Deindividuation is a form of social influence on an individual’s behavior such that the individual engages in unusual or non-normal behavior while in a group setting. Why? Because in these group settings, the individual no longer sees themselves as an individual anymore, disinhibiting their behavior and personal restraint.
In the late 1800s, social psychologist Gustave Le Bon first posited the hypothesis that an individual’s behavior can differ between being in a crowd versus being alone. According to him, when several individuals gather together in a group, there is a shift of consciousness away from the individual and to the group. As the individual’s conscious personality fades away, the characteristics of the group’s unconscious personality triumph. This change results in the individual assuming whatever qualities the personality of the group takes on—like destructive, political, or tyrannical—even if the individual would not normally engage in such behavior.
In the 1950s, a prominent psychologist named Leon Festinger further explored deindividuation. He asked a group of students to first read a fictional text about how most people deeply resent of one or both parents and those who deny such resentment are the ones who hate their parents the most. The group of students was then allowed to sit together and discuss their feelings towards their parents. At the end, the students took a test in which they had to read ten sentences, some of which were spoken during the group session and some of which were not spoken at all. The students had to correctly determine if the sentence was spoken and if so, who said it. They also responded to a questionnaire about how likely they were to discuss this subject matter again with the group. The researchers found that those who had the harshest opinions towards parents in the group setting made the most errors in attributing who said what in the group meeting. This finding suggests that there was a positive correlation between relaxing personal restraint in the group and not recognizing individuals as distinct individuals. The researchers also found that those who had the harshest opinions towards parents in the group setting also rated the group as more attractive, suggesting that losing one’s individuality to the group also related to the the group seeming more attractive.
Together, Le Bon laid the groundwork for deindividuation as a concept, and Festinger demonstrated that it could be studied in a laboratory setting, opening the doors to better understanding crowd psychology (Vilanova et al., 2017).
Since these prominent psychologists have introduced the concept of deindividuation, numerous social psychologists have attempted to explain how this process actually takes place. Social psychologists do this by proposing models—theoretical frameworks representing a concept or phenomenon.
For example, Dr. Phil Zimbardo proposed a model that deindividuation occurs when self-observation of the individual is reduced and value of social evaluation is increased, rendering the individual more likely to engage in behaviors that are socially valuable. His model suggests that deindividuation could be a form of pro-social behavior.
Social psychologists have built upon this idea by introducing concepts like anonymity—individuals are vulnerable to deindividuation and crowd dynamics if they are anonymous—as well as self-awareness—individuals are vulnerable to deindividuation if they are in situations where awareness of self is reduced (Vilanova et al., 2017).
With so many models investigated, researchers can use a meta-analysis—a statistical technique of combining data from multiple studies to understand commonalities and differences in effects—to get a better understanding of the variation. A meta-analysis of deindividuation studies by Postmes & Spears (1998) found a strong association between deindividuation and situational norms. This means that crowds and groups situations trigger deindividuation because the individual is becoming more responsive to what the norms of that situation are. This finding was important because it challenges previous models that explained deindividuation as a function of less personal restraint and posits a model that explains deindividuation as a function of conformity.