Illustration via Katherine Miller.
One of the explanations of the rioting I find intuitively credible is that they were the product of massive boredom. If you're a young man without a family to look after or a regular job to report to, then there's really very little to do except play computer games or hang around in shopping malls. The massive injection of adrenalin that comes from being in the proximity of disorder and violence must be very, very difficult to resist or control.
Some have argued that this means it is folly to cut funding for youth clubs; at least it gives bored young people something to do that doesn't involve gangs, drugs or petty theft. I'm not sure of the merits of this argument because I really don't know how much, or how, these clubs are used by their intended audience. More to the point it also raises the question of what we mean by boredom.
The authors of a new study on that topic propose that boredom is more than a simple lack of stimulation; rather, it is a lack of meaning. Bored people are people who find it hard or impossible to extract meaning from the situation in which they're in. They can't fit what they're doing into a larger narrative of purpose. Giving bored people something to do - a game of table tennis, for instance - will only work as a short-term antidote to this more profound problem. It's not that short-term antidotes aren't appealing. Bored people will seek out sensations. It's that they are, well, short-term.
The authors of this study were particularly interested in one insidious side-effect of boredom: by stimulating us to find purpose, it can bolster our tendency to divide the world into 'us' and 'them'. In an attempt to find meaning in their lives bored people will intensify their allegiance to whatever group they see themselves as aligned to, and intensify their animosity towards those groups to whom they see themselves opposed.
To test this hypothesis, the researchers, who are from the University of Limerick, gave 47 Irish students a highly repetitive computer-based task. Half the subjects had to perform this task for twice as long as the others. Unsurprisingly, this left them feeling bored and meaningless. They were then given a fictional scenario to read, in which an Englishman beats up an Irishman and later admits he “was acting on anti-Irish motives.” They were asked what sentence the Englishman should serve. The bored participants "allocated substantially more months of prison” than the others. This was one of a series of experiments which were "consistent with our hypothesis that bored people seek meaningfulness by negatively evaluating the actions of an out-group member that are targeted against an in-group member,” the researchers write.
So it appears that boredom does two things at once: it encourages sensation-seeking, and it fuels hostility. That is pretty much a recipe for a riot.