The most common caricature of riots suggests criminal young men are the culprits. But a recent study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggests that is not necessarily the case. The study used a video game to incite virtual collective violence in groups of participants and showed that demographics including age, political opinion, and gender did not predict who was most likely to turn aggressive. Rather, a sense that one’s own team was consistently being treated unfairly compared to another team led to collective aggression.
Exactly when and why a group will erupt into a riot—what scholars define as a violent clash of more than 100 people often resulting in injuries and massive property damage—remains a central question in the social and psychological sciences. “It’s tempting to look at people rioting and think, ‘that’s something I’d never do,’” says senior author Daniel C. Richardson, an experimental psychologist at University College London in the United Kingdom. “But that’s a failure of the imagination, of putting ourselves in that situation.”
To begin to test how groups become violent, Richardson and colleagues designed a game called Parklife, in which two opposing teams, ranging in size from 2 to 12 players, sat around a table and competed to build virtual parks, both of which were displayed side-by-side on a large screen. Named after a song by Britpop band Blur, Parklife’s rules are simple: Each player presses a button on their smartphone to rack up points to build flowerbeds and benches in their team’s park. Alternatively, players can flip a switch on their phone so that pressing the same button stops awarding points to their team and instead adds “vandalism points” to the opposing team’s park (four units of vandalism destroy the other team’s park).
“Attacking the other team is irrational, you’re wasting time when you could be building your park,” Richardson explains. But he and coauthors suspected that if players felt the game was rigged, they might attack the other team out of frustration. Therefore, in some trials the researchers secretly changed the game so that one group had to work twice as hard as the other to earn points to build flowerbeds and benches. Reliably, across 19 experimental sessions and 171 participants, the disadvantaged players quickly noticed the unfairness and responded by attacking the other group rather than working twice as hard. “This happens across all people,” Richardson says, regardless of their age, politics, gender, degree of introversion, or country of origin. “Nobody rises above the situation.”
These latest findings build on decades-old notions from psychology and sociology, which suggest that collective frustration sparks group violence. It’s not enough for a single person to be treated unfairly. It’s only when people share a social identity, feel connected to the history of that group, and then see a trend of unfairness relative to other groups that riots seem to spark (trends documented in, for example, this book). However, past research focusing on group conflict largely used post hoc data, such as population statistics, income levels, or retrospective interviews with the people involved in riots, Richardson notes. The Parklife video game offers a greater degree of experimental control and real-time data collection, Richardson says.
This video game style of controlled experiment is “an innovative approach to understanding human aggression in the face of inequality,” says complex-system scientist Dan Braha at the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, MA. Braha adds that the study highlights the need to address perceived inequity, to reduce the risk of large-scale civil unrest.
However, Braha points out that the paper didn’t address one key mechanism in the spread of riots: contagion. Most people are moved to protest collectively through their social networks; these ideas are popularly modeled to spread like viruses. And yet, the extent of planning or influence between players in the Parklife game wasn’t reported here. Braha suspects that many people decided to vandalize a park by following the lead of their teammates. But without data, for instance on the timing of one player’s attack following another’s, it’s impossible to say who was just a copycat and who really became aggressive out of frustration, he says. For their part, the authors don’t think that players were explicitly planning or strategizing, since the participants were told not to talk. It is possible that some players acted as copycats or out of individual frustration, Richardson allows. He notes that a computational model did suggest that there was likely some degree of coordination between teammates, based on what they could see each other doing during the game. Hence, when some players did aggress against the other team, some of their teammates held back and continued to build the park.
Richardson and colleagues next plan to dig deeper into the importance of shared social identity in group aggression. For example, the researchers recently showed about 300 Parklife players a famous image of a spinning ballerina, which some people perceive to be moving clockwise and others see as spinning counterclockwise. Online, players indicated which direction they saw the ballerina spinning and then were given false information about which direction their teammates had chosen. As the number of teammates who saw the same direction increased, players felt more of a shared social identity and reacted aggressively to games of Parklife rigged against them. This likely occurred “because it’s not just inequality happening to me, it’s happening to us,” Richardson says. “When you feel this shared social inequality, that’s when you get this response.”
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