Super Bowl Riots: What turns celebration into destruction?

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Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D & Angela Cathey, M.A.

bSci21Media, LLC

Brett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA

Brett DiNovi & Associates

Following the recent Super Bowl victory of the Philadelphia Eagles over the New England Patriots, celebration turned to destruction in the streets of Philly. This is a common and, some would say, disturbing occurrence following Super Bowl victories. In a recent video, Brett DiNovi, of Brett DiNovi & Associates, posed questions to behavior analysts regarding what causes such behavior.

While alcohol and other setting factors are likely contributors to disinhibition, we will address the role of other social and verbal symbolically driven contingencies in these outbreaks of disorderly behavior. First, it is well known that riots often break out in the home city of the winning Super Bowl team. This, in itself, serves to increase the likelihood that disorderly behavior will break out. The infrequent event of a Super Bowl win serves as a discriminative stimulus that increases the likelihood of behavior known to follow it. As social beings, we are able to learn from the contingencies and histories described by others or observed by us. Additionally, verbal symbolic behavior that frames what is occurring as “celebration” maintains calm and coordinating behavior across the crowd when disorderly behavior breaks out. People allow and encourage behaviors they would normally fear because of the transformation of stimulus functions that occurs when we relate the event to a celebration, and the events that occur fit within our expectations.


In addition, the sporting events themselves typically involve high levels of verbal symbolic coordination. Thousands of people stand in stadiums for hours because they relate the team to themselves. When people verbal symbolically relate themselves to a team, this coordination of deictic frames results in transformation of stimulus functions such that you “feel” what your team “feels.” For those that feel most closely aligned with the team, the once in a lifetime experience of a Super Bowl win is their felt experience as well. When one considers this it becomes much easier to understand the level of adrenalin and disorder observed, as thousands of people together feel ‘high’ on the win of their team.

Further, it is likely that, in a crowd that is highly verbal symbolically aligned, that “emotional contagion” spreads more easily. Humans are highly social beings and respond readily to the cues in others’ behavior. In a sense, witnessing your team’s win pulls you to experience a sort of person-to-person wave of behavioral momentum, this further spreads through a crowd as people go on to ‘challenge’ each other. A collegial one-man-upmanship may spread easily as the high coordination in the crowd reduces the frequency of defensive, aggressive, or punishing behavior that bystanders might normally emit in response to disorderly behavior. In this way, fun becomes rowdy, rowdy becomes disorderly, and disorderly becomes violent. For those that do not feel threatened in this violence, the disorderliness may continue until people disburse and normal social contingencies reset the environment.

In a sense, a riot following a sports event is likely due to a “perfect storm” of setting factors, verbal symbolic contingencies, and the rapid spread of coordinated social and emotional behavior across a crowd that feels as if it is “one” with each other.

To hear more, be sure to check out the full video, and to subscribe to Brett DiNovi’s YouTube channel and let him know what you would like to see in future videos.  Also, be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

bSci21Media, LLC is a leading media outlet for behavior analysis that serves to disseminate the science to the world and support behavior analytic companies around the globe.  The company’s larger vision is B.F. Skinner’s vision of bringing a technology of behavior change to the world in order to address it’s biggest problems.


Brett DinoviBrett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA has the unique and distinguished experience of studying the principles of applied behavior analysis under the rigorous scrutiny of both Dr. Julie S. Vargas (formerly Skinner) and Dr. E.A. Vargas at West Virginia University’s internationally recognized program. For the past 26 years, Brett has used behavior analytic principles to create large scale change across school districts, Fortune 500 companies using principles of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), and across individual learners. Brett has been a OBM consultant in Morgantown WV, an instructor at West Virginia University, a guest lecturer at numerous universities, a speaker on multiple Comcast Newsmakers TV programs, an expert witness in due process hearings, has publications in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, and has been in in executive leadership positions across schools and residential programs nationwide. In addition to an award from South Jersey Biz Magazine for “Best Places to Work,” an award for “Best of Families” in Suburban Magazine, and the distinguished “Top Ranked U.S. Executives” award, Brett’s proudest accomplishment is being a role model and father for his daughter and two stepchildren (one of which has autism). Brett can be reached at [email protected]

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