Sunday, February 26, 2012

Deindividuation Essay

Essay on Deindividuation

Deindividuation is one of the key concepts in modern social psychology in the field of group behavior. Rooting in the findings of the first social psychologists, it has become most influential in the second half of the 20th century. Zimbardo, one of the psychologists that made great contribution to deindividuation theory defined it as “a psychological state of decreased self-evaluation, causing anti-normative and disinhibited behavior” (1969).  He believed that being in a large group, being a part of it, allows individual avoid responsibility for her actions, letting one be more aggressive, impulsive and violent. 


The state of deindividuation appears when an individual joins a large group or a crowd.  Deindividuation theory is one of the most used theories of group behavior, as it allows to explain the behavior of violent crowds. While social psychologists who worked in 1950-1970 emphasized that deindividuation is, in the first turn, a loss of self awareness, scientists, who researched this concept later,  argue that it is more of attaining collective identity instead of individual identity (Reicher, 1987). Nevertheless, all the scientists agree that deindividuation is a psychological state when aggressive and anti-normative behavior is exhibited by the individuals who become the part of the crowd.
The theory of deindividuation is of great interest to me, as it provides an explanation of the behavior of mass crowds of people. Many years ago, when I was in junior high, I noted that people behave differently when they feel they are a part of the group. Children tend to choose a victim and bully it as they feel support from their classmates, and their behavior towards the victim is changed once they are left without backing. After I got older I researched about bulling and found out that it is one of the more dangerous behaviors that a child can exhibit, because it has extremely serious social repercussions – both short-term and long-term. In the short-term, this behavior can lead to physical violence. Long-term bullying results in such things as mental and emotional trauma, serious enough to force a child into committing suicide or becoming violent themselves. The infamous school shootings are a very good example of what precisely such behavior can lead to on the part of the bullied when the pressure on them is applied far enough. I was always wondering what made children act violently, as they knew their behavior was not right, and confessed they felt guilty for their actions. Deindividuation theory provided a comprehensible explanation of this phenomenon to me. Nevertheless, I feel my apprehension of deindividuation is not very deep, I suspect I am oversimplifying the mechanisms of this process; that is why I chose to research this concept.
Few years ago I came across a very bright example of deindividuation in school setting. One of my friends has a younger sister, Brenda.  At that time she was in elementary school, and her classmates chose her as the object of bullying. Brenda was beaten regularly; her classmates took her things, poked her and abused her verbally. The girl suffered, she refused to attend school, and there were several cases when she just ran away from lessons, because the pressure was too hard for her. School psychologist worked with Brenda and with the most active bullies, but the results were scarce, as the girl still remained the most favored object of mockery and abuse.
What seemed to be positive in that situation, at the first glance, was that Brenda had a friend, Scarlett. The girl was her classmate, she visited Brenda after school, and they prepared their lessons together, and seemed to be the best friends. Nevertheless, when Brenda’s parents suggested inviting Scarlett to Brenda’s birthday, she refused. Her parents and brother tried to find out what was wrong, but Brenda refused to talk about it, her only comment was that “I will invite real friends, and Scarlett is not a real friend”.  The mystery was resolved couple of weeks later, when my friend asked me to come with him to take Brenda from school.  We were standing on some distance from the school yard busy talking, when we heard Brenda crying. Her classmates were mocking her again, and Scarlett was among them, laughing on her, and calling Brenda names. Nevertheless the next day Scarlett came to Brenda after school, acting as if nothing had happened the day before. 
Scarlett’s behavior in this situation is a vivid example of deindividuation. When communicating with Brenda one-to-one she was a normal kid, she talked to her friend, they did things together, their relationship seemed perfectly normal for the girls of their age. But when Scarlett was at school with their classmates she felt herself the part of the group, and mocking Brenda was one of the traits that characterized the members of this group, thus she joined other kids in this amusement. The phenomenon of individual identity being replaced by the collective one can be easily seen in the situation described.  Norms are one of the characteristics of identity. Scarlett’s individual norm was to behave properly with Brenda, help her, and spend time with her, while the group norm was to bully her. As soon as Scarlett joined the group her individual norms were replaced by group’s norms, and she came into the psychological state of deindividuation.
Other vivid example of deindividuation is the activity of Ku Klux Klan. People, who were loving fathers and husbands, and respected community members harassed and even murdered people of other race they wanted to drive from their communities. The masks they wore were the key element that provoked such behaviors. Ku Klux Klan members felt themselves the parts of the group, and, what is even more important, masks they wore granted them anonymity, which allowed them to exhibit the kinds of behaviors  they would never show in other situations. Still laws in many American states prohibit wearing masks on public for any reasons except religious, medical, or safety reasons (Unmasking the Klan, 1999).
Deindividuation is a psychological state person enters when she becomes a part of the crowd. In fact it is a process when individual identity is replaced by collective identity. The feeling of belonging to the group allows people to demonstrate anti-normative behavior. As we can see people of any age, gender and social class are liable to this psychological condition. In my opinion the phenomenon of deindividuation needs to be researched further, as this knowledge could help to manage the behavior of the crowds, find the solution to conquering the phenomenon of child and teenage bullying, and control the activities of sects and other societies whose activities are destructive.
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