Deindividuation and Anti-normative Behavior: A Meta Analysis

Summary of: Deindividuation and Anti-normative Behavior: A Meta Analysis

Author(s) / Editor(s)

Deindividuation theory is a social psychological account of the individual in the crowd that postulates that the psychological state of deindividuation brings about anti-normative and disinhibited behavior in the individual members.

Keywords

Publication Reference

Published in/by
Psychological Bulletin, 123, 238-259.
Date
1998

Findings

  • The theory attempts to explain the root cause of individual behavior when the individual acts in a group context.
  • To date no empirical data has been found to support deindividuation as a psychological state.
  • No empirical data exists to support the idea that disinhibition and anti-normative behavior are more common in large groups and crowded anonymous settings.
  • More recent speculation suggests that behavioral changes of an individual in a group could be the result of local group norms.

The origins of deindividuation are found In LeBon’s crowd theory (1895/1995), who proposed that the psychological mechanisms of anonymity, suggestibility and contagion transform an assembly into a "psychological crowd." In the 1950’s it was argued that deindividuation occurs when individuals in a group are not paid attention to as individuals and that additional contextual factors (e.g. reductions of responsibility, arousal, sensory overload, etc.) played a part. In the 1970’s deindividuation theory became a popular focus of scientific research, however, the empirical support for deindividuation theory was weak. In fact there was virtually no evidence for the psychological state of deindividuation. In the 1980’s formulations of the theory focused on the psychological process of reduced (private) self-awareness as the defining feature of deindividuation.

Various studies have been conducted to empirically verify the theory, but evidence for deindividuation theory appears to be mixed. A recent meta-analysis study examined 60 tests of deindividuation theory and concluded that there is insufficient support for deindividuation. Disinhibition and anti-normative behavior are not more common in large groups and crowded anonymous settings. Moreover, there is no evidence that deindividuation is associated with reduced self-awareness, or even that reduced self-awareness increases disinhibition. Overall, then, deindividuation theory does not receive sufficient empirical support. More recent research suggests that groups are sensitive to normative cues associated with the social context. Thus, whereas deindividuation theory argues that the crowd causes a loss of identity, reverting the individual to irrationality, it seems more productive to reconceptualize deindividuation as a shift from a personal identity to a social identity, shared by members of the crowd.

The idea that behavior could be the result of local group norms was considered explicitly by Johnson and Downing (1979). Participants were made anonymous by means of mask and overalls reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan or by means of nurses' uniforms. Although compared to the control condition, participants shocked somewhat more when dressed in the Ku Klux Klan uniforms, they actually shocked less when dressed as nurses. This finding illustrates that groups are sensitive to normative cues associated with the social context.

This latest finding lends weight to the idea that group behavior is closely tied to cultural identification. Further study in which participants are deliberately selected from specific cultural types might prove interesting.