anonymity in crowd behavior cannot be underestimated.  Self-awareness and personal identity get lost and get replaced with identification with the goals and actions of the group.

Bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility: It might sound counter-intuitive, but the larger the crowd, the less of a chance that someone will intervene.  People think to themselves "someone else will step in" and, ironically, this leads to everybody doing nothing to stop whatever social norms/laws are being broken. 

People in trouble have to fend for themselves and shops get looted as people stand there and watch.  When people are alone or in small numbers, that sense and focus of responsibility is much greater.

Another phenomenon that takes place in riots is a new sense of self-categorization.  It's not that people think all rules go out the window, but they feel that new rules apply: goals and beliefs of the group become paramount and instead of our previous conceptions of ourselves, our new social category (the group) begins to dictate our thoughts/behaviors.

There is a shared understanding of the situation and the "us vs. them" mentality takes precedence.

With this, people in riots often have what is known as the false consensus effect.  People attribute their own beliefs and motives to other rioters, but in reality there is a lot of confusion and discrepancy.  

The unity of the crowd is an illusion.  

Therefore, people fail to realize the correct response and just assume that everyone is upset because the Canucks lost, or the police lashed out, etc.  This leads to people imitating each other and escalating the violence/rioting/looting.

Lastly, because so much of the rioting went unchallenged, it is assumed that it is acceptable and subsequently became normative.  The result is a self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating prophecy of more and more rioting behavior.

All this and I didn't even mention drugs/alcohol.  Sure, it's easy to look at the Vancouver riot and say "what a bunch of drunk idiot hooligans," but alcohol and individual characteristics are only two minor factors in the big picture of a riot. 

The cold truth of it is that most of the people involved in the riot wouldn't dare do such things in any other circumstance.

I know this came across more like a research essay than a sports article, and if you are still reading this, I would like to say thanks for hanging in there, but too often the average sports journalist takes one look at the sensationalistic clips of rioting and unfairly pins blame where it doesn't entirely belong.

Does this mean that many of the people seen in the videos are exempt from responsibility or should be absolved from any consequences?  Absolutely not.

But when you look at pre-existing conditions, the physical environment, cultural-and-social norms and conditions, the instigating events, the group dynamics, and combine those with the psychological forces at play, you'll realize that the deeper roots of a riot go far beyond the images of young people throwing things.

When the mayor of Vancouver and local media members want to scapegoat a "small minority" that gave a black eye to the rest of them, they conveniently ignore the fact that all the necessary riot conditions were in place for this to happen.

It has very little to do with Vancouver Canucks fans or a small group of criminally inclined kids.  This could happen in any major city if the same variables are in place. 

The more we understand about riots and crowd behavior, the better shape we'll be in to handle it in the future.

One can only hope that the Canucks utilize the best-known preventative measure the next time around.

Win on the ice.


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