In August 2011, riots that started in London spread across England with widespread rioting, arson and looting, along with injuries to the public and police and the death of five people. A year on from the riots, two authors from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London have examined what happened from a psychosocial point of view, trying to understand these events. Needless to say, understanding does not mean justifying.

They suggest that the rioters were experiencing a lack of mentalization: the lack of ability to identify one’s own states of mind, to give them a name, and to assign them significance. Feelings and emotions were perceived only as physical sensations, leading an unbearable sense of physical restlessness, and to the expression as violence.

In their view, the behaviour was additionally due to the result of a lack of social identity, leading to frustration and anger and they propose that the stealing of consumerist goods – shoes, clothes, electronics and mobile phones – constitute an attempt to obtain such a social identity. This creates a strong sense of confusion: on the one hand, the ‘socially excluded’ would like to share the goods (the ‘symbols’ and the ‘idols’ of the community) and, on the other hand, they know that they will never be part of the community that can afford those goods. This desire, constantly unfulfilled, leads to a sense of frustration and resentment. On this occasion, unable to ‘mentalize’ these emotions, people just turned into violent looters.

Psychotherapy for people with personality disorder requires therapists to show themselves as ‘present, involved and invulnerable’. The authors suggest that a healthy community should show the same characteristics: ‘present’, meaning knowledgeable of the community members in difficulty; ‘involved’, meaning interested in helping the pursuit of the individual and social goals of the community; and ‘invulnerable’, meaning trustworthy, and morally coherent, in how we deliver on our promises of equal opportunities, personal development, social mobility, and respect of the law.

Professor Pariante says: “Showing concern is a start, but it is not enough. Society can, and must deliver practical steps to improve social inclusion. Recent research in the USA has shown that social and psychological interventions can improve social belonging in ethnic minorities. These interventions were focused on students, and maybe that is where we should start: in schools. Social belonging is a primary requirement to allow people to live a meaningful life in the community. It is also the major deterrent that a civilized and emancipated society can offer to prevent violence and riots from happening again.”

Giuliano Aiello and Carmine Pariante, ‘Citizen, Interrupted: the 2011 English Riots from a psychosocial perspective’, Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences (August 2012), is available free via open access at

Professor Pariante also wrote a blog post for the Huffington Post (UK) based on this paper.

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