News and Events

Responding to Civil Unrest

Jessica Barton
November 25, 2014

Businesses burned, stores were looted, and police cars were ablaze, all in the name of justice. When the grand jury did not indict the officer who shot Michael Brown, it resulted in protests in several major cities around the country. Most protests were peaceful, however in Ferguson, Missouri many people were not. Rioting, looting, destruction and mayhem ensued on the streets of Ferguson over outrage about the verdict. Why do people feel justified to commit crime in the wake of an upsetting event? How do ordinary people end up rioting and behaving in ways they never would have alone?


One phenomenon that may be contributing to the response in Ferguson, is emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is when one person’s emotional state is transferred to the people around him/her (Kramer, Guillory, & Hancock, 2013). We are all aware that the positivity or negativity of people we are around can affect us, however when rioting occurs this may be taking place on a large scale. If everyone around a person is upset and outraged, the person may consciously or subconsciously become upset and outraged as well.


What may also be occurring, is conformity to situation-specific norms (Postmes & Spears, 1998). This is the tendency of people to behave in the way that those around them are behaving. There may also be a reduced sense of personal responsibility due to the anonymity of being part of a large group. This increases the likelihood that members of an outraged group will engage in criminal behavior, as they are less likely to be caught or perceived negatively by their peers.


So what can be done to reduce these phenomenon from having a negative effect on behavior? A good place to start is with simple awareness. If people can recognize their emotions and where those emotions are coming from, they can reduce the likelihood of catching emotional contagions. Similarly, being mindful of their own behavior and expression of emotions, can reduce the likelihood of it spreading it to those around them. Identifying the origin of impulses on behavior and making a conscious, independent decision on how to act, also reduces the likelihood of conforming to negative norms in which one would not normally engage.

Jessica Barton