Deindividuation is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when people are part of a group. It involves losing your sense of self and conforming to the group norm without regard for morality.
During deindividuation, individuals feel less self-conscious and more anonymous. As a result, they may be more likely to engage in risky or immoral behavior so long as they are doing it as part of a group.
We usually use the term to describe negative “mob behaviors.”
However, deindividuation is not always negative. It can also lead to prosocial behaviors, such as increased teamwork and volunteering, if this is a key social norm.
Deindividuation was a term created by Leon Festinger in the 1950s. He created the term to describe instances where people couldn’t be individuated (i.e. separated from or identifiable from within) a group.
Here are some scholarly definitions:
- “Deindividuation is a phenomenon in which a person loses the sense of him or herself as a distinct individual, and in turn feels less compelled to follow normal rules of behavior.” (Sanderson, 2009, p. 295)
- “The term deindividuation refers to the loss of one’s sense of individuality during which the person behaves with little or no reference to personal internal values or standards of conduct.” (Roeckelein, 2004, p. 2006)
- “…the loss of a sense of personal identity occurring in crowds and mobs” (Eysenck, 2004, p. 775)
From these definitions, we can see that, the term helps to describe situations where an individual no longer feels like they are accountable because they are situated as a small and insignificant unit within a greater group.
In these situations, people often start cohering to the group norm without paying attention to morality or their own personal code of ethics. So long as they’re part of the group, they can enjoy anonymity and outsource moral thinking to groupthink.
Effects of Deindividuation
Diener’s (1979) work highlights four key effects of deindividuation:
- Impaired ability to monitor your own behavior;
- Reduced concern for social approval;
- Increased impulsivity;
- Reduced rational thinking capacity.
1. The Stanford Prison Experiment
The greatest real-life example of deindividuation occurred in the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this experiment, psychology students were placed inside a prison, with half randomly selected to be guards and half to be prisoners.
What happened in the following weeks shocked the researchers. The guards began behaving increasingly violently and immorally toward the prisoners.
This experiment led to a great deal of scrutiny and theorizing – but one key idea that emerged was that the guards, with little individual accountability and a lot of groupthink, started doing immoral things that they would never have done in real life.
These guards felt social license to behave immorally because they were part of a group and system that made them throw off their own moral thinking and personal accountability. They became part of a mob.
2. Cult behaviors
In cults, people often suspend their morality due to being swept away by the atmosphere of the group behaviors.
Many cult members such as people in the Manson Family and Jonestown cult demonstrated deindividuation behaviors.
Sometimes, this can be harmless. If it’s a bunch of hippies playing guitar, then they might not be hurting anyone. But there are some cults that take this to an extreme level, leading to the worst kinds of behaviors that these people would likely never have participated in if it weren’t for the influence of the cult and the sense that you’re part of a “special group” that will protect you from harm.
3. Gang violence
Many young people experience deindividuation when part of a gang. This is because the gang has its own internal norms that often encourage conformity to in-group antisocial behaviors.
In fact, often gangs have initiations that require an act of deinidividuation in order to demonstrate allegiance to the gang. It might be getting the gang tattoo or committing a petty crime.
These behaviors are designed to make the gang member lose their individual moral compass and instead simply conform to the group behaviors. Once you’re an insider in the group, it’s easier to do antisocial acts because it’s normal within the gang.
4. Mob riots
Mob riots also cause deindividuation. When you’re a part of the mob, you feel not only a sense of security because you can hide among the crowd.
You may also feel a sense of compulsion to go along with the behavior you see around you. And before you know it, you’re both doing and inciting behaviors you’d never do unless you were hidden within a larger mob of people.
Take, for example, the January 6, 2021 riots on the capitol. It’s unlikely a small group of 5-10 people protesting would have tried to break into the capitol building. The bravado to do so only occurred because the mob was large enough that individuals within the mob felt empowered.
Once one person breaks in, another does, and then another. All of a sudden, so many people are filing into the building that you feel you can get in without too much risk – you’re engaging in a risky behavior, but feeling protected by the sense that you’re just a small number among the crowd.
5. A culture of littering
If nobody littered, nobody would litter. But because we see litter all around us, suddenly, we feel we have license to litter as well.
This makes changing littering norms very difficult. Public health campaigns may have limited effects, and it often comes down to individuals taking a stand and moving against the crowd.
But crowd behaviors have this remarkable effect on us: they encourage us to go along with the crowd’s actions, even if they’re wrong. So, people continue to litter and justify it – “oh, there’s so much litter on the ground. What’s one more piece?”
6. Group vandalism
Vandalism often accompanies riots. City streets that are usually calm and crime-free suddenly become zones where chairs are thrown through windows and people take televisions from shelves without paying.
This vandalism comes about because of deindividuation – the mob around you gives you license to do it because the chances that you, among the huge crowd, will be singled out and handcuffed are low.
Similarly, gangs might get together and graffiti public spaces when individual members of the gang wouldn’t dare do it alone. The group gives them courage and cover.
7. Traffic disobedience
If one person breaks a traffic law, they’re liable to be pulled over by the police. But if everyone was contravening the laws, suddenly we feel we can do it, too.
I traveled to Bali recently and found the ways people behaved in traffic to be a remarkable example of deindividuation.
Scooter drivers would ignore crosswalks and traffic lights. They would zip down the street in the wrong direction, cut one another off, and there were even very young kids driving scooters around.
I asked about the traffic laws to locals – there were laws, they said, but no one obeys them.
Here, everyone felt they had license to disobey the laws because everyone else did. It was classic deindividuation!
8. Invading the pitch
In sports like soccer and cricket, there is a long tradition of pitch invasion or ‘raiding’. This is the phenomenon of the crowd jumping the fence and running onto the pitch as a crowd.
Because it’s a large crowd, it’s impossible for the police to prevent it. Furthermore, it’s less likely for any one individual to get caught. So, often, members of the crowd who would never run onto the pitch alone suddenly feel emboldened to participate in a risky and law-breaking behavior.
9. Police Corruption
When I traveled South and Central America, I learned that paying police a small, informal, and highly negotiable “fine” was the norm.
In countries I had lived – Australia, England, and Canada – this behavior was unheard of. It would likely have ended with a huge controversy and media outcry.
The difference wasn’t that individuals were more corrupt. Rather, it’s a structural problem – the system was more corrupt. The police felt like they could get away with this behavior because it was a group norm. Other police do it, too, and there was no one to complain to.
In other words, the police in these nations felt deindividuation. They behaved in immoral ways because they were part of a larger organization that normalized and accepted the behavior.
10. Mosh pits
Mosh pit behavior would be considered illegal in circumstances other than during a music concert – and a particular genre at that!
In mosh pits, people run up against each other, flail their arms, and even throw punches. A mosh pit is an inherently violent group behavior that often ends in injury.
Nevertheless, when in the mosh pit, people feel free to let go of their inhibitions and take part in behaviors that would in other contexts be disallowable.
11. Natural disaster recovery efforts
One positive example of deindividuation occurs during natural disaster recovery efforts.
Oftentimes, there is a rise in prosocial behaviors such as volunteering your time to clean up and rebuild, or offering a spare room to someone in need.
These behaviors come about due to rising group sentiment about being “in this together”, and individuals adjust their behavior to match that larger group sentiment.
It becomes “no matter who you are,” you want to contribute. Furthermore, “no matter who someone else is,” you want to help them, because that’s the new group norm.
Sadly, sometimes the opposite occurs, and mass looting happens after natural disasters, leading to conformity to this type of behavior as well.
Deindividuation is not the same as conformity. Conformity refers to a person’s conscious decision to adjust to the norms of a group; but deindividuation takes this a step further by taking into account the concepts of anonymity, loss of self-consciousness, and outsourcing of moral thinking. Thus, it’s a term in the social sciences that helps us describe deviance, especially as it pertains to group behaviors.
Diener, E. (1979). Deindividuation, self-awareness, and disinhibition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(7), 1160.
Eysenck, M. (2004). Psychology: An International Perspective. New York: Psychology Press.
Roeckelein, J. (2006). Elsevier’s Dictionary of Psychological Theories. Fountain Hills: Elsevier.
Sanderson, C. (2009). Social Psychology. Los Angeles: Wiley.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.