A recent mall riot in which 19 teens ranging in age from 13 to 18 were arrested for some seriously disorderly behavior made big headlines as people really wanted to know what would turn a mass of teens chilling at the mall (a decades long tradition) into a seething mob, aside from a zombie outbreak.
As it happens, the mall riot is not an outlier and not even a strange quirk of psychology. After 2011’s riots in London, researchers across the pond took a look at the behavior of the “wilding” residents involved in the mass melees, which spread across the country before police were able to quell the unrest.
What they found in their research is, essentially, that a mall riot is not strange … it’s downright predictable. As scientists examined maps of the London riots, what they observed was that it all looked very familiar, and an interesting conclusion resulted.
The Atlantic explains the mall riots discovery:
“At the time, these maps struck several researchers studying urban systems at University College London. ‘We thought, ‘this is a spatial system, and it looks a bit like something we have looked at before,’ ” says Toby Davies, one of the academics. He and his colleagues were picturing, more specifically, spatial models of how shoppers behave in search of retail.”
The mag adds:
“And this got them thinking. ‘It looks like retail,’ Davies says, ‘and retail is something we know we can model.’ Why not try to mathematically model the movement of rioters?”
Poverty was also examined as a potential precipitate to outbreaks of mall rioting or general rioting — and Davies cautions:
“We’re very careful to say that deprivation isn’t necessarily a cause of [mall riots] … But there is a clear statistical relationship with deprivation. In more deprived areas, the rate of offending is higher.”
The aim, Davies says, is to give cops a tool to proactively predict the trajectory of unrest — and perhaps stop a mall riot or general rioting in the early stages with the information gleaned:
“One of the challenges that the police face in riots is that they are very rare events, so they don’t get much chance to practice on how they react to them … If we can produce a way which simply simulates riots properly, then they can, as it were, ‘set them off’ in a controlled way and practice how they might respond to them.’
Ultimately, The Atlantic explains, mall rioters move in patterns much like shoppers as they spread out looking for deals — meaning the “spatial layout of a city may be just as important as its social dynamics in explaining the rise and spread of riots.”
The mall riots research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.