Post No.: 0150
‘Deindividuation’ is when individuals, within group situations, do not feel that they stand out as individuals and do not see or pay attention to themselves as individuals. This loss of self-awareness can lead to a feeling of anonymity and therefore a sense of diffused responsibility (hiding one’s antisocial or anti-normative and disinhibited behaviours within a crowd or doing things one would only do when in a crowd but not when alone and individually exposed, identifiable and clearly responsible for any outcomes). Deindividuation is basically losing the sense of the ‘self’ when within a ‘group’.
It occurs in group situations that foster responsiveness to group norms. When ‘hiding amongst the crowd’, people can be aroused to do some terrible things (e.g. vandalise, loot, cheat, lynch). Higher levels of arousal, sensory overload, altered states of consciousness (e.g. being under the influence of drugs), physical involvement and the emphasis on the present rather than the past or future, increases this effect. But the greatest effect seems to come from the larger the group is, particularly when it comes to antisocial behaviours and atrocities such as looting or lynching in a mob. You cannot easily scare a large mob too – you’ll more likely make one angrier.
Even mere feelings of anonymity alone can increase rates of cheating (e.g. even just wearing sunglasses, dimming the lights or night time, when people think they’re not being observed, not under surveillance or cannot be individually identified, can increase the rate of selfishness, cheating and other antisocial behaviours). Anonymity reduces or obfuscates accountability i.e. something bad has happened – but who did it?! If we cannot identify the criminal then how can we bring them to justice? Robbers tend to use masks and online criminals use aliases for the purpose of anonymity (although not everyone who uses aliases is up to no good e.g. there may be legitimate reasons to attempt to protect one’s identity, such as whistleblowing or keeping safer online). People or entities (such as governments or corporations) who or that don’t want transparency might be committing, or will at least be more tempted to commit, crimes. Enough people to cause harm in this world would do anything if they think they can get away with it, such as if they think they won’t be identified and/or if they feel the act can be kept a secret from those who can and will punish them if they were ever caught.
There’s no difference between males and females. Uniforms can depersonalise, deindividualise and allow people to assimilate or hide within their groups even more. People become less self-conscious and more group-conscious so, depending on what the uniform represents, it can have positive (e.g. nurse) or negative (e.g. Ku Klux Klan) effects.
When on holiday abroad, we can become slightly different versions of ourselves. People are often less self-conscious and less inhibited when on holiday abroad, partly because they perceive that they are anonymous to the locals there, whilst they perceive that people will know them and will likely see them again, and therefore the repercussions for their reputation would be higher, if they conducted the same behaviours and were caught nearer where they live! Inhibitions are looser, not only because of being in ‘relax mode’ on holiday but because one’s social reputation is not perceived to be in as much risk because these local people in a foreign country don’t know one personally and will likely never ever see one again too.
Likewise, it can sometimes be easier for mental health sufferers to first reveal their problems to strangers than to the people much closer to them. The judgements of those closest to us, such as our own family, are usually the most affecting for us, hence talking to relatively more distant people first can be a way for some people to ‘test the waters’ of social reactions before talking to friends or family.
Deindividuation is not always a bad thing. Group chanting, clapping, singing and/or dancing are ways to reduce self-consciousness and therefore promote deindividuation, and these can be extremely enjoyable, positive experiences and can increase the closeness felt with others sharing the same experience. It can also set the stage for far less inhibited behaviours, which can be fun and benign rather than always antisocial. Woof!
Conforming to the norms of a group has its pros and cons too – for instance, obeying the rules of the road benefits every road user overall compared to everyone driving according to their own rules. But slavishly following orders or succumbing to peer pressures in some other contexts can be dangerous. A parent may therefore want to say to their adolescent child before they leave for a party, “Always remember who you are and maintain your personal identity.”
Doing just about anything in unison increases group conformity. There is a self-reinforcing pleasure in acting impulsively while observing others doing likewise – we see others act as we are, and so we think they feel as we do, which reinforces our own feelings. Impulsive group action also absorbs our attention (e.g. when barking at a referee, we’re not thinking about our values – just reacting to the immediate situation, which we may regret when we have the opportunity to think about it afterwards). Thus group experiences that diminish self-consciousness tend to disconnect our behaviours from our personal attitudes/values, and so members become less restrained, less self-controlled and more impulsive to the situation. This may also be due to being in an aroused state (which simply means alert, awake and attentive in psychology, not necessarily sexually), which is common within loud crowd situations. Alcohol helps to decrease self-awareness and disinhibits us too.
Increasing self-awareness or decreasing anonymity (e.g. acting in front of a camera or mirror, an audience (especially when one can clearly see the audiences’ eyes trained on oneself), bright lights, wearing a large name tag) conversely increases self-consciousness and self-control, and our actions will connect more with our attitudes/values as a consequence i.e. deeds committed inside a situation will then match the words we say outside of the situation more closely. It frequently happens – people fail to understand how they’ll react in a given situation that involves a very different arousal or situational state to the one a judgement is made (e.g. when sitting down watching TV, thinking we’d definitely never be tempted to loot if we were amongst a peer-group crowd of looters and the fuzzy police were nowhere to be seen. Best say that we won’t know for sure unless we ever find ourselves in that situation).
People in positions of power can be consumed by their roles when there is deindividuation too i.e. when they lose sight of who they are as a person and become absorbed in a role or uniform they’re in to the point of being abusive (e.g. prison guards). Whereas people who have lost their freedom and/or identities (as a person or even perceptually as a human being) will tend to feel extreme stress, depressed resignation or even vengeance (e.g. prisoners). The Stanford Prison Experiment also demonstrates that volunteer prisoners can quickly start to behave as if they were real prisoners, with real resignation and/or anger directed towards their volunteer prison guards.
There are criticisms of deindividuation theory though, such as whether the anti-normative effects of deindividuation depend on the situation or are inherent, and that groups seem to cause anti-normative behaviours yet groups also seem to cause conformity to group norms too (although this can be explained because what is considered a ‘norm’ is always contextual – hence the norms in one situation (e.g. when one is within a certain type of group) may not be the same norms in other situations (e.g. when one is not within such a group)). But the overall existence and effects of deindividuation and anonymity are not in dispute.
So deindividuation can be both good and bad – singing with other people can make us feel a united emotional rapport and furry euphoria with everyone else in that group, which is great for the group and the collective experience (e.g. in a music festival), but it also increases group conformity and can make us feel more hostile towards outgroup members. This is where national anthems can be both good and bad. The tricky balancing act is to somehow belong to groups and the advantages that doing so can bring, without ever losing your own personal identity and values, or discriminating against outgroups. This is easy to do when one is lucid, sober and calm, but can go out of the window if one is in a high state of arousal amongst a large and like-minded crowd.