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2) Deindividuation

Deindividuation is when people lose their sense of individual identity. Most individuals would normally refrain from aggression because they don’t want to be held to blame for their actions – but in situations such as crowds, social restraints and personal responsibility are perceived to be lessened, so displays of aggressive behaviour occur.

It can be said that as a result of normative social influence, deindividuation causes people to unquestioningly follow group norms instead of personal norms, which sometimes leads individuals to display aggressive behaviour.

Zimbardo sees people in crowds as being anonymous, with lessened awareness of individuality and a reduced sense of guilt, or fear of punishment. The bigger the crowd, the more this will be.

Prentice-Dunn and Rogers (1982) believe that individuals normally have awareness of personal moral codes, but being in a crowd diminishes private awareness, so instead they follow the group norms.


+ Research support – There has been a great deal of research supporting this theory, for example:

  • Malmuth and Check (1981) – found that nearly a third of male university students in the US would rape if there was no chance of them getting caught.
  • Zimbardo (1963) – replicated Milgram’s electric shock study, but the participant was either individuated with a name tag or deindividuated by wearing a hood. The deindividuated participants gave more shocks, supporting the idea of deindividuation.
  • Diener et al (1976) – found that anonymous ‘trick-or-treating’ children in the USA took more money or sweets than non-anonymous children, supporting the notion of deindividuation.
  • Watson (1973) – conducted a cross-cultural study and found that warriors who disguised their appearance – for example, through face paint – tended to be more aggressive, suggesting that deindividuation effects are universal.

+ Application of theory – The theory of deindividuation can help us reduce aggression, for example using obvious CCTV cameras at events such as football matches has been shown to reduce violence levels.

– Pro-social behaviour – Deindividuation in crowds can lead to increased pro-social behaviour, for example religious gatherings.

– Doesn’t affect everyone – The idea that people lose their personal moral codes when deindividuated is evidently not true, as many people are not negatively affected by crowds.

– Football hooliganism and ritualised behaviour – Deindividuation has been used to explain the phenomenon of football hooliganism. However, Marsh et al (1978) found that mainly ritualised behaviour occurred at football matches, with actual violence being rare. So football crowds aren’t acting aggressively, but just in a ritualised way.


About Sam Cook

A blog set up to help A Level students revise Sociology


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