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Deindividuation theory

Deindividuation Theory is based on Le Bon’s crowd theory. Le bon described how an individual was transformed in their behaviour when part of a crowd, and through a combination of anonymity (being annonymous in the vast crowd), suggestibility and contagion; a collective mindset takes possession of the individual. Due to this the individual loses self-control and is capable of acting in a way that goes against social or personal norms that they may adhere to when not part of such a crowd. Therefore Deindividuation can be a psychological state characterised by lowered self-awareness and decreased concerns about their own evaluation by others. This causes behaviours that would normally be inhibited by personal or social norms due to such evaluation.

People do not act aggressively due to social norms that inhibit such uncivilised behaviour and also because they can be easily identified leading to them being held responsible for such actions. However, in a crowd a person may feel as if they are anonymous and therefore they cannot be held to account for their behaviour. This then results in reduced self-control and an increase in behaviours that would normally be inhibited.

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Deindividuation theory

Zimbardo proposed being part of a crowd reduces a person’s own awareness of their own individuality. In a large crowd each person is faceless and the larger the group is, the greater the feelings of anonymity. Conditions that increase anonymity also reduce the concerns about how they are evaluated by others and so weaken people’s restraints that are based on feelings of shame or guilt. Deindividuation has been refined to distinguish between the effects of reduced public self-awareness (being anonymous) and reduced private self-awareness (forgetting themselves and loss of internal standards). Within a large group individuals may become less privately aware and some argue it is this loss of private self-awareness that is most associated with anti-social behaviour.

Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison experiment to measure whether brutality reported among guards in American prisons were down to personality factors or situational factors (Deindividuation occurring). A simulated prison was created in the basement of Stanford university and 24 emotionally stable male participants were recruited. One group of students were randomly allocated to play the role of guards and the others to the role of prisoners. Guards and prisoners were deindividuated to become anonymous members of their selected groups; Prisoners were stripped naked on arrival, issued loose-fitting outfits and ID numbers and referred to these numbers instead of names. A chain was also bolted around an ankle to act as a constant reminder of their status as a prisoner.

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Deindividuation theory

Guards wore military style uniforms, silver reflector sunglasses making eye contact impossible and carried clubs, whistles, handcuffs and keys. Although only a simulation, the guards were found to create a brutal environment for the prisoners and prisoners began acting passively as the guards increased their aggression. Prisoners felt helpless as they were subjected to verbal and physical abuse. Both sets of participants showed classic signs of Deindividuation based on this research supporting the theory that it leads to a lowered sense of personal identity and a host of disinhibited antisocial behaviours.

Mann et al also used the concept of Deindividuation to explain the strange collective behaviour known as “The Baiting Crowd”. This supports the view that the crowd is a deindividuated mob”. Mann analysed 21 incidences of suicide jumps reported in the US newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s. He found that in 10 of the 21 cases where a crowd had gathered to watch, baiting had occurred with the crowd urging the potential suicide to jump. These tended to occur more frequently at night when the crowd was large and some distance from the person being taunted and they were less identifiable themselves. All these factors were believed to have produced a state of Deindividuation in crowd members supporting the theory.

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Deindividuation theory

Mullen et al carried out an archival analysis to determine whether lynch mob killings could be accounted for in terms of self-attention processes breaking down. Analysing over 60 newspaper reports of lynching’s that took place, it was found that as the size of the mob increased; the more violence occurred from the mob. This could be explained through Deindividuation as people became less attentive, more anonymity in the bigger crowd and thus self-regulation processes broke down leading to an increase in the level of violence committed through Deindividuation supporting the theory.

However, we cannot be certain with correlation data of cause and effect and be sure that this greater violence was specifically down to Deindividuation and other unknown confounding variables may be contributing. Also as the data collected is based on past evidence, newspaper reports and conclusions drawn from this; we again cannottest this to ascertain for certain greater mob sizes causes more violence due to Deindividuation making this evidence difficult to scientifically confirm which goes against the major features of science.

Furthermore, Spivey et el found that there could be pro-social effects of Deindividuation depending on situational factors. When pro-social environmental cues were present such as pro-social models; deindividuated participants performed significantly more altruistic acts and fewer anti-social acts compared to a control group. 

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Others have found that being anonymous online in chat rooms can also be make it easier to discuss mental health problems compared to face to face suggesting deindividuation doesn’t always result in anti-social behaviours exclusively.

Issues, Debates & Approaches

Ethical concerns:- Zimbardos prison experiment raised serious ethical concerns as to the treatment of the student prisoners. They were subjected to psychological torture through verbal abuse as well as physical making the experiment deemed morally and ethically wrong. Zimbardo however argued the conditions created however were necessary to prove how Deindividuation worked and intervening prior would have made it impossible to effectively highlight how Deindividuation worked.

Gender Difference/Bias: - Cannavale et al found that male and females behaved differently under deindividuation conditions with increases in aggression only most evident in male groups. Other research studies have confirmed similar findings. Thus evidence indicates that males may be more prone to disinhibition for aggressive behaviour when deindividuated, than females suggesting gender differences exist and findings of studies cannot be generalised across both genders resulting in possible gender bias.

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Deindividuation theory

Psychological explanations such as Deindividuation theory ignore the role of biological factors and individual differences between people in genetics, brain physiology, testosterone levels and learning potential. Therefore it is reductionist to assume people act aggressively due to Deindividuation alone and other factors also have credible research evidence i.e. genes related to aggression through higher concordance rates in twins.

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The Baiting Crowd by Mann et al is based only on the behaviours of Americans; we cannot ascertain for certain that such behaviour can be generalised to the wider population or other cultures. The behaviour witnessed in the baiting crowd may be better suited to western individualistic cultures and not necessarily universal in other collectivist cultures suggesting the findings may suffer from cultural bias. Deterministic – The theory is also deterministic in assuming that all people will behave aggressively and this is clearly not the case as pro-social behaviour is also seen to occur.

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