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. Individuals may engage in behaviours that go against their own personal standards or values, but deindividuation diminishes the sense of personal responsibility for behaviour and produces a more diffuse sense of responsibility within the group.
French psychologist Gustave LeBon was an early researcher in this area. He believed that individual traits become submerged by the collective, leading to the loss of a sense of personal responsibility. 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 (an extreme example occurs in war atrocities), it 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 psychiatric sense of dissociation).
How deindividuation 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.
GoodTherapy offers some examples of deindividuation, including:
- a sense of camaraderie and shared mission helps volunteers who are working together to get more 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 researchers randomly assigned university students 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 clearly 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?
- GoodTherapy: Deindividuation
- Oxford Reference: Deindividuation
- Wikipedia: Deindividuation | Social identity model of deindividuation effects
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.