Posted on Fri, Sep. 02, 2005
What pushed people over the edge
Psychologists cite underlying factors
BY BENEDICT CAREY
New York Times
Psychologists say a lack of authority, race and class divisions, a disruption of social networks, and a natural instinct to follow the lead of others in times of uncertainty are among the factors that fuel social breakdowns like the looting, gunfire and rioting that has erupted in flood-ravaged New Orleans.
Ordinarily, disasters like earthquakes and fires pull people together, with citizens who have been spared helping those who are suffering. But there is nothing ordinary about this disaster, experts say.
"I don't know that we've seen anything like this," said Dr. Lee B. Clarke, a sociologist at Rutgers University and author of a coming book, "Worst Cases," a history of disasters.
The sheer scale and duration of the damage presage more social conflict, Clarke said, "because in this case we have a lot of people who were living close to the edge already, and now everything's wiped out, and there's a loss of institutional trust in the very people who are supposed to be helping."
To be sure, some of the theft and confrontations reflect a struggle for survival. People are rummaging for food and drink and are defending themselves or their businesses when threatened, residents and experts say.
But when caught in unfamiliar situations, most people look to others around them for guidance on how to behave. The rules that normally restrain actions--"Do not break into a store and steal a plasma TV set," for example--fall to the wayside when hundreds of other people are ignoring them.
The follow-the-leader mentality can lead people to stand by passively rather than intervening to stop lawless behavior.
In a classic experiment, researchers at Princeton University had students fill out questionnaires in a laboratory room that, by design, began to fill with smoke. When sitting alone in the room, almost all the students left the room to report the gathering smoke. But when sitting with fellow students who did nothing, few of the study participants left the room or complained.
In especially frightening and unpredictable situations--no one knows when the water in New Orleans or the disease risk will subside--the actions of even one bold person can sweep along many more, experts say.
"That person may do something good like rush to help in an emergency, and others follow," Dr. Suzanne Yates, a psychologist at Lehman College in the Bronx, said. "But if people start looting, and nothing happens to them, you get a kind of cascade," and a new norm of behavior is established.
It does not take long for misdemeanors to become major crimes.
"Our experiments have shown that you can get people to commit immoral acts one step at a time," Dr. Elliot Aronson, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote in an e-mail message. "People who would never dream of stealing a TV set might be inclined to do so if they first stole some water, bread, cereal, milk and so on."
In an analysis of the blackout in New York in 1977, researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute found that "although much of the looting was started by people who made their living selling drugs and stolen goods, young people were quick to join them, and soon a carnival-like atmosphere pervaded the city."
"Within two hours," the researchers said, "it became apparent that the situation was not going to end quickly, and thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens joined in what was to become the largest collective theft in history."
Officials with clear authority or even responsible neighbors can act to short-circuit such runaway behavior. But in New Orleans, the flooding has scattered neighbors and made it difficult to tell who is in charge.
"If the infrastructure breaks down," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness and a professor at Columbia, "and officials are saying, 'Here's what we need you to do,' but they can't even tell people where their next drink of water is coming from, then there's going to be a complete breakdown in trust, often followed by anger."
Even with chaos rampant, some people in New Orleans have thrown themselves into the rescue effort. The owners of private boats from along the coast have been helping evacuate people, and people throughout the Gulf Coast are working at emergency depots or providing floors for flood victims to sleep on.
But given the cultural makeup of the city, some sociologists say, it may take more than a few good Samaritans to turn the tide of bad feeling.
The poverty rate in New Orleans is more than 40 percent, about three times the national rate, said Steve Kroll-Smith, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro who recently moved from New Orleans after many years there.
"There are huge divisions by race and class in New Orleans, and everyone who lives there knows it," Kroll-Smith said. "The truth is that people living in the Garden District got out, and those in the 9th Ward and other poor neighborhoods didn't, and now this combination of rage and poverty is bubbling to the surface."