Natural Disasters in Chile and Haiti the Psychology of Looting

Kristen McCurry discusses the phenomenon of looting after natural disasters. The aftermath of the recent Chilean and Haitian earthquakes are explored. Is looting the result of criminal impulse or lack of government relief?

It is almost expected now to see looting in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Tsunami, and the recent earthquakes in Chile and Haiti, all reveal the same old story: many people choose to loot after catastrophes.

Authorities in Concepcion, Chile are having a difficult time maintaining law and order. The curfew there has been extended as troops struggled to contain outbreaks of looting after the earthquake. Dozens of people were arrested after fighting over goods and setting fire to a department store. This prompted many law-abiding citizens to arm themselves and take to the streets, in order to protect their businesses and homes. On March 1, 2010, police resorted to firing tear gas into crowds of looters, and the governor of Concepcion province reported that 55 people were arrested in one night for violating the law.

Recently in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, dozens of men, armed with machetes and make-shift weapons, broke into and looted stores along the capital’s main commercial street. Some of this behavior can be attributed to the desperate need for food and water. But the absence of law and order also gave many people an opportunity to break into stores and throw merchandise to the people gathered below, creating a riot complete with stabbings and shootings. The police even sanctioned an angry mob that beat and then burned to death a detained looter, in a public execution that dozens witnessed.

After the 2004 tsunami in Phuket, looting was so pervasive that police and Thai officials were ordered not to grant bail to looters after their capture. The government also applied stiff penalties: a maximum of 10 years in prison and a 50,000-Baht fine (about $1300 US dollars).

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Mayor Ray Nagin ordered 1,500 police officers to stop the large-scale looting that had broken out all over New Orleans and had begun turning hostile. He later stated that the prevention of looting and the punishment of looters became the top priority of his city’s police department.

But what motivates this behavior? The answer is complex, revealing a darker side of human nature that most of us would rather ignore. Dr. Jason Nier, an expert in social psychology and professor at Connecticut College, explains this behavior with a theory he calls the "psychology of looting."

This theory is based in part on the phenomenon of “group dynamics”. People will do things as part of a group that they would never deem appropriate on their own, for example stealing and breaking into stores and private homes. Another related concept is “deindividuation,” which is the concept that people can regress into a kind of Orwellian “groupthink,” allowing them to behave in ways that violate social norms. Being part of a group can diminish feelings of personal responsibility and potentially bring out our basest human instincts.

Most compassionate people are likely to forgive the looting of basic necessities like water, food and clothing because sometimes the government cannot do enough fast enough to aid its citizens. But it is the theft of luxury items that causes the most concern—and forces the realization that anarchy might be just one natural disaster away.


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