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According to the Dictionary of Psychology, deindividuation is a “psychological state characterized by the loss of sense of individuality and a submerging of personal identity and accountability into a group. In some circumstances it can lead to a relaxation of inhibitions and the release of antisocial behavior, and it has been used to explain certain forms of mob behavior” (Colman, 2006). Deindividuation deals primarily with a large collection of individuals that are willing to put aside their own morals, self-awareness, and predispositions, in order to adopt, act and assimilate the behavior of a larger group (Stenstrom, May 4, 2010). According to Alvarez and Bachman (2008), deindividuation can be observed in riots, lynch mobs, and vigilante groups, wherein the less organized groups are in the forms of riots, and in the most organized forms are in the form of vigilante groups (p. 213). Poignantly, the word mob is derived from the Latin term mobile volgus, which translates to movable common people (Alvarez & Bachman, p. 213). Deindividuation theory argues that individuals can feel extricated from responsibility for their actions simply because the person no longer has an acute awareness of the identity of self and others (individual and corporate entities), while the social environment provides the context for their newly adopted behavior (Hinduja, p. 390). In this process, the social group to which a person belongs becomes the focus of attention, which decreases self-awareness and self-regulation (Stenstrom, May 4, 2010). Social arousal, decreased self-awareness, defused responsibility, group presence and size, and physical anatomy, are factors that can either increase or decrease deindividuation within a group, which varies between public and private self-awareness (Stenstrom, May 4, 2010).
Anonymity, in particular, has been identified as one of the key causes of deindividuation (Silke, p. 493). Diener (1980) argued that “anonymous conditions cause a loss of self-awareness and that this loss is the key element that facilitates deindividuation” (Silke, p. 493). A significant number of studies have demonstrated that individuals who believed their identity was unknown were more likely to behave in an aggressive and punitive manner. For example, “Zimbardo (1969) showed that participants who had masked their identities (with hoods covering their faces) were much more likely to administer electric shocks—and at more severe levels—than people whose identities were not hidden” (Silke, 494). Although this testing was carried out under laboratory conditions, there was a case study that was not carried out in a laboratory setting that provided a perfect example on how collective behavior facilitates disinhibition behavior in the form of defiance (Hinduja, p. 392). Andrew Silke, performed a research study where he examined the relation between anonymity and aggression in violent interpersonal assaults that occurred in Northern Ireland during 1994 through 1996. His findings were consistent with previous data that anonymity facilitates aggression and deindividuation can be demonstrated outside of laboratory conditions (Silke, p. 497).
Mob violence has been a ubiquitous feature for most societies throughout history (Alvarez, p. 212). As previously stated in the definition of deindividuation, it is an emotional state, which is usually fueled by political, religious, social or other forms of protest. Deindividuation cannot be stopped once it moves into a stage of violence because once the group is formed, and they share a common objective, it is very difficult to stop them without using violence in response to their violence. There cannot be an intervention once deindividuation has taken place within the group because most people have lost their self-awareness, predisposition and so forth. The only way one can control deindividuation is by prevention of “group presence,” which will not lead to social arousal or decrease of self-awareness.
Real life example – Red Shirt Protesters
According to the New York Times, a group of demonstrators known as the “Red-Shirted Protesters” turned violent in Bangkok in April 2010 (Fuller, 2010). Farmers who claim to have never been interested in politics were now donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the red shirt movement. The red shirts would hold nightly rallies, which would at times draw thousands to support their cause. The protesters’ primary demand was that the Prime Minister of Thailand, Abhisit Vejjajiva, relinquish his power and call new elections to be held to elect a new Prime Minister. The farmers have grown weary of the double standards present in Thai society, and demand equality and justice. According to Colman, deindividuation theory is when a person’s sense of individuality is submerged, and with it, personal morals, self-awareness, and one’s sense of accountability disappear into the group’s common goal. This group started out small but due to the government’s negligence, more people opted to join the movement, so that their voices can be heard and their needs met. In turn, it became a violent organization, which refused to peacefully negotiate terms. Their deindividuation can be noted in their staunch refusal to allow the government to have a say in their needs, which can be seen in their motto “don’t come here!” Further, deindividuation can also be noted given that they share a physical anonymity, as well as a group presence in size. The red shirt movement has mobilized a large group of poor Thai citizens that unite in their cause, not only in their manner of dress (the red shirt uniform), but also in their willingness to mobilize collectively as a sole unit. In addition, the deaths of red shirt activists have also allowed the movement to rally more support by recruiting more members, as well as gathering donations from empathizers. Clearly, these farmers, unknowingly, have enacted this theory of deindividuation in order to join this radical red shirt movement. Not only are they accomplishing their goals, they are certainly more accepted by their community, their bonds are much stronger, and one can also see important figures arising out of this group, whom could possibly hold political positions in the near future in the country of Thailand.
Example – Columbine
About ten years ago, the American school system was stained with blood by the actions of two teenagers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed 13, and injured 24, students and faculty of Columbine High School, and ultimately killing themselves (Toppo, 2009). There was much speculation about what happened, and most importantly, why it happened. However, ten years later, a better understanding of the circumstances that led to this horrible event have surfaced. One might argue that the Columbine shooting did not involve deindividuation because it did not deal with a large crowd or mob—only two individuals. However, psychologists argue that a culture can be comprised of two or more individuals who share common beliefs, goals, interests, and a sense of community. Harris and Klebold, together, as a culture, decided to put aside their individual morals, self-awareness, and predispositions, in order to adopt, act, and assimilate the behavior of their “group”. For instance, records from the Jefferson County Sheriffs office showed that these students had their own circle of friends. According to this report, Klebold even took a date to the prom (Chen 2009). It is clear that these kids were not outcasts, but in order to carry out their plans, they had to let go of their personal feelings and emotions. Furthermore, it is worth noting that Harris and Klebold decided to begin their massacre in the student cafeteria, the room with the largest collection of students at one time. Under the deindividuation theory, social arousal could have played an important factor because of the commotion, screaming and desperation of the students upon their barrage of gunfire. In addition, in order for Harris and Klebold to carry out this heinous act, it was necessary for them to disengage and extricate themselves from the responsibility of their actions and awareness of the identity of themselves and others. However, one could also argue that deindividuation was not a factor in this case because the size of the group in question was very small, and not anonymous, which is usually associated with the cause of loss of self-awareness. Further, it was their purpose to be there, not that of a larger group or mob. Lastly, given that Harris and Klebold did not hide their identity and were still able to carry out this killing spree, contradicts a fundamental aspect of deindividuation, where the perpetrator is able to perform extreme acts of violence because their identity is hidden or defused. Therefore, the example of the Columbine shooting could be argued both ways, wherein deindividuation could be ascribed to Harris and Klebold if one were to adopt the idea that they were their own “group.” While on the other hand, the fact that their actions negate several of the fundamental characteristics of deindividuation negates the application of the theory in this scenario.
Upon examining the theory of deindividuation, and applying this theory to the two examples discussed above, one begins to appreciate the effects that deindividuation has on a group and on the individual. Deindividuation can take a “normal” individual and create a deviant that is willing to act and perform atrocious acts for the sake of accomplishing a common goal or objective. From a mass movement, to the actions of two individuals, deindividuation plays a key role in a person’s ability to adopt a new persona in order to carry out their “mission”.
Alvarez, A. & Bachman, R. (2008) Violence: The Enduring Problem. Sage Publications, Inc. Thousand Oaks, CA. 211-233.
Chen, S. (200). Debunking the myths of Columbine, 10 years later. CNN. Retrieved from CNN Website: http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/04/20/columbine.myths/
Colman, A. M. Dictionary of Psychology (2nd ed.). (2006). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Fuller, T. (2010, April 26). Rebellious Mood Takes Root in Rural Thailand. The New York Times. Retrieved from New York Times website: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04-/24/world/asia/24reds.html
Hinduja, S. (2008). Deindividuation and Internet software piracy. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 11(4), 390-398.
Silke, A. (2003). Deindividuation, anonymity, and Violence: findings From Northern Ireland. The Journal of Social Psychology, 2003, 143(4), 493-499.
Stenstrom, D. (2010, spring quarter). Human Violence and Individual Change, Psychology 309. Class Lecture. California State University, Los Angeles.
Toppo, G. (200). 10 years later, the real story behind Columbine. Retrieved from USA Today website: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-04-13-columbine-myths_N.htm
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