What is... psychology series

What is… Deindividuation

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s term is deindividuation.

Every human is a unique individual with self-awareness. Deindividuation is a process by which people start to lose that self-awareness when part of a group.

Oxford Reference defines deindividuation as:

“A psychological state characterized by loss of the sense of individuality and a submerging of personal identity and accountability in a group. In some circumstances it can lead to a relaxation of inhibitions and the release of antisocial behaviour, and it has been used to explain certain forms of mob behaviour.”

Why deindividuation occurs

Contributing factors can include a sense of anonymity, suggestibility, and behavioural contagion. Behaviours that are engaged in may go against the individuals own personal standards, but deindividuation diminishes the sense of personal responsibility for behaviour and produces a more diffuse sense of responsibility within the group.

Early work in this area was done by French psychologist Gustave LeBon. He believed that individual traits are submerged by the collective, and the sense of personal responsibility is lost. This leads to primitive, hedonistic behaviours.

Differing effects from group membership

The validity of the concept of deindividuation isn’t clear-cut. While being part of a cohesive group can promote antisocial behaviour in some cases, in can foster prosocial behaviour in other cases.

The social identity model of deindividuation effects (SIDE) offers an alternative explanation. It suggests that when people self-stereotype to conform more closely to the group, individual awareness shifts to group identity awareness. This leads to depersonalization (although not in the sense of dissociation as the term is used in psychiatry).

How it happens

Deindividuation can be more likely to occur in groups where there is a strong desire to belong and a strong push for group identity and cohesiveness. Representative symbols can promote this. This can be seen in gangs, the police, the military, sports teams, and cults.

GoodTherpy offers some examples of deindividuation, including:

  • a sense of camaraderie and shared mission helps volunteers working together to get more work done
  • a political rally stirs up emotions, and some attendees form a mob and commit acts of vandalism

Another example is the Stanford prison experiment, in which university were randomly assigned to be either prisoners or guards in a mock prison. The experiment was terminated early because of sadistic behaviour on the part of the students assigned to be “guards.”

While deindividuation may seem like a mostly negative thing, it can have positive effects, as in the example of volunteers working together. On a military mission, having strong group cohesiveness is very desirable.

A matter of choice

Perhaps what it really comes down to is choice. Getting swept up inadvertently in the moment is likely going to be a lot more problematic than choosing to go through military training knowing how much emphasis there is on group cohesiveness. In terms of getting swept up in a group, my guess would be that people who don’t think they’d get caught up in the crowd are probably at higher risk of problematic behaviours than people who go in knowing there’s a risk and actively maintaining self-awareness.

Have you come across any instances of deindividuation, either good or bad?


Psychology resources: What Is insights into psychology series and psychological tests

You can find a directory of the terms covered in the what is… series here.

There’s also a collection of psychological tests here.

27 thoughts on “What is… Deindividuation”

  1. That’s so interesting, and it made me think of peer pressure! There was a lot of it in the book I read about Brad Maddux’s death. He wanted to be accepted by the adults in his life, and that led to his death, tragically. He was pressured to drink (apparently even with the adults), so he’d make a big production of popping open his beer, and then he’d pretend to sip from it. Poor kid. 🙁

    And sometimes when I watch 48 Hours Mystery, the interviewer will say something, and the person being interviewed will parrot it.

    Interviewer: So he was true blue.
    Person being interviewed: true blue.

    And after that happens often enough with the same person, I start to wonder if the person being interviewed knows how to think for him- or herself? I mean, the words are being put into his/her mouth. If it were me being interviewed, I’d think through everything I was being asked and answer with my own words. Like, “Yeah, he was very loyal.”

    I think independent thought (being able to think for yourself) is important, and that not everyone has that ability, but it should be the goal for anyone who’s not there yet. Great blog post, very interesting!!

  2. Interesting! Here in America I often think we are TOO individualized, to the point that we don’t give a shit what is best for the community or group, we only care about our personal rights and desires.

    1. It’s an odd juxtaposition. If you think of white nationalists, for example, they’re highly individualist, but yet they deindividuate within their chosen white nationalist groups.

      1. This is who came to mind while I was reading — white nationalists. One can often identify people in these groups by way of catch phrases and shibboleths to which the group adheres. There are also visible images that connect these groups together. Confederate flags, or American flags done up to emphasize a confederacy, are among these symbols.

        It seems oxymoronic that members of alt-right groups will emphasize individualism while in fact having engaged individuation. I personally have found more true individualism in the kinds of faith communities to which I am drawn, because the requirements for membership permit me to retain my identity. In some of the more fringe or extremist organizations, relinquishing one’s identity for the sake of the common cause — often an evil one — is more the norm.

        Fascinating post!

        1. I wonder how much of that process of relinquishing one’s identity is created deliberately by core group members out of awareness that their beliefs are unlikely to stand up to questioning.

          1. I imagine quite a lot of it — at least in many cases where there is a strong core with a strong intent that they wish to keep hidden from the rest. This amounts to indoctrination. Don’t you think?

            1. This is giving me a column idea. By the way, I meant “deindividuation” in my first comment. (I wrote “individuation.”)

  3. We are social animals and maybe it’s ingrained in us to be part of a group because it increases chances of survival.

    I think you see it everywhere, mob mentality on the internet, fashion, ….
    It can be enhancing like you said in case of volunteering or striding for a good cause … But when we strip people off of their individuality, history has proven that it can lead to horrible actions where the targeted people weren’t seen as people anymore.

    The experiment you mentioned is a very interesting one, next to the Millgram experiments.
    I’ve read about it and the consequences of the Stanford experiment were really horrific.

    Ah and my bf doesn’t believe that he is susceptible to it, we had great conversations already about it. I think everybody is vulnerable to it because it can be so subtle. Even on WP I think, when you now can see who liked a post and how many likes there are, I suspect that a popular post will have even more likes because of the group-effect. ‘When so many people are liking it, I’m going to like it too’

    Fascinating post 🙂

  4. Once again, very interesting post. Thanks for the education. I remember reading in high school a book called The Day of the Locust that dealt with mob mentality. Never really put two and two together until recent months. May be part of the reason I do not do well in big crowds – always on high alert…. 🙂

  5. Yes, I find on social media so many who can’t deviate from whatever group they’ve aligned with. Mostly I’m talking about the political right and left in the US, where people post all day about the bad stuff on the “other side” while refusing to admit anything negative about their own. It’s so stupid. Then there are the “rebels” ~ a few people who simply MUST disagree with everything and anything 🙄🙄🙄

    1. Yeah, I find that so interesting. All politicians get things wrong, and it shouldn’t be so hard to accept that doesn’t just happen to the “other side.”

  6. Fascinating topic! In the US, we value individualism SO MUCH, yet deindividuation seems common in political groups and in the workplace. I definitely struggle with it in the workplace – figuring out how much I should be myself vs. how much I should compromise to be a valued part of the team.

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