Psychology of Power Dynamics: What We Can Learn From Riot Control

This video explores the recent riots in Charlottesville, why the situation got out of hand, and how riot control typically works.

There some important things we can learn about power and psychology from riots and crowd control strategies:


Riot Police intentionally dehumanize themselves by wearing bulky armor, helmets that obscure the face, and shields.

If you want to create psychological distance from others, put more physical impediments in the way. If you want to do the opposite–facilitate connection and rapport–remove physical impediments.


Individuals commit violence in crowds (and do other things they would never do on their own) because the crowd creates a sense of anonymity and being “one with the tribe.”

Individual responsibility and identity go out the window.

If you want people to engage in abnormal behavior, put them in a situation where others around them are doing it and it has become “normalized.”

By the same token, if you want them to go against the crowd, give them an individual experience to refocus their mind back on their individual identity. The example in the video is pepper spray, which forces the individual to focus on themselves.

Controlled Movement and Visual Displays

Police are trained to move in lockstep to seem more powerful than their numbers would otherwise allow.

If you want your team to come across as more powerful, give them all the same training, movements, speech patterns, and a matching appearance.

Effective Punishment

Effective arrests are limited arrests. If the police arrest too many people, they will trigger a backlash and the much larger crowd will turn on them, leading to more chaos, not less.

If you want your rules and punishments to be respected by the masses and accepted as “just,” keep them limited. Penalizing or punishing too many people will backfire on you.


The police in Charlottesville were not prepared for the massive number of protestors and rioters, and did not expect them all to converge on Emancipation Park as early as they did.

As the saying goes, if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

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