The Theory of Deindividuation

How might deindividuation theory explain the looting behaviour that sometimes accompanies crowd riots? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this kind of approach to understanding collective behaviour? This essay considers how deindividuation theory might explain the looting behaviour that sometimes accompanies crowd riots by firstly defining the concept and evaluating some of the available evidence that seeks to validate its existence, and demonstrating how it might be applied to explaining the ‘looting behaviour’ in terms of how, when, and why it takes place.

The discussion naturally leads to the highlighting of strengths and weaknesses of the approach to understanding collective behaviour. In addition, reference is made to a contrasting approach, Social identity theory, in order to demonstrate ways in which an alternative approach might equally account for the behaviour. Festinger et al. who proposed the concept of ‘deindividuation’ define it as ‘a process of immersion within a group such that members cease to view themselves as separate.. [caused] [by].. anonymity.. leading] to disinhibited, impulsive behaviour that is responsive to the immediate demands of the situation’ (cited in Dixon et al. , 2012, p. 6). They and others were inspired by the work of Le Bon who argued that ‘individual rationality is lost in crowds’ (cited in Dixon et al. , 2012, p. 5) and put forward a process he termed ‘contagion’ to explain how ideas and emotions spread through a crowd (Dixon et al. , 2012). A number of studies have examined the links between group immersion, anonymity, and behaviour outcomes with many focussing on ‘anti- normative’ behaviour, such as aggression.

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Zimbardo experimented with participants playing the role of teachers administering electric shocks to learners each time they made a mistake. Of the two groups involved, one wearing hoods and gowns without name tags, and a plainly clothed named group, the former administered shocks of far longer duration (cited in Dixon et al. , 2012, p. 8). Another study used stealing as its behaviour outcome and demonstrated that at Halloween whilst children were out trick-or-treating those within a group and unnamed showed higher levels of stealing than named individual trick-or-treaters (cited in Dixon et al. 2012, p. 9). Deindividuation theory might then explain how and when looting behaviour accompanying crowd riots takes place in terms of the contextual factors, group immersion and anonymity, which they would suggest leads to such anti-normative behaviour, due to individuals experiencing a loss of self-awareness causing them to act this way (Dixon et al. , 2012). Whilst the studies outlined clearly show anti- normative behaviour to be intensified by such factors, they do not prove that they lead to it, hence we are left without an explanation of why.

Zimbardo’s argument that deindividuation is accompanied by a ‘diffusion of responsibility’ (cited in Dixon et al. , 2012, p. 7) is interesting to consider. In deindividuation terms looting behaviour might occur because ‘lost in a social group [individuals] feel less culpable for any harm…moral responsibility is psychologically distributed across the group’ (cited in Dixon et al. , 2012, p. 7). Although individuals may experience this altered sense of moral self-awareness, it might also be that individuals view potential punishment as being distributed across the group, and they might feel less identifiable within a larger group.

Have individuals in this instance temporarily lost their minds, or are criminal opportunists involved? Without evidence for the former it cannot be assured that deindividuation has been experienced. Research within the deindividuation tradition has largely overstated the negative in relation to collective behaviour (Dixon et al. , 2012). In a study by Gergen, Gergen, and Barton anonymity and group immersion were instead shown to lead to an ‘increase in affection and curiosity’ (Dixon et al. , 2012, p. 10. ) When mixed gender groups were placed in either a well lit room, or a dark room, hence anonymous, and left for an hour, those in the ark room became intimate and touched one another (cited in Dixon et al. , 2012, p. 10). The over-focus of deindividuation research on negative behavioural outcomes may be accused of creating bias, and risks becoming self-serving. Dixon et al. (2012) suggest that it is social cues that determine whether or not factors such as anonymity lead to negative behaviours. Perhaps deindividuation theory takes social cues into account by suggesting that ‘behaviour… is responsive to the immediate demands of the situation’ (cited in Dixon et al. , 2012, p. 6).

However, deindividuation theory doesn’t appear to explain what these social cues are within any given situation, hence ignoring social reasons and underlying psychological motivations for the behaviour. Meaningful explanations might account for why individuals or groups engage in looting behaviour. Furthermore, inherent in the above description is the sense that individuals act rashly, without forethought. Deindividuation theory seems to view the crowd as a highly influential social structure overwhelming individuals who appear to act without agency.

Deindividuation theory perhaps ‘[falls] into [an] [assumption] on [one] side of the agency- structure binary’ (Holloway, 2012, p. 52). Implications of this are such that if the behaviour is viewed as simply a product of social context, from an outsider perspective ‘[neglecting].. the rational meanings of mass behaviour (Dixon et al. , 2012, p. 11)’ then the need for investigative dialogue with those involved does not arise and anything that may be potentially learnt about the situation is lost.

Postmes and Spears suggest that deindividuation is ‘often simply inferred’ being difficult to ‘isolate and measure’ (cited in Dixon et al. , 2012, p. 10). In a replication of Zimbardo’s study, explained earlier, Johnson and Downing found that when participants were split into groups of either those wearing Ku-Klux Klan or nurses uniforms those in the nurse’s condition were significantly less aggressive (cited in Dixon et al. , 2012, p. 10). Dixon et al. (2012) suggest this may show individuals conforming to group norms rather than transgressing social rules, the nurses may have cted in accordance with that particular group identity. This questions the validity of the deindividuation approach and suggests a social identity approach may be more favourable. Social identity theory, developed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner, suggests that our sense of self ‘derives from our sense of belonging to particular groups’ thus individuals within a crowd would behave in ways that confirms their membership of that group (Dixon et al. , 2012, p. 13- 14). One might question why individuals would want to belong to a group involved in rioting and looting behaviour.

In a case study of the 2011 England riots Reicher and Stott cited several potential psychological motivations for the rioting and looting including ‘a sense of grievance about police action and about wider forms of socioeconomic deprivation’ cited in Dixon et al. , 2012, p. 20). In place of ‘contagion’ social identity theorists suggest ‘inductive categorisation’ to explain a spread of behaviour where an individual seen to represent the group initiates a behaviour type and this is taken as representative of how other members should behave (Dixon et al. 2012). The theory and process outlined provide an equally plausible explanation for looting behaviour accompanying crowd riots, and collective behaviour in general.

This contrasting approach favours an insider approach. Reicher conducted interviews with local residents following the St Pauls riots in the 1980s revealing that ‘participants themselves did not view the riots as irrational or negative event.. [but] as a positive and legitimate response to police aggression (cited in Dixon et al. , 2012, p. 5) which Dixon et al. explain as ‘collective behaviour [expressing] members shared sense of we’ (Dixon et al. , 2012, p. 15). Hence social identity theory tends to harbour a more positive view of the crowd. The majority of research, found by Postmes and Spears in a review of 60 published articles, suggests that behaviour in collective settings is more rather than less constrained, ‘there actions being shaped by group norms’ (cited in Dixon et al. , 2012, p. 11) which lends support to the theory.

A social identity account would engage with underlying social reasons or motivations for looting behaviour accompanying crowd riots and collective behaviour in general, as deindividuation theory does not, and attempts an explanation of ‘why’. However, social identity theory also errs to one side of the agency-structure binary, arguing for the former, and the Implication of this is that actions may be presented as being more meaningful than they really are. Neither account provides a perfect fit.

It is necessary to pay heed to political ideologies, inherent in theories, as knowledge is situated. As Dixon et al. (2012) explain, Le Bonian accounts express a conservative ideology whereas social identity theory expresses a leftist one. The individual-society dualism is clearly played out here as a deindividuation approach seems to favour the individual, and dislike the crowd, with individuals within crowds being seen to become mindless, or out of control. Social identity theory appears to favour society highlighting how collective action challenges injustice (Dixon et al. 2012). In conclusion, this essay defined ‘deindividuation’, and demonstrated studies that have shown links between the contextual factors it outlines and the so-called ‘disinhibited, impulsive behaviour’ it suggests. It has shown how a deindividuation account might be applied to explain how and when looting behaviour accompanies a crowd riot but that it fails to explain why the behaviour is initiated. Weaknesses in relation to its ability to explain looting behaviour and collective behaviour in general have also been raised.

It has been suggested that deindividuation is often inferred, is overly negative hence potentially biased, and simplistic as social reasons and psychological motivations for behaviour are overlooked. The essay has suggested and demonstrated that a contrasting social identity approach might be equally plausible in accounting for looting behaviour and collective behaviour in general, and explained how evidence favours behaviour in collective settings as being more rather than less constrained. Finally, the essay suggests that no one account provides a omprehensive view of such behaviour, and concludes by reminding readers that it is necessary to be aware of the different political ideologies that inform theories and traditions.

Word count: 1599 References: Dixon,J and Mahendran, K. (2012) ‘Crowds’, in Hollway, W. and Lewis, G. and Lucey, H. and Phoenix, A. (eds) Social Psychology Matters, Milton Keynes, Open University, pp. 1-26. Hollway, W. (2012) ‘Social psychology: past and present’, in Hollway, W. and Lewis, G. and Lucey, H. and Phoenix, A. (eds) Social Psychology Matters, Milton Keynes, Open University, pp. 7-57. Part 2 I think that social psychology explores the reciprocal relationship between individuals and society. My hopes for the module include being able to engage with the material well enough to write essays that are of a good standard, for my own personal satisfaction, and for the purposes of achieving the best grade that I can. I am most looking forward to the original research project. My greatest fear is always tackling the exam as there is so much information to store up in preparation for it, and also it determines the overall grade achievement for the module.

I don’t feel I know enough to comment too extensively on what I think social psychology contributes to psychology as a whole or to real world issues. However, from a simple reading of the chapter on ‘crowds’ it is clear that social psychology deals with real issues that affect the lives of real people. It is interesting to consider how different interpretations of people and situations lead to a different treatment of them by society, and to consider the practical significance of some of the research carried out in this domain, for example how the findings might be used to improve social relations or inform social policy.

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The Theory of Deindividuation. (2016, Oct 26). Retrieved from