What is deindividuation?

(ORDO NEWS) — Why do people behave differently when they are part of a crowd? According to psychologists, one reason is that people can experience a condition known as deindividuation.

In this article, we will look at the definition of deindividuation, how it affects behavior, and what can be done to reduce it – that is, to individuate people.

Key Findings: Deindividuation

Psychologists use the term “deindividuation” to refer to a condition in which people behave differently than usual because they are part of a group.

Early researchers focused on how deindividuation can cause people to behave impulsively or antisocially, while more recent researchers focused on how deindividuation causes people to act in accordance with group norms.

While some factors—such as anonymity and a reduced sense of responsibility—may contribute to deindividuation, increased self-awareness can promote individuation.

Definition and historical background

Deindividuation is the idea that when in a group, people behave differently than when they are alone. Because of the anonymity that groups provide, psychologists have found that people can act impulsively or anti-socially when they are part of a crowd.

In 1895, Gustave Le Bon put forward the idea that belonging to a crowd could change people’s behavior. According to LeBon, when people join a crowd, their behavior is no longer limited by normal social control, which can result in impulsive or even aggressive behavior.

The term “deindividuation” was first used by psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues in a 1952 paper. Festinger suggested that in deindividualized groups, the internal controls that normally govern people’s behavior begin to wane. In addition, he suggested that people generally like deindividualized groups and will rate them more highly than groups with less deindividualization.

Philip Zimbardo’s approach to deindividuation

But what exactly causes deindividuation? According to psychologist Philip Zimbardo, several factors can make deindividualization more likely to occur:

Anonymity: When people are anonymous, their individual behavior cannot be assessed, making de-individualized behavior more likely.

Decreased sense of responsibility: Deindividuation is more likely when people feel that other people are also responsible for the situation, or when someone else (such as a group leader) has taken responsibility.

Focus on the present (as opposed to the past or future).

A high level of physiological activation (i.e. feeling cheerful).

Experiencing what Zimbardo called “sensory input overload” (such as being at a concert or party with loud music).

Finding yourself in a new situation.

Being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

It is important to note that not all of these factors need to be present for a person to experience deindividuation, but each of them increases the likelihood of deindividuation occurring. When deindividuation occurs, Zimbardo explains, people experience “changes in how they perceive themselves and others, and thereby lower the threshold for normally inhibited behavior.”

According to Zimbardo, deindividuation is not inherently negative: the absence of deterrents can lead people to express positive feelings (such as love). However, Zimbardo described ways in which deindividuation can lead people into violent and antisocial behavior (such as stealing and disorder).

Deindividuation Research: An Example

If you went for candy, you could see the house where there was a bowl of candy and a note: “Please take only one.” In a situation like this, you might be wondering: how often do people actually follow the rules and only take one candy, and what would make someone break the rules? In a 1976 paper, psychologist Edward Diener and his colleagues suggested that deindividuation may play a role in such situations.

On Halloween night, Diener and his colleagues asked households in the Seattle area to participate in a deindividuation study. In the families participating in the study, the female experimenter met each group of children. In some cases, a condition of individualization, the experimenter asked each child for his name and address.

Under conditions of deindividuation, this information was not requested, so the children were anonymous to the experimenter. The experimenter then said that she needed to leave the room and that each child should take only one piece of candy. In some versions of the study, the experimenter added that one child would be held responsible if someone in the group took the extra candy.

The researchers found that Zimbardo’s conditions for deindividuation were related to whether children took extra candy (or even treated themselves to coins from a nearby bowl). First, it mattered whether the children were alone or in a group (in this case, the researchers did not manipulate the group size experimentally: they simply recorded whether the children came to the house individually or as a group).

Children who were alone were less likely to take extra candy than children who were in groups. In addition, it mattered whether the children were anonymous or individual: children were more likely to take additional sweets if the experimenter did not know their name.

Finally, the researchers found that whether someone is responsible for the group’s actions also influences the behavior of group members. When someone in the group was in charge but the experimenter didn’t know their name, the children were more likely to take extra sweets.

However, if the experimenter knew the name of the child who was held responsible, the children were less likely to take extra sweets (presumably so as not to cause trouble for their friend), and if the experimenter knew the names of everyone, the odds of taking extra sweets were even less likely.

Explaining Deindividuation with Social Identity Theory

Another approach to understanding deindividuation comes from social identity theory. According to social identity theory, we get an idea of ​​who we are from our social groups. People readily identify themselves with social groups; in fact, social identity researchers have found that even being assigned to an arbitrary group (created by experimenters) is enough for people to act in favor of their group.

In a 1995 paper on social identity, researchers Steven Reicher, Russell Spears, and Tom Postmes suggest that belonging to a group causes people to shift from categorizing themselves as individuals to categorizing themselves as members of a group. When this happens, group membership influences people’s behavior and they are more likely to behave in ways that conform to the group’s norms.

The researchers suggest that this may be an alternative explanation for deindividuation, which they refer to as the Deindividuation Social Identity Model (SIDE). According to this theory, when people are deindividualized, they do not act irrationally, but rather act in a way that takes into account the norms of that particular group.

A key implication of SIDE is that we cannot know how a person will behave in a group until we know something about the group itself. For example, the SIDE theory and the Zimbardo theory make similar predictions for a group attending a fraternity party: both models predict that party members will be rowdy and boisterous.

However, the SIDE model predicts that the same group of partygoers will behave quite differently if another group identity becomes prominent, for example, when taking a test the next morning, the social identity of “student” will predominate and test takers become quiet and serious.

Reducing deindividuation

Although psychologists point out that deindividuation is not necessarily a bad thing, in some cases people may behave irresponsibly or antisocially when they are deindividualized. Fortunately, psychologists have discovered that there are several strategies for dealing with deindividuation, which are based on increasing the level of self-identification and self-awareness of people.

As Diener’s Halloween study found, people are less likely to act irresponsibly if their identity is known, so one way to reduce deindividuation is to do what the experimenter in that study did: make people identifiable, not anonymous. . Another approach is to increase self-awareness.

According to some researchers, people lack self-awareness when they are deindividualized; therefore, one way to combat the deindividuation effect is to make people more self-aware. In some social psychology research, scientists have induced feelings of self-awareness using a mirror; one study showed that study participants were less likely to cheat on a test if they could see themselves in a mirror.

A key tenet of social psychology is that in order to understand people’s behavior it is necessary to consider their social context, and deindividuation is a particularly striking example of this phenomenon. However, research also shows that deindividuation is not an inevitable consequence of interacting with other people. By increasing the individual identifiability of people, as well as their self-awareness, it is possible to single out people who are part of a group.


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