Deindividualization: Definition, Theory & Examples

Instructor: Emily Cummins
What causes rioting in crowds? Why do people act differently as part of a crowd than as an individual? The theory of deindividualization suggests that when we're part of an anonymous crowd we're more likely to do things we normally would not.

What is Deindividualization?

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 and Awareness

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.

Crowds can encourage us to do things we might not do on our own
crowd; deindividuation

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.

Le Bon's Study of the Popular Mind

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.

Le Bon was among the first to study the psychology of large crowds
Le Bon; the crowd; riot

Collective Behavior

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.

Real-Life Deindividualization

Sporting Events

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.

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