Page last updated at 20:26 GMT, Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Chile earthquake: Why do people loot?

Looting a supermarket in Concepcion
Chile's President Michelle Bachelet has warned looters their actions are criminal

By Stephen Mulvey
BBC News

Looters and curfews, thousands of troops on their way to severely affected areas, self-defence groups setting up barricades to protect their homes…

Chile could be mistaken for being in the throes of a political uprising rather than the aftermath of a natural disaster.

"We understand your urgent suffering, but we also know that these are criminal acts that will not be tolerated," President Michelle Bachelet said on Tuesday, condemning the "pillage and criminality".

Wind back to 2003 and the then-US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was far more relaxed in his response to the looters of Baghdad.

"Freedom's untidy and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things," he said.

When a country undergoes social upheaval, he said, "stuff happens".


Social psychologists accept both that looting is criminal behaviour, and that it is natural when the forces of law and order disappear.

They distinguish different types of looting, including:

  • Looting of goods needed for survival
  • Opportunistic theft of good such as TV sets
  • Collective action, conditioned by the political environment

It's the third category that is of most interest to psychologists.

Steve Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology at St Andrews University in the UK, quotes approvingly Martin Luther King's adage "a riot is the language of the unheard".

In his view, a mass outbreak of looting can follow precise patterns, which express the community's sense of right and wrong.

In Chile, the questions I would want to ask are, 'Let's look closely at the patterns of behaviour, the grievances, the sense of right and wrong of those involved'
Professor Steve Reicher

During the riots in the St Pauls area of Bristol in 1980, some shops were untouched because they were regarded as part of the community. A bank, on the other hand, came under heavy attack because it was perceived as a symbol of authority.

"People joined in spontaneously," he says. "The number of people who told me they had attacked the bank in St Pauls was remarkable."

During food riots in Britain at the turn of the 18th Century, there were cases where grain was seized from merchants and sold to the needy at a fair price - and then the money and the empty sacks were handed back to the merchant.

"In Chile, the questions I would want to ask are, 'Let's look closely at the patterns of behaviour, the grievances, the sense of right and wrong of those involved,'" he says.

"It's not 'What happened to me?' but 'What happened to us?' How are 'We' as a group treated by 'Them'? How much is this due to the fact that they ignored us?"

At the same time, he acknowledges that individuals do use the cover of the riot for straightforward cases of theft - and that distinguishing collective action from cases of individual opportunism is not always easy.


James Glass, a political psychologist and professor at the University of Maryland in the US, says that the first kind of looting - of food or medicine, for survival - is justifiable.

"When there is a breakdown of civil order, and when people fear they are going to starve or die of thirst, one could make a moral case in these sorts of circumstances for looting," he says.

Many, though not all, of the pictures from Chile show people looting precisely these kinds of goods. Plasma TV sets have also been among the loot carried off.

Some people tend to think selfishly in circumstances of breakdown and disorder, and act that way
Professor James Glass

In Professor Glass's view, the popular response to the recent earthquake in Haiti lent little support to the theory of Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-Century political philosopher, that a world without government would be characterised by a "war of all against all" and lives that were "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".

"There was plenty of co-operation and empathy, and people trying to help each other just to stay alive," he says.

"People helping to dig bodies out of the rubble, to find some kind of shelter, giving people something to drink - as many instances of that as of people acting selfishly."

A lot depends on the political environment, he says.

"In the riots in South Central Los Angeles [in 1992] there was an enormous amount of looting, and that was created by anger at the politics and social structure of the area, provoked by police brutality.

"In a political rebellion there may well be looting. But after a tsunami, an earthquake or a fire, people may be so devastated their response is quite different."

What about the people looting TV sets in Chile?

"Some people tend to think selfishly in circumstances of breakdown and disorder, and act that way," Professor Glass says.

It by no means indicates, in his view, that Chile is becoming a society of marauding looters.

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