Riots: hysteria and hysteresis

police and community frustrationI am on holiday in France this week. Every cafe and hotel has a TV screen with a French presenter gleefully covering the riots in the UK. Shocking footage of looting and burning buildings, so far from the traditional image of the English on the continent. Whatever happened to the tradition of repressed feelings and the stiff upper lip?Clearly something is terribly wrong with British society. If only they had the sense of community that we French have here in France. Britain clearly can learn a lot about how to organise society from us.

If you cast your mind back a few years you will probably remember British commentators making exactly the same points at the time of the French riots but in reverse. How the French have a lot to learn from the Brits about multiculturalism and how to make minority groups feel included. Maybe that is not too much of a surprise because all coverage of riots in all countries is always the same. The story runs like this a) riots are sign that something is terribly wrong b) the government’s policies are clearly to blame c) something must be done to fix them.

Do riots really mean that something is wrong? The alternative view is that they are a naturally occurring phenomenon like stock market crashes or tsunamis. They happen from time to time regardless of government policies. If you look back in history in any country one conclusion must be this: communities riot. That’s how a level 3 entity loses it’s temper. Its not unnatural for an individual to feel angry from time to time. Quite the opposite, any human who lived their whole life without ever losing their temper would not be human. Likewise with communities and riots. Sudden summer storms clear the air, a build up of static electricity clears with a shock and riots vent community frustrations. Everyone feels much better afterwards. They are not a sign that something is wrong. It’s just part of the natural behaviour of complex systems. It’s a sign that everything is working normally.

Firefighters in California and Australia are coming to the worrying conclusion that the recent spate of costly and highly destructive forest fires are a direct result of their tampering with nature. By being so efficient at eliminating small forest fires for the last century, they have left the woodlands surrounding their towns with an unnaturally large load of dry wood. This sets the stage for an inevitable monster conflagration which, when it comes, is beyond their power to control. Firefighters are coming to the conclusion that they should maybe just let a few forest fires burn every few years along with a few houses too. That way they avoid the big one: a few high tides but no tsunami. So firefighters have learnt the counterintuitive trick of standing by and doing nothing when a fire rages. What chance is there of a politician doing that when a riot happens?

Not much.The reaction to the riots has been hysterical. There is no shortage of ‘reasons’ given for causing the riots: moral decline, absence of authority, lack of religion, poor schooling, government budget cuts, the breakdown in family values, soft policing and consumer advertising. Yes, the last one argues that if you bombard the underprivileged  with too many adverts for high end aspirational consumer goods  in the end they will crack under the pressure and just help themselves by looting. Each of these ‘reasons’ then has it’s own ‘solution’ which you can pick according to your bias and your political agenda. Only a very few commentators, like my friend Harriet Sargent in the Sunday Times, are able to keep a cool head. Looking at the extraordinary diversity of the rioters passing through the courts, it’s clear that there is no one reason. Looters included a postman, a social worker, an heiress and several university graduates along with the usual youth suspects from underprivileged minorities. What links this disparate group together other than a thrill seeking urge to counter the long, hot boredom of the summer?

The hysterical reaction and the rush to find ‘reasons’  is only to be expected. Its the natural  counter reaction of the body politic. Its an involuntary response, like white blood cells rushing to the site of infection. But beyond the hysteria there is another deeper mechanism at work. Engineers call it hysteresis, which crudely speaking means ” you can’t get back to where you started “. Hysteresis is a type of memory or lagging effect that is a common phenomenon in nonlinear complex systems. It is often seen in magnetic devices, thermostats, electric circuits, neurons in the brain, cells when they divide,economic systems and, of course, communities that riot.

A hysteresis loop is characterised on a graph as a rectangle or lozenge rather than a single line. It is ‘nonlinear’ because a particular input can have two different outputs. Think of a thermostat controlling the heating in your house. You want the temperature to be 20 C. You could just set up a switch which turns on or off at precisely 20 degrees but this could get very irritating because the system would be constantly switching on and off every minute. So instead you set up a thermostat with a hysteresis loop that does this : turn on at 18 degrees and turn off at 22 degrees.  Now you have a system that only switches on once or twice an evening and keeps the temperature nicely hovering around 20 degrees. Now consider this: when the temperature is 20 degrees is the system on or off? The answer is it could be both ( it’s a nonlinear system). It could be in heating phase moving from 18 to 22 or it could be in cooling phase moving back the other way. It depends which path the system is on.

In economics,  exports often show a hysteresis effect. It can take a big effort to start up an export program but once it is set up it takes little effort to maintain that momentum. However, once exports begin to tail off it can take another big effort to reverse the negative momentum. So the answer to the question “how much effort is required to get exports to a certain level” is that it depends which part of the path you are on. Just like with the thermostat, there is more than one possible answer when you have a hysteresis loop.

Back to riots. Let’s take one of the ‘reasons’ for the riots: soft policing. We can ask the question “How much policing is required to prevent rioting”. The answer is it depends which part of the path you are on: before the riots not much, after the riots a lot. A community is a complex nonlinear system that exhibits hysteresis effects. It has a collective memory. You can’t put things back to how they were before, at least, not quickly. We need fewer hysterical reactions and more recognition that riots are a natural phenomenon. Communities have hysteresis loops; memory effects and lagging results that will sort themselves out in the end. Like the firefighters, maybe the politicians should have the courage to do nothing.