Picture the secene, it's November of 2010 and housands of students are marching the streets of Central London in a non-violent protest against tuition fees. However, what starts off as a peaceful demonstration, escalates into a riot. Why? The reasons are unclear. It seems as if there was no particular trigger prompting the outbursts. Later, social psychologists and sociologists would use these events as an example of group behaviour called deindividuation.
Deindividuation is defined as an act of antinormative, often disturbed, behaviour mostly noted in crowds or large groups of people. It is often accompanied by violence and social-disturbance. The theory has even been linked to such extreme cases as mob lynching or genocide.
Generally, deindividuation is explained as the sense of losing oneself, when in a crowd.
Psychologists theorise that when we are in large groups, especially people that we have something in common with, we can detach from our individual consciousness and gain something referred to as collective awareness. We stop thinking of ourselves as a single person but rather as a member of the group, as a part of a bigger being.
Normal rules then stop applying to the group. Because the crowd is so powerful and varied it stops following the usual social and moral norms, members start to feel invincible which pushes them to do things they would't normally dare to. Sociologists argue the context of these situations is vital. Crowds usually collect in highly-emotional situations.
Crowds also gives members a level of anonymity. You suddenly lose your identity, becoming more difficult to recognise, which means it becomes difficult to direct blame. This reduced accountability might be at the core of the violence accompanying deindividuation.
Several studies have linked anonymity to antisocial or even criminal behavior. It is one of the main factors explaining cyber-bullying. The internet gives us freedom to hide our identity or easily change it so that we won’t be recognized. This again can create a feeling of fearlessness and encourage us to be cruel and rude. On a brighter note, anonymity has also been shown to inspire positive behaviour. When anonymous we are more likely to be honest and can talk about our emotions more easily. Because we are anonymous we don’t feel as vulnerable and are not as afraid of judgement.
What researchers are still trying to answer is why deindividuation makes us so violent in the first place. Why do we feel the need to act so recklessly. Psychology and sociology diverse here.
Psychology focuses more on the individual, suggesting some people are just more prone to anti-social behaviour and crowds give them the chance to do so. Sociology on the other hand looks at the problem more globally, stating that it is people’s way of dealing with everyday problems. That is because we have to follow so many rules every day, we use the collective awareness as a way of escape. Both theories have their strengths and limitations and need more research, however they both agree that violence does not have to be an integral part of crowd behaviour.
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