Reflecting on Vancouver: Why do people riot?

Reflecting on Vancouver: Why do people riot?

What a difference a year makes for Vancouverites? Last February the streets were filled with people cheering, elated that their country had brought home hockey gold in the 2010 Winter Olympics. Fast-forward a year and the scene is much different. With over 100,000 individuals, and hundreds of police officers crowding the downtown streets, something was bound to happen, and it did.

Multiple cars were overturned and set on fire. People looted local stores in the area including the Bay, Sears, and other independent stores. In total, over 150 people were treated at local hospitals for injuries sustained during the riot. This story has made headlines across the world with reactions ranging from disappointment, disgust, shock, and shame. The mayor of Vancouver called the riots, “despicable and shameful.” This story has captured my attention as well, and I want to share with you a couple of general psychological reasons as to why this may have happened.


You may be thinking to yourself that,  “yes, hockey fans are passionate and they are disappointed with the loss but how can that explain why some individuals engaged in such deviant acts?”  Part of the answer comes from the research that has studied the impact of the group on the individual. To begin with, being in a big group or crowd-like the one after game 7 of the Stanley Cup final-can lead to deindividuation. Deindividuation is a process by which there is loosening of typical restriction on behaviour when people are in a group, leading to an increase in impulsive and deviant acts. In other words, we may engage in violent and destructive behaviours in large groups that we would never consider doing by ourselves because we have lost our ability to self-regulate.

More group members, less responsibility

Being in a group diminishes the individual’s sense of responsibility. More people in the group means less individual accountability because it is harder to blame one person. Secondly, being around others reduces self-awareness thereby de-emphasizing an individual’s moral standards and consequently impacting his ability to display empathy for others. Therefore, as these individuals are throwing beer bottles, smashing windows with rocks and looting stores, they do not think about the consequences of their actions and the long-term impact it will have.


This one is obvious. Local bar owners were even blaming the events that took place during the riot on excessive alcohol consumption. Too much drinking means not enough inhibition and reduced ability to self-regulate. Put differently, when under the influence people become more involved in risk-taking behaviours, get into more accidents and/or assaults, and have severe impairment in critical reasoning.


Sporting events are emotionally charged. There is a reason why individuals who love sports are called “fans.” The term fan comes from the word fanatic and yes, a lot of us have sounded or behaved like fanatics during sports games (much to the chagrin of our loved ones who just don’t care about sports and cannot understand why we do). This is why we become so invested in them. The emotional stakes could not be any higher for the fans: Game 7, Stanley Cup Finals in a Canadian city. Therefore, for some fans, rioting is a way to cope with their frustrations and actions. In order to deal with these overwhelming feelings, individuals become aggressive, violent, and destructive. It does not make it right because this is an unhealthy way to express frustration but this does play a factor in people’s behaviour.

Individual differences

Some individuals are inherently attracted to deviant activities. They will commit criminal acts because that is rewarding to them. These individuals may not necessarily be driven by a particular cause or event but rather by the desire to wreak havoc and break the law. Others have the inability to constrain their emotions or impulses (see above) or lack the training in controlling these impulses. Police Chief Jim Chu reported that most of the problems in the latest Vancouver riot were a result of criminals and anarchists whose sole purpose was break the law. They used this hockey game as an excuse to execute their own goals. Going back to the idea of more people, less responsibility, Police Chief Jim Chu commented on the fact that this small number of criminals hid in the larger group and used the “security” and “anonymity” to carry out their actions.

Putting the riot in context

In most cases, riots are caused by a combination of psychological and social variables. As such, most individuals are not inherently “bad” but they are not entirely victims of circumstances. The specific reasons can vary, but when these elements come together as they did after the game 7 in Vancouver, it is an unfortunate recipe for disaster.

We need to appreciate that most riots are caused by a relatively small number of individuals in a crowd, and the vast majority of individuals did not participate in this particular riot. In fact, there were numerous Good Samaritan reports of individuals defending innocent bystanders who were being physically attacked by rioters or trying to stop rioters from looting and damaging property. Some of them were badly beaten in the process. Also, yesterday in the aftermath, hundreds of individuals gathered to clean up the city that was destroyed the night before. A Facebook page created to promote the cleanup had over 10, 000 members. This needs to be highlighted. Most people were there to have a good time and watch the game. Most people were not actively engaging in this hockey riot. Most people were trying to stop the rioters and to protect the city they love. It is a shame then that such a small number of people turned the beautiful city of Vancouver into a place of chaos.

  1. June 19, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    Hi Maneet, this is a great analysis from a psych standpoint. I was looking at the Facebook group where they were trying to ID people who were rioting and looting and throughout hundreds of pictures you see many of the same people over and it is clear they are the real troublemakers. But, once things get started it gets out of hand. I see teenage girls in flipflops kicking cars and walking on flipped over vehicles who I’d never suspect to be doing such a thing. Very interesting how psyche changes in this kind of unruly crowd.

    • Maneet Bhatia
      June 20, 2011 at 1:05 am

      Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for reading the article and for your valuable comment! You’re right, the majority of individuals involved were there to be disruptive. But beyond that being in an environment such as one in Vancouver that night led others (girls in the flipflops) do engage in behaviour we would not expect or they would not necessarily do otherwise.

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