One of the areas of social interaction that social psychology focuses on is crowd behavior, or, why individuals sometimes and in some circumstances feel compelled to act as a collective (e.g. in riots, protests, or other forms of group action). Social psychology has been able to identify patterns, processes, and boundaries associated with crowd behavior. One such process is deindividuation. Deindividuation refers to the way that groups can absorb individuals such that they lose their sense of identity and react to a situation based on the atmosphere created by a group (Moreland & Hogg, 1993). A consequence of this loss of identity is an accompanying sense of anonymity and diffused responsibility. People who experience this process may find themselves engaging in actions and practices that they would not do in normal circumstances. Therefore, deindividuation is a description of a group process that also has moral and ethical dimensions.
Keywords Deindividuation; Disinhibition; Antisocial Behavior; Conformity; Anonymity; Suggestibility; Contagion; Emergent Norms
Social Interaction in Groups
Social psychology, which emerged in the 19th century but really expanded after World War II, is concerned with the study of face-to-face interaction and interaction within small groups such as the family or organizations. It is influenced by both psychology (and its emphasis on behavior and the mind) and sociology (and its emphasis on the importance of symbols and interpretation in the creation of social meaning). Like psychology in general, social psychology uses scientific methods "to understand and explain how the thought, feeling and behavior of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of other human beings" (Allport, 1985). As such, it focuses on group and nonverbal behavior, social perception, leadership and other topics such as conformity, aggression and prejudice.
One of the areas of social interaction that social psychology focuses on is crowd behavior, or, in other words, why individuals sometimes and in some circumstances feel compelled to act as a collective (e.g. in riots, protests, or other forms of group action). At the turn of the 20th century, social psychologists (and those also associated with sociology at that time, such as Emile Durkheim) were interested in explaining what compels people with little otherwise in common to act in similar ways at a single point in time (Worchel, 2003). Their interest in part stemmed from an assumption that crowd, or mass behavior was to some extent irrational and out of control. However, social psychology has, in the interim, been able to identify patterns, processes and boundaries associated with crowd behavior. One such process is deindividuation. Deindividuation refers to the way that groups can "suck in" individuals such that they lose their sense of identity and react to a situation based on the atmosphere created by a group (Moreland & Hogg, 1993). A consequence of this loss of identity is an accompanying sense of anonymity and diffused responsibility. People who experience this process may find themselves engaging in actions and practices that they would not do in normal circumstances. Therefore, deindividuation is a description of a group process that has also moral and ethical dimensions.
Crowds are typically defined as large numbers of people in close proximity to each other characterized by a common concern (e.g. spectators at a sports event). In theory, crowds can be focused and instrumental (people attending a political rally) or expressive and unstructured (participants at Burning Man in the Nevada desert) although in practice, instrumentally focused crowds can also be emotional and expressive. Collective behavior usually refers to behaviors that occur in groups that are not governed by the normal conventions of social interaction, that is, among crowds. Crowd psychology is:
The study of collective behavior in which large numbers of people who are in the same place at the same time behave in a uniform manner which is volatile, appears relatively unorganized, is characterized by strong emotions, and is often in violation of social norms (Hogg, 1996, p. 151).
Such behavior might include the "wave" that is typically found at baseball or other sporting events or the collective hysteria that accompanied the broadcast of Orson Welles's War of the Worlds in 1938. It includes large-scale spontaneous celebrations or demonstrations (e.g. rock festivals or mass responses to political changes, such as the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989). However, not all collective or crowd behavior is benign and some of it involves violence and aggression, such as the Nazi rallies of the 1930s and the Los Angeles riots in 1992. Moreover, inherent in studying crowd behavior is the notion that any individual can, by virtue of being part of a crowd, be compelled to engage in behaviors that she would not normally engage in. Social psychologists are interested in explaining such behavior beyond labeling it as the outcome of troublemakers or as random acts of madness, and in examining how the group contributes to such behaviors.
Explaining Crowd Behavior
Psychoanalysis has been used to understand the irrational and unpredictable aspects of crowd behavior. For instance, Freud suggested that when someone becomes part of a crowd, the super-ego, which in normal circumstances helps to maintain society's moral standards and civilized conventions, is displaced by the leader of the crowd (Hogg, 1996). The leader symbolizes the "primal father" to whom people regress in crowd situations and individual unconscious is effectively "unlocked" in ways that unleash uncivilized, primordial behaviors. Other early understandings of crowd behavior also emphasized this unruly and unpredictable side to crowd behavior.
In the 19th century, Gustave Le Bon was one of the first social psychologists to conduct research on crowds. He became interested in crowd behavior by reading classic accounts of crowd behavior during the French revolution in novels such as Emile Zola's Germinal (Hogg, 1996). In particular he was fascinated by the way such accounts described how crowds seem to change from civilized to animalistic behavior. Concomitantly, his own book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895), described how an individual's behavior transforms when in a crowd. One of his basic premises is that a crowd has the ability to psychologically take control of an individual's mind, and the person thus becomes weak and prone to the deviant behavior that is suggested by the group that has formed. In essence, the person becomes a "puppet" of the group and the group develops a "crowd mind" (i.e. herd instinct or mass imitation) that is primitive and homogenous.
Le Bon (1908) identified three components that contribute to crowd behavior (i.e. behavior that was no longer bounded by normal social conventions and was in contrast animalistic):
- Suggestibility and
First, he argued that members of a crowd became universally irrational because of the anonymity that accompanies crowd membership. This encourages people to no longer feel responsible for their actions. Second, he observed that ideas spread rapidly through crowds and, like many other theorists of the period, he drew on medical metaphors to describe this process as a form of contagion. Third, he claimed that crowds are suggestive because of the way they permit the release of antisocial motives.
Although many scholars have challenged his theory because of its unscientific basis, it has nonetheless influenced the study of crowd behavior as a specialist branch within social psychology. In particular, social psychologists developed Le Bon's ideas into what is now known as deindividuation theory.
In modern societies that are accompanied by a strong emphasis on the individual as unique and highly identifiable, people are typically constrained from indulging in anti-social behaviors by shared moral codes and social conventions. In small groups, such conventions are continually reinforced through face-to-face interaction and shared awareness of the consequences of ignoring or flouting such constraints. In crowds, the recognition provided by face-to-face interaction is relaxed or even non-existent in ways that contribute to a sense of anonymity, which, as Le Bon argued, minimizes the sense of responsibility that people feel over their own actions. Some researchers have suggested that a person's personality and behavior may become anti-normative in crowd scenarios and focus on explaining why the average rational person can allow an incited crowd to change his or her normal behavior. This process of transition is called deindividuation and entails a loss of identity. It draws on Carl Jung's concept...
Deindividuation occurs when a person gives up their own personal norms and responsibilities and takes on the normative behaviour of a group. Hogg and Vaughan (2008) defined deindividuation as: ‘a process whereby people lose their sense of socialised individual identity and engage in unsocialised, often antisocial behaviour’.
According to the deindividuation explanation of aggression, people normally refrain from antisocial and aggressive behaviour because of strong norms against such behaviour and if they are easily identifiable. Whereas in certain situations where there is a degree of anonymity (such as crowd) resulting in a lack of constraints, people may behave in an aggressive manner. For example, Milgram (1964, 1965) found that participants were more likely to give higher levels of shock when they could not see (or be seen by) their victims. In contrast, when the victim was in the same room, participants were more reluctant to deliver high levels due to the fact that they were identifiable, thus supporting the deindividuation explanation of aggression.
One evaluative point of this study is that it is has ethical issues as participants were deceived into believing they were giving real electric shocks. Therefore informed consent could not be achieved.
Many research studies have investigated deindividuation and its effect on behaviour such as the Stanford Prison experiment (Zimbardo et al. 1973). Zimbardo was interested in finding out whether the brutality reported among guards in American prisons was due to the sadistic personalities of the guards or had more to do with the prison environment. Using a lab experiment to study this, the ‘prison’ was recreated in Stanford University, with 21 students acting as guards and prisoners. Prisoners were dressed in smocks and nylon caps and were only addressed by their number, they found that the dehumanization of the prisoners, the prison environment and the relative anonymity of each group, were key factors in creating the brutal behaviour of the guards.
One weakness of this study is the many ethical criticisms it has received, including lack of fully informed consent by participants and the level of humiliation and distress experienced by those who acted as prisoners, who were also unprotected from psychological and physical harm. It can also be criticised in terms of generalizability, the sample size only consisted of 21 white male students which is not representative of the wider population and therefore results cannot be generalise to the public. On the other hand, one strength of the study is that it had relatively high ecological validity as Zimbardo went to great lengths to ensure that his mock prison was as realistic as possible.
In evaluating deindividuation, much of the early evidence linked deindividuation to antisocial behaviour such as the Stanford Prison Experiment; however, there is evidence showing that sometimes it may produce pro-social behaviour (e.g. expressions of collective good will at religious rallies). Research has also failed to distinguish between the effects of the anonymity of those being aggressed against (e.g. the victim) as opposed to the anonymity of those doing the aggressing.
Another weakness regarding the research studies into deindividuation is the androcentric viewpoint researchers often take, due to the fact studies like the Stanford Prison Experiment consist only of males. Therefore there is a gender bias. Another weakness of Zimbardo’s study into the effects of deindividuated behaviour is that it fails to tell us much about how real guards behave, but rather how people behave when acting as guards.
The deindividuation theory also takes a determinist view of aggression, pointing out the fact that aggressive behaviour is a result of losing one’s inhibitions in the presences of a group, and to some extent, denies the individual responsibility for their own behaviour. It also takes a reductionist approach as it fails to consider other factors which may influence aggression such as biological causes such as neurotransmitters.
To conclude, deindividuation is where an individual within a group feels a weakened sense of personal identity and self-awareness, research into this theory has demonstrated its effect on aggressive behaviour.
This essay was awarded 12/12.