Back To CourseTopics in Sociology
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Why do people act differently in a crowd versus on their own? Do riots cause non-violent people to act violently? You've probably heard the popular colloquialism 'mob mentality'. Social scientists have studied this phenomenon through the theory of deindividualization, which argues that when we feel anonymous, such as when we're in a crowd, we're more likely to do things that we normally wouldn't do.
Anonymity is key here. This is partly because we feel like we're not responsible for our actions as individuals when we're part of a big crowd. In other words, we feel like we can get away with things because it is the collective that is culpable for the actions that result from a gathering.
Being a part of a big group makes us lose some of our self-awareness, or our ability to reflect on our actions. When we're part of a uniform group, then we don't feel as concerned with doing the right thing. This becomes especially true the larger the crowd is. Theorists have come up with a few key ideas about deindividualization. Let's turn to them now.
One of the earliest works on deindividualization comes from French scholar Gustave Le Bon, although he didn't use this term himself. He wrote an influential book in 1895, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, which explored why people act differently when they are part of a large crowd.
Le Bon wondered what caused otherwise peaceful people to act violently when within a crowd. He believed that there's a kind of force in the crowd itself that transforms people—it's as if violence becomes contagious. This isn't any normal crowd; Le Bon called this a psychological crowd. Basically, people in this type of crowd cease to be individuals and merge into one being. Le Bon likened the experience of being in a crowd to that of being hypnotized.
Both sociologists and psychologists have been inspired by Le Bon, but have studied deindividualization in somewhat different ways. The primary difference between the two is the level of analysis. While there is definite overlap, psychologists tend to focus on the individual while sociologists focus more on the societal or structural factors that might shape deindividualization.
Sociologists have also called this collective behavior, focusing on what happens when a group of people come together and emphasizing the societal conditions that allow this phenomenon. For example, political context is very important to the development of a social movement. Psychologists, who tend to use the term deindividualization more than sociologists, focus on things like individual responses to the presence of authority when being told to do something unpleasant.
So, what does deindividualization look like in the real world? Sporting events are a good example of where we can see this process clearly. Think about the last time you were at a game with your favorite team playing. As the game gets more exciting, we get absorbed into the situation. We're aroused by the game and fellow fans, and as the crowd loses some sense of self-awareness (a key factor in deindividualization), we're more likely to see the rowdy behavior.
But the crowd might not be wholly negative or unruly. This is where sociologists have criticized Le Bon: he portrays crowds negatively, but this isn't absolute. Think about the Civil Rights Movement. The broader social and political conditions and history of slavery and racial inequality inspired collective behavior that was directed at creating a better society. Sociologists emphasize that when there is upheaval in broader society, like war or disaster, people become upset and dissatisfied with the system, which can lead to collective behavior.
Here's another example that might bring you back to your childhood—trick or treating. Psychologist Edward Diener wondered what might provoke kids to take more Halloween candy than they should. Diener set up a situation where a group of kids was taken to a room with a big bowl of candy and a bowl of coins (not as enticing!) on a table. A woman the kids didn't know (but was part of the experiment) was also there. The experiment set up different conditions when a group of trick-or-treaters came in. In some situations, the woman told all the kids to take one piece of candy and then she left the room. In another, she asked for their names, told them to take one piece of candy, and then she left the room. In another, she asked only one child their name and told this child they would be responsible if any extra candy was gone.
So, what happened? Diener found that being anonymous in a bigger group of trick-or-treaters was more likely to lead to deindividualization, which here means stealing extra candy. But the kids who stole the most candy? In the situation where one child was told he or she was responsible, the others knew they wouldn't be accountable, making them more likely to steal candy.
Psychologists have long studied the phenomenon of deindividualization, a theory that suggests we behave differently in crowds because we feel anonymous. When we feel anonymous, we feel less responsible for our actions and lose some of our own self-awareness.
French theorist Le Bon called this a psychological crowd, which is a crowd that takes a life of its own as people lose their sense of self and cease to be individuals. Le Bon inspired sociologists, who've been somewhat critical of his negative portrayal of crowds. Broader societal factors shape deindividualization or collective behavior, and it can be directed at trying to achieve positive social change.
Studies have found that children who are in a big, anonymous group are more likely to do things they normally wouldn't, like Diener's study of trick-or-treaters stealing Halloween candy. Sporting events are also a good place to see the process of deindividualization happening when fans get caught up in the big game and lose some of their self-awareness. This is when things like rioting or rowdy behavior might happen. So, next time you're in a big crowd stop and think about yourself for a minute.
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Back To CourseTopics in Sociology
8 chapters | 89 lessons
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