The riots which swept across England this summer offered young people "a day like no other", a chance to get "free stuff" and a golden opportunity to get away with as much as possible, a report said.
The study, thought to be the first to be based on what young people themselves have to say about the riots, 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 to themselves 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 who went out to see what happened got caught up in events and became opportunistic looters, while thrill-seekers who went out for the buzz became opportunistic looters, the report said.
And someone who initially saw the actions as justifiable could end up deciding the personal risk was too great to get involved, while someone who was initially unsure about taking part could end up deciding the chance of getting caught was minimal and so got involved.
But despite the wide range of reasons behind the riots, the underlying factors and issues were "very similar" in each of the areas where the looting and violence took place, the report said.
A previous history of criminality and involvement with the police, the attitudes and attachment to family and community, and wider societal factors such as local youth provision, poverty and materialism all played their part.
Scenes of young people damaging properties, stealing goods and getting away with it also encouraged others to join in. And the feeling of boredom, that there was "nothing better to do", was also "an important 'nudge' factor", the report said.
But being in work, an apprenticeship or some other activity helped stop others from getting involved. Families and parents were also seen as having an important role in stopping young people from joining in.