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 is when people lose their sense of individual identity. Most individuals would normally refrain from aggression because they don’t want to be held to blame for their actions – but in situations such as crowds, social restraints and personal responsibility are perceived to be lessened, so displays of aggressive behaviour occur.
It can be said that as a result of normative social influence, deindividuation causes people to unquestioningly follow group norms instead of personal norms, which sometimes leads individuals to display aggressive behaviour.
Zimbardo sees people in crowds as being anonymous, with lessened awareness of individuality and a reduced sense of guilt, or fear of punishment. The bigger the crowd, the more this will be.
Prentice-Dunn and Rogers (1982) believe that individuals normally have awareness of personal moral codes, but being in a crowd diminishes private awareness, so instead they follow the group norms.
+ Research support – There has been a great deal of research supporting this theory, for example:
- Malmuth and Check (1981) – found that nearly a third of male university students in the US would rape if there was no chance of them getting caught.
- Zimbardo (1963) – replicated Milgram’s electric shock study, but the participant was either individuated with a name tag or deindividuated by wearing a hood. The deindividuated participants gave more shocks, supporting the idea of deindividuation.
- Diener et al (1976) – found that anonymous ‘trick-or-treating’ children in the USA took more money or sweets than non-anonymous children, supporting the notion of deindividuation.
- Watson (1973) – conducted a cross-cultural study and found that warriors who disguised their appearance – for example, through face paint – tended to be more aggressive, suggesting that deindividuation effects are universal.
+ Application of theory – The theory of deindividuation can help us reduce aggression, for example using obvious CCTV cameras at events such as football matches has been shown to reduce violence levels.
– Pro-social behaviour – Deindividuation in crowds can lead to increased pro-social behaviour, for example religious gatherings.
– Doesn’t affect everyone – The idea that people lose their personal moral codes when deindividuated is evidently not true, as many people are not negatively affected by crowds.
– Football hooliganism and ritualised behaviour – Deindividuation has been used to explain the phenomenon of football hooliganism. However, Marsh et al (1978) found that mainly ritualised behaviour occurred at football matches, with actual violence being rare. So football crowds aren’t acting aggressively, but just in a ritualised way.