Crowd Psychology and Deindividuation Theory

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Hilter, Hooligans and Fire Drills

A Review of Crowd Psychology and Deindividuation Theory


One could say that Hitler was a first-rank “Hooligan” but that wouldn’t quite hit the mark to either of them. “Hooligans” are not a new fascist regime but the young, typically undereducated and likely marginalized males who seem to cause a disproportionate degree of mayhem during football matches. Fire drills are done to somehow create an automatic response to ensure orderly evacuation during times when people are predisposed to panic and self-preservation. During such a stressful time, some postulate that people in their ‘rational rationality’ (or vice versa?), employ strategies that rationally maximize individual gain yet, by using constructs of game theory, one can see that the most obvious best case for anyone (get out first) will only create a “no-win” scenario for anyone. The goal of fire drill is to cognitively overcome this instinctual drive for survival in order to maximize individual and group outcomes.

All Together

If the thread that connects these ‘items’ was unclear, surely now it is apparent that the thread is the more rather substantial cable of crowd psychology. The term of “crowd psychology” was coined by Le Bon and is aptly described in his seminal work, The Crowd, as the properties of a group that distinguish it from a simple numerical sum of gathered people. These characteristics are such that the group becomes “like-minded” and loses aspects of the individual personalities of which it is composed. Further, there is a net effect of intelligence lowering and the group is largely dominated by motivations of which that are largely unconscious and are just as likely to be heroic as criminal in direction (Le Bon 1916, p.25).

Le Bon’s estimate of the importance of the mass psychology was underscored by his belief and characterization of the coming of the “era of crowds”. This message was a one that was not entirely welcome to the scholars and aristocrats of the day as Le Bon asserted that everyone had the potential to become part of the crowd. The lessening of intellectual capacity of a crowd specifically indicated that, regardless of the constituency of the group in terms of the capacities and achievements of the individuals that comprise it, all crowds are largely mindless. Aptly illustrated by the veritably ancient Roman quip, “the Senators are all good men, the Roman Senate is the evil beast” (Moscovici, S. 1985, p.14). Le Bon labeled this the “law of mental unity” that is the primary qualification that distinguishes a “group” from a “crowd” in term of the psychological characteristics. The individuals in this group, once transformed, begins to think and act in such as way that may be quite different from their usual “individual” patterns and “character” becomes common property (Le Bon 1916, pp. 26, 32).

According to Le Bon’s theories and observations, this willingness to comply with the collective will of the crowd arises from the three factors of:

  • the sentiment of invincibility or power,
  • the phenomena of contagion in which the sentiment of the group are highly contagious to its members, and
  • suggestibility in which the individual willingly gives up his values for that of the group sanctioned beliefs (Le Bon 1916, pp. 33-34).

Further, Le Bon goes on to describe additional common characteristics of crowds in terms of their impulsiveness, morality, irritability, simplicity, fallibility, exaggeration, intolerance, dictatorialness, and conservatism. Rather than simply being vague features, each of these terms describe very specific behavioral aspects of crowds.

The impulsiveness of the crowd is the result of the unconscious gaining control resulting in a situation in which the crowd seems to be incapable of over-riding their collective egotistical reflexes that any individual, in isolation, generally possesses control over. This impulsivity is as likely to enable the mass to “enact the part of the executioner… or the martyr… furnishing the torrents of blood requisite for the triumph of every belief” (Le Bon 1916, p.41).

The morality of a crowd is very often low according the many of the psychologists who studied such phenomena at the turn of the 19th century. This is posited to be the result of the lowered inhibitory reflexes that generally govern individuals that appear to be lost or at least, significantly reduced in the amassing of individuals. Despite this tendency, there have also been noted historical occasions in which acts of morality greater than the sum of the individuals have occurred (Le Bon 1916, pp. 63-64).

“Exaggeration” and “simplicity” of thought go hand in hand as features of the intriguing psychology of the masses. Though the will of the crowd may be morally lofty or quite despicable, it is generally simple in nature. Possessing complex thoughts seem to be the domain of individuals, a quality that is, for all practical purposes, lost when in a group that is dominated by “crowd psychology”. That the “will” of the crowd can be simply expressed (i.e., “kill them” or almost as likely, “set them free”) only facilitates the communication of its message, an important component in the contagion as well as the suggestibility of a given course of action, however contrary to reason it may be on an individual basis. Such a simple notion that is rapidly spread and accepted takes upon it an additional power that an idea in an individual does not have. Not only is the will of the crowd simple but exaggerated to the point where a “throng knows neither doubt nor uncertainty” (Le Bon 1916, pp.56-57). Such qualities can be witness by the working of a skillful salesperson to a group. Their presentations are often filled with excessive simple and often extreme sentiments, the use of repetition and the avoidance of the application of strict logic assist is “hypnotizing” the crowd, essentially getting them to willingly give up some element of their individual control for the ‘benefit’ of the group (Le Bon 1916, p. 57).

An additional characteristic of crowds is the very strong power of suggestion. Alluded to earlier, the potential hypnotic effect of groups can persuade someone who would ordinarily be in opposition to commit to a specific belief or behavior uncharacteristic of their “character”. This power leads to a sometimes almost inconceivable fallibility of perception versus reality. A stark example of this which occurs with even a very small group is given by Le Bon in the account of a child which was misidentified by another child. This small error become exaggerated as a woman and then her brother-in-law misidentified a body of a dead child that the woman thought was her that of her own recently missing child. Additionally, other persons identified the body as being that of “little Filibert” including the boy’s teacher who based his opinion on a medal worn by the boy. A month and a half later, the boy was discovered to not be “Filibert” but “Bordreaux” (Le Bon 1916, pp. 51-52). It is postulated that these mistakes were all made by “impressionable” people who wanted to help… in other words, they came to alter their version of reality by unconsciously altering their perception and aided by context and the growing will of a group to find a “solution”.

The final element needed for crowd psychology to occur is a leader. The leader is the person who galvanizes the form of the crowd with the direction of belief. It is the latent desire of all individuals, according to Le Bon, to obey (Le Bon 1916, p. 133). As people are gathered in a mass, they lose (or cede) the ability to think for themselves and then look to fulfill this need via an external source, someone who will tell them what to do and guide the unconscious thought into emerging into action. These leaders, the apparent originator of the “idea”, often start out as one of the led and the quality that differentiates him from the rest is the depth of their conviction or faith, however moral or immoral the actual belief might be (Moscovici 1985, pp.123-124 and Le Bon 1916, pp. 133-135).

One at a Time: Lose Yourself

Losing yourself, more appropriately, losing your self, is essentially the process of deindividuation. Initially described by Festinger in 1952, “losing your self” is the process of giving up the normative behavior ‘rules’ possessed by individuals in isolation. Though this is what happens in crowd psychology, it is not quite as clear as to how it happens.

In an effort to determine the real causes of deindividuation, there are a number of variable that seem to explain some of the variance. One of the more notable approaches is taken by Zimbardo, the famed social behaviorist, in which the variables of anonymity, altered responsibility, group size, arousal, and altered consciousness among others are explored. From the behavioral perspective, these “input variables” are hypothesized to create an internal change in subjective belief(s) which manifest themselves in different behavioral outcomes from the “normal” responses (Deiner 1977, pp.143-144). These behaviors are the result of lower concern for social evaluation, a distortion of perception, decreased control based on anticipated guilt, and increased tendencies to display otherwise inhibited or non-/anti-normative behaviors (Propst 1979, p.530).

One of these variables which has been demonstrated to increase aggression, a frequently studied non-normative behavior, is arousal. Arousal induced aggression has been provoked experimentally by frustration, noise and exercise. Despite these findings, it is important to note that a mitigating factor is the situational context. In much the same way that a persons emotional state is a component of both arousal state and the “cognitive interpretation of the situation”, the degree to which arousal is a factor in increased non-normative behavior is a function of the extent of the arousal and the contextual cues as interpreted by the individual (Diener 1977, p. 147).

Another source of deindividuation is the phenomena of altered or diffused responsibility that is possible when an individual can “blame someone in charge” for “making” them do some behavior. In actuality, the other ‘responsible’ party seldom actually “makes” anyone do anything yet the individual is made to feel as if this is the case or perhaps that there will be personal consequences to them if they do not do something. In any event, research has born out that the degree of exhibited aggression can be linked to the extent to which feelings of personal responsibility can be removed (Diener 1997, p. 148). The idea of a behavioral context to facilitate anti- or non-normative behavior is also present in the input of self-awareness. Depending on the extent to which a behavior would situationally be considered anti-normative, the variable of self-awareness brings an increased in these behaviors. For example, cheating was increased by decreasing feelings of participant self-awareness. Compare and contrast this to studies which have demonstrated reductions in aggression when aggression was anti-normative and self-awareness increased yet increased aggressive behaviors in is situations in which it is socially desirable such as the participation of certain contact sports. While critically building Zimbardo’s idea that deindividuation occurs when subjects are “totally unresponsive” to internal control mechanisms, Propst postulates that deindividuation can manifest itself not only in non-conformance to acceptable behavior but also to complete conformance. An example of such a case could be seen in the experimental condition of Millgram, Zimbardo or others in which subjects felt compelled to comply with the perceived situationally acceptable behavior of being directed to perform anti-normative acts rather than to reach a quasi-autistic state of simply being directed (Propst 1977, p.544).

People Do the Strangest Things [in crowds] …. Why Else?

The earliest theory of crowd psychology was, in essence, that people “lost themselves” through a process of deindividuation and subsequent loss or ceding of control to others. One alternative hypothesis to the traditional explanation is that of social identity process. In this model, individuals have both a personal and social identity and the desire to communicate this to others so that their desired self-perspective is both achieved and reinforced (Reicher & Levine 1994, p.512). This ability of people to define themselves at various levels allows them to have an identity based upon multiple groups to which they “belong” or identify, the relevance of any particular identification based on the situational context (Stott & Reicher 1998, p. 511).

The theory of social identity posits that the behavior of a group is more determined by the meanings associated with that group and a rests primarily on two constructs:

  1. Decreasing identification with “ingroup” members to a powerful external “outgroup” decreasing the ability of the outgroup to apply sanctions to or punish the ingroup members.
  2. Decreasing identification to other members of the ingroup decreases the ingroup’s ability to resist or overturn sanctions imposed by other groups (Reicher & Levine 1994, p.512).

A key aspect of this theory is that group members do not necessary pursue ends that are inconsistent with their “self” as is proposed by the traditional model (i.e.,- Le Bon, Zimbardo, et al) but rather seek to impose the will of their collective personalities and the “meaning” or agenda of the group by the strategic use of power (Drury & Winter 2003-04, p.85).

According to this model, the key determinant of our behavior in the continuum from cooperative to conflict-seeking, is our social identities at the moment. The ingroups and outgroups are extensions of self to the extent that someone is perceived as “being one of us” or not. As the cliché indicates, “you are either for us or against us” (although indifference is possible). Conflicts are more likely to arise when there is both an “asymmetry of categorical representations” and an “asymmetry of power”. An example to aptly illustrate this is evident in the “Poll Tax Riot of 1990” in London. In this example, there was the “crowd”, composed mostly of peaceful protesters and a limited “violent minority”. In addition, there was the category of “police” who saw the crowd as homogenous. The “crowd” perceived some of the police action as illegitimate and thus hostility became a bit more normative. From this point the asymmetries become more pronounced and it is easy to understand how escalation can occur (Drury & Winter 2003-4, p. 84).

This is a key point of differentiation from that of traditional models of crowd psychology postulate non-normative behavior is an intra-group process, the social identity model expresses the intergroup dynamics present are perhaps more salient that that of any single group.

One Crowd, One Voice, one voice in a crowd

It would be foolish to underestimate the power of a crowd. From the lynching of African-American as late as the 1950’s, the burning of “witches” in 16th century Massachusetts, to the genocide of six million Jews in the five years between 1939 and 1940. Though it seems that bad examples are easy to come up with (and they are), there are times when crowds have advanced they greater good. Whether found in the orderly evacuation of a burning building or the groups that have diligently worked for the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage or equal rights for all, crowds have enormous power.

While not overlooking the power of the masses, it is wise to remember the role of the individual. Many people will often follow one compelling voice, be it good or evil… history has borne this out too many times. The great wars have brought out both the best and worst in man. Men such as Churchill who could inspire a nation to hope and then to greatness or those such as Stalin who only inspire fear. The power of man to create faith and hope is the ability to transform persons into people, individuals into crowds.

As expressed by Le Bon, any transformation in the history of mankind has been because of “the crowd” (Le Bon 1916, pp.13-14). Further, this power, harnessed in the present digital age of mass media and the internet has now resulted in the fulfillment of his prophecy and become the “era of the crowd”. Without the power to understand it, one cannot be granted to power to employ it to its greatest potential good. Without understanding, one cannot resist it and will simply be a lone voice in the overwhelming din of the crowd.

Works Consulted

Diener, E. (1997). “Deindividuation: Causes and Consequences”. Social Behavior and Personality (5), 1, pp, 143-155.

Drury, J. and G. Winter. (2003-4, Winter). “Social Indentity as a Source of Strength in Mass Emergencies and other Crowded Events”. International Journal of Mental Health (32), 4, pp. 77-93.

Le Bon, G. (1914). The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. London: T.F. Unwin.

Moscovici, S. (1985). The Age of the Crowd: A Historical Treatise on Mass Psychology. Cambridge University Press: London.

Propst, L. (1979). “Effects of personality and loss of anonymity on aggression: A reevaluation of deindividuation”. Journal of Personality (47), 3, pp. 530-545.

Reicher, S. and M. Levine. (1994). “On the consequences of deindividuation manipulations for the strategic communication of self: identifiability and the presentation of social identity”. European Journal of Social Pschology (24), pp.511-524.

Stott,C. and S. Reicher. (1998). “Crowd action as intergroup process: introducing the police perspective”. European Journal of Social Psychology (28), pp. 509-529.

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