The study, thought to be the first to be based on what young people themselves have to say, found that for some, “moments of madness” led to atypical behaviour.
But for many young people, the decision whether to get involved was based on whether they felt the benefits outweighed the risks.
The report, carried out by the National Centre for Social Research and published by the Cabinet Office, found that how and whether young people acted for the buzz, to get “free stuff” or to get back at the police depended on a range of factors, including group dynamics, peer pressure and what they saw happening in families and communities around them.
Curious watchers got caught up in events and thrill-seekers who went out for the buzz became opportunistic looters.
The study also found that young people in areas which were not affected by the riots shared the attitudes of rioters, but the less obvious gaps between rich and poor in places like Sheffield or the resistance of local communities meant trouble did not take place.