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Deindividuation

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Deindividuation

Why do people follow the crowd? Do we behave differently when we are part of a group? As part of the crowd, individuals gain a sense of power and lose their individuality. In psychology, we call this change in behaviour 'deindividuation'. But what is meant by this? What are the causes of deindividuation? We cover several deindividuation experiments and examples to get to the bottom of it.

Deindividuation is a phenomenon in which people exhibit antisocial and sometimes violent behaviour in situations where they believe they cannot be personally identified because they are part of a group. Deindividuated situations can reduce accountability because people are hidden in a group.

American social psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term ‘deindividuation’ to describe situations in which people cannot be individuated or isolated from others. Let’s look at some examples of deindividuation.

Mass looting, gangs, riots, deindividuation can also occur in organisations such as the military.

Deindividuation Illustration of deindividuationStudySmarterDeindividuation, Flaticon.

What are the origins of deindividuation theory?

The concept of deindividuation can be traced back to theories of crowd behaviour. In particular, the French polymath Gustave Le Bon (a person of excellent knowledge).Le Bon’s work published a politically motivated critique of crowd behaviour.At the time, French society was unstable, with many protests and riots. Le Bon described the behaviour of groups as irrational and changeable. Being in a crowd, he said, allowed people to act in ways they usually would not.

Le Bon explained that deindividuated behaviour occurs in three ways:

  • Anonymity causes people to be unidentifiable, leading to a sense of untouchability and a loss of personal responsibility (private self-perception decreases).

  • This loss of personal responsibility leads to contagion the feeling spreads through the crowd, and everyone starts to think and act the same way (reduced public self-awareness).

  • People in crowds are more prone to antisocial behaviour.

In the 1920s, psychologist William McDougall argued that crowds evoke people’s basic instinctual emotions, such as anger and fear. These basic emotions spread quickly through a crowd.

Deindividuation theory of aggression

Under normal circumstances, an understanding of social norms prevents aggressive behaviour. In public, people generally constantly evaluate their behaviour to ensure that it conforms to social norms.However, when a person becomes part of a crowd, they become anonymous and lose their sense of identity; thus, loosening normal inhibitions. Constant self-assessment is weakened. People in groups do not see the consequences of aggression.However, social learning influences deindividuation. Some sporting events, such as football, draw huge crowds and have a long history of aggression and violence on the pitch and from fans. Conversely, other sporting events such as cricket and rugby also attract huge crowds but do not have the same problems.

Johnson and Downing’s (1979) experiment found that participants dressed as KKK gave more shocks to a confederate, while participants dressed as nurses gave fewer shocks to a confederate than a control group. This finding shows that social learning and group norms influence groups. The nurse group delivered fewer shocks because nurses are typically symbolised as caring.

Deindividuation experiments

Deindividuation has been a research subject of many well-known experiments. Let’s have a look at them.

Philip Zimbardo

Zimbardo is an influential psychologist best known for his Stanford Prison Experiment, which we will look at later. Let us first look at his initial study on deindividuation.

In 1969, Zimbardo conducted a study with two groups of participants. One group was anonymised by wearing large coats and hoods reminiscent of the KKK that concealed their identities. The other group was a control group; they wore normal clothing and name tags. Each participant was taken to a room and given the task of ‘shocking’ a confederate in another room at various levels from mild to dangerous. Participants in the anonymous group shocked the partner longer than participants in the control group. This shows deindividuation because the anonymised group (deindividuated) showed more aggression.

Stanford Prison Experiment (1971)

Zimbardo conducted the Stanford prison experiment in 1971. Zimbardo set up a prison mock-up in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology building. He assigned 24 men to play the role of a guard or a prisoner. These men had no abnormal traits such as narcissism or an authoritarian personality. The guards were given uniforms and reflective goggles that obscured their faces.The prisoners dressed alike and wore stocking caps and hospital dressing gowns; they also had a chain around one leg. They were identified and referred to only by a number assigned to them.

Deindividuation Stanford Prison Experiment StudySmarterStanford Prison Experiment, KG - StudySmarter Originals (Made with Flaticon images).

The guards were instructed to do whatever they deemed necessary to maintain order in prison and gain the prisoners' respect. Physical violence was not allowed.On the second day, the prisoners staged a rebellion. The guards then worked out a system of rewards and punishments for the prisoners. The guards became more and more abusive towards the prisoners, who became more and more passive. Five prisoners were so traumatised that they were released.The experiment was supposed to run for two weeks but stopped after six days because the guards oppressed the prisoners.

The role of deindividuation

  • The guards experienced deindividuation through immersion in the group and the strong group dynamic.

  • The clothing of the guards and prisoners led to anonymity on both sides.

  • The guards did not feel responsible; this allowed them to shift personal responsibility and attribute it to a higher power (study conductor, research team) subsequently the guards said they felt someone official would stop them if they were being too cruel.

  • The guards had an altered temporal perspective (they focused more on the here and now than on the past and present).

However, one aspect to consider in this experiment is that they spent a few days together. The degree of deindividuation could therefore be lower, which affects the validity of the results.

Zimbardo (1969) - female participants

Four female participants were asked to shock a learner in this study, similar to the famous Milgram study. Here Zimbardo measured deindividuation, as participants could see the learners through a one-way glass system and wore concealing clothing in the deindividuation condition.

As such, other participants could not see them.

This was compared to the non-deindividuation condition where participants had identifiable features (name tag and no anonymity).They found that this condition, with the anonymity aspect, that deindividuation provided, shocked learners for almost twice as long as identifiable participants.

The role of deindividuation

  • Anonymity, and thus the aspect of deindividuation, affected the levels of aggression displayed by the participants.

Ed Diener suggested that deindividuation also involves an aspect of objective self-perception. Objective self-awareness is high when attention is focused inward on the self, and people monitor their behaviour. It is low when attention is directed outward, and behaviour is not monitored. This decrease in objective self-awareness leads to deindividuation.Diener and his colleagues conducted a study of more than 1300 children on Halloween in 1976. The study focused on 27 households where researchers placed a bowl of sweets on a table.An observer was out of sight to record the children’s behaviour. In the study, an adult said they had something to do in the kitchen and had to leave the room and ask the children to take one sweet. Half of the children were asked their names and where they lived, while the other half were not. Children who were not asked for this information and children in groups were more than twice as likely to take more than one piece of candy.

The role of deindividuation

  • The anonymous children and the children in groups had low objective self-perception, which led to deindividuation.

Although deindividuation is associated with negative behaviour, there are cases in which group norms can have a positive influence. Johnson and Downing (1979) replicated Zimbardo’s 1961 experiment, but with the difference that they dressed participants as either KKK or nurses. Those dressed as the KKK shocked the confederates more, and those dressed as nurses shocked the confederates less than the control group. Thus, it appears that normative cues influence people in groups.

An important aspect of all this is that deindividuation need not always lead to aggression. It can also lead to lowered inhibitions with other emotions and behaviours.

Deindividuation - Key takeaways

  • Deindividuation is a phenomenon in which people exhibit antisocial and sometimes violent behaviour in situations where they believe they cannot be personally identified because they are part of a group.

  • American social psychologist Leon Festinger developed the term ‘deindividuation’ to describe situations in which people cannot be isolated individually or from others.

  • The concept of deindividuation can be traced back to theories of crowd behaviour. In particular, to a French polymath named Gustave Le Bon. At the time, French society was unstable, with many protests and riots. Le Bon described group behaviour in crowds as irrational and changeable because people in a crowd can act in ways they normally would not.

  • Under normal circumstances, an understanding of social norms prevents aggressive behaviour. However, when a person becomes part of a crowd, they become anonymous and lose their sense of identity; thus, loosening normal inhibitions.

  • There are many studies on deindividuation. One famous and well-known study is the Stanford Prison Experiment by Philip Zimbardo. Zimbardo set up a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford University psychology building. He assigned 24 men to the role of either a guard or a prisoner. The guards became increasingly abusive toward the prisoners, who became more passive. The experiment was supposed to run for two weeks but had to be stopped after six days because the guards oppressed the prisoners.

  • However, there are also cases where group norms can have a positive effect. Johnson and Downing (1979) found that participants dressed as nurses shocked their peers less than the control group. Thus, it appears that people in groups are receptive to and influenced by normative cues.

Frequently Asked Questions about Deindividuation

Examples of deindividuation are mass looting, gangs, riots; deindividuation can also occur in organizations such as the military.

Not all deindividuation is negative; group norms can positively influence crowds. For example, when people feel like they are part of a group at a large charity event, they donate and raise larger amounts of money.

Under normal circumstances, an understanding of social norms prevents anti-social behaviour. However, when a person becomes part of a crowd, they become anonymous and lose their sense of identity; this loosens normal inhibitions. This effect allows people to engage in behaviour they usually would not.

The deindividuation theory can help reduce aggression, for example, using obvious CCTV cameras at events like football matches.

Deindividuation is a phenomenon in which people exhibit antisocial and sometimes violent behaviour in situations where they believe they cannot be personally identified because they are part of a group. Deindividuated situations can reduce accountability because people are hidden in a group.

Final Deindividuation Quiz

Question

What is the definition of deindividuation?

Show answer

Answer

Deindividuation is a phenomenon in which people exhibit antisocial and sometimes violent behaviour in situations where they believe they cannot be personally identified because they are part of a group.

Show question

Question

How did psychologist Leon Festinger describe deindividuation?

Show answer

Answer

Festinger described deindividuation as situations where people cannot be individuated or isolated from others.

Show question

Question

Le Bon stated that deindividuated behaviour arose through what three ways?

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Answer

  • Anonymity causes people to be unidentifiable, leading to a sense of untouchability and a loss of personal responsibility (private self-perception decreases).
  • This loss of personal responsibility leads to contagion – the feeling spreads through the crowd, and everyone starts to think and act the same way (reduced public self-awareness).
  • People in crowds are more prone to antisocial behaviour.

Show question

Question

Give an example of how social learning (sports events) affects deindividuation.


Show answer

Answer

Some sporting events, such as football, draw huge crowds and have a long history of aggression and violence on the pitch and from fans. Conversely, other sporting events such as cricket and rugby also attract huge crowds but do not have the same problems.

Show question

Question

In Zimbardo’s 1969 study, what were the findings?

Show answer

Answer

The participants in the anonymous group shocked the confederate longer than those in the control group.

Show question

Question

How did deindividuation affect the guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment?

Show answer

Answer

  • The guards experienced deindividuation through immersion in the group and the strong group dynamic.
  • The clothing of the guards and prisoners led to anonymity on both sides.
  • The guards did not feel responsible; this allowed them to shift personal responsibility and attribute it to a higher power (study conductor, research team) subsequently the guards said they felt someone official would stop them if they were being too cruel.
  • The guards had an altered temporal perspective (they focused more on the here and now than on the past and present).

Show question

Question

Ed Diener proposed that deindividuation involved an aspect of what?

Show answer

Answer

Objective self-awareness.

Show question

Question

How does objective self-awareness affect deindividuation?


Show answer

Answer

Objective self-awareness is high when attention is focused inward on the self, and people monitor their behaviour. It is low when attention is directed outward, and behaviour is not monitored. This decrease in objective self-awareness leads to deindividuation.

Show question

Question

What did Diener et al. (1976) find in their study?

Show answer

Answer

Children that were not asked information about themselves and children in groups were more than twice likely to take more than one sweetie.

Show question

Question

Is deindividuation always associated with negative behaviour? Give an example of a study.

Show answer

Answer

No, there are cases where group norms can have a positive influence. Johnson and Downing (1979) found that participants dressed as nurses shocked confederates less than the control group.

Show question

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