What Is Deindividuation?

Deindividuation is a psychological state characterized by reduced self-awareness and social identity Opens in new window, brought on by conditions such as being an anonymous member of a large crowd.

By definition, 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.

Deindividuated states are characterized as pleasurable wherein the person feels free to act on impulse and without regard to consequences. However, they can also be extremely dangerous in that they can result in violent and antisocial behavior.

In the late 1800s, the French sociologist Gustave LeBon (1841-1931) postulated the phenomenon of a group mind and asserted that people in a crowd may lose their sense of personal responsibility and behave as if governed by a primitive, irrational, and hedonistic mind that seems to belong more to the group as a whole than to any one individual.

Thus, the state of deindividuation seems to be brought on by a combination of “reduced accountability” that comes from being a relatively anonymous member of a crowd and “shifting attention” away from the self and toward the highly arousing external stimulation associated with the mob’s actions.

Theoretical Approaches of Deindividuation

Several theoretical approaches have been designed to conceptualize the phenomenon of deindividuation.

Festinger, Pepitone, and Newcomb (1952) suggest that the person’s focus on the group (which is associated with their attraction to the group) lessens the attention given to individuals. Thus, the members of the group are deindividuated by their submergence and moral subordination to the group. Therefore, according to this view, deindividuation lowers the person’s inhibitions toward exercising counternormative actions.

In another viewpoint, R. C. Ziller argues that persons learn to associate individuation with rewarding conditions and deindividuation with potentially punishing conditions. Thus, whenever the person expects punishment, there will be tendency to diffuse responsibility by submerging oneself into a group, whereas when one learns to expect rewards for jobs well done, he or she wants to appear uniquely and solely responsible for such behaviors.

P. G. Zimbardo’s deindividuation theory postulates that the expression of normally inhibited behavior may include creative and loving behavior as well as negative or counternormative behaviors.

Zimbardo proposes that a number of factors may lead to deindividuation, in addition to focus on the group and avoidance of negative evaluation of moral responsibility: anonymity, group size, level of emotional arousal, altered time perspectives, novelty/ambiguity of the situation, and degree of involvement in group functioning.

Such factors, he added, lead to a loss of identity or a loss of self-consciousness which, in turn, causes the person to become unresponsive to external stimuli and to lose cognitive control over motivations and emotions. Consequently, the deindividuated person becomes less compliant to positive or negative sanctions imposed from influences outside the group.

Diener’s theoretical approach emphasizes the association of deindividuation with self-awareness: deindividuated persons do not attend to their own behavior, and lack awareness of themselves as entities distinct from the group. With such little awareness of self, the individual is more likely to respond to immediate stimuli, motives, and emotions.

According to Diener, the term deindividuation is a construct referring to a set of circumstances or relationships among emotional states, cognitive processes, situations, and behavioral reactions. In such circumstances, various antinormative behaviors—such as drug abuse, riots, lynchings, mob violence, and even reactions involving loss of inhibition in marathon, encounter, and other noncognitive therapy groups—are associated with a state of deindividuation.