A balance between deindividuation and individuality

According to the model of Deindividuation, crowds, which usually create anonymity, lead to the loss of self-awareness. This account has been challenged by various researches which have shown that individuals can indeed accentuate their self-expression, despite being surrounded by a crowd of anonymous strangers. Psychologists have attempted to use the concept of self-awareness and deindividuation to predict and explain group behaviour. However, the explanations are often over-simplified as seen in this study which concluded that deindividuation is certainly not inevitable, as the buffer manifested within the extremes of individuality and deindividuation constantly try to maintain equilibrium.

A Balance Between Deindividuation and Individuality in Group Behaviour

Groups play a significant role in influencing an individual’s direction of attention (Diener, 1980). The irony is that when a group of anonymous strangers form, deindividuation will constantly be sought, yet people want to be unique (Dipboye, 1977). The word inevitable is defined as a situation that is “incapable of being avoided” (Soanes & Hawker, 2008, p. 476). In the context of the question, this essay found that deindividuation, a psychological state of reduced self-awareness which releases disinhibited behaviour (Festinger, Pepitone, & Newcomb, 1952), will be likely to happen when a group of anonymous strangers form a crowd. However, as Johnson & Downing (1979) have suggested, individuals have the capacity to draw the link between their self-awareness and the circumstance to inhibit deindividuation.

At one extreme, a group of anonymous strangers can prevent self-awareness which leads to the phenomenon of deindividuation. In Zimbardo (1969), he related anonymity to aggression, vandalism, and other violent acts. Using this idea, Zimbardo (1969) hypothesised that anonymity, which is usually created by crowd formation, will become the catalyst of the loss of self-awareness. Zimbardo (1969) showed that deindividuated groups delivered twice the intensity of shock to the learners than the individuated group. From the experiment, it was evident that when there was anonymity, participants lost their self-awareness, which was their moral conscience. Similarly, Deiner (1976) observed the effects of anonymity on children, in either small groups or as individuals. An adult instructed the child to take one candy and then left the room. As the adult left the scene, an experimenter observed the children and found that deindividuated groups of children stole significantly more candy. The evidence in both experiments showed that anonymity, created by the crowds, lead to deindividuation. However the experiments did not consider that do not always become affected by anonymity hence the loss of self-awareness. To fully understand the effects when anonymous strangers form a crowd, research on individuality and self awareness must be considered.

On the other extreme, a group of anonymous strangers can create self-focus by giving certain individuals status and attention towards their philosophies. This is very similar to the S.I.D.E. (Social Identity model of Deindividuation Effects) model which re-defined Deindividuation as a transition from one’s individuality to the norms of the crowd (Reicher, Spears, & Postmes, 1995). The model views deindividuation as a mechanism for individuals to open up to crowds who share similar traits and philosophies for the better or worse. However, like the Deindivuation Theory, the approach has one weakness – it makes the assumption that individuals in a crowd will always lose their sense of self and undergo the transition from self to social context (Postmes, 2001). This idea was supported by many recent experiments, more obvious in Johnson & Downing (1979) who concluded that deindividuation, the loss of self-awareness, is dependent on the cues the individual is presented with. Johnson & Downing (1979) replicated Zimbardo’s (1969) experiment by using three separate groups. The first two groups were the deindividuated in Ku Klux Klan style hoods and second wore nurses’ uniforms and the third group was not deindividuated, which was the control. The results showed that the group dressed as nurses, were significantly less deindividuated, as measured by the duration of the shocks administered to the learners when they failed to answer correctly. The study showed that despite being immersed in a group of strangers and anonymised by the costumes, individuals, especially those in nurses’ outfits, were able to exhibit self-awareness and choose not to transit from their individuality to group action. Thus positive cues increase self-awareness as demonstrated by the anxiety when some of the participants administered the shock (Johnson & Downing, 1979). In other words, although human behaviour is sensitive to the social context, self awareness is ultimately the consequence of conscious control (Johnson & Downing, 1979).

In most cases, individuals are in between the extremes of individuality and deindividuation. Reicher & Levine (1994) conducted a study on university students and found that a significant increase in self awareness was observed for punishable items, unlike for non-punishable which had no significant increase in self-awareness, regardless if the individuals were identifiable or non-identifiable in groups (Reicher & Levine, 1994). The results suggested that the loss of self awareness was caused by the actions itself and the perceived consequences, rather than by crowd formation (Johnson & Downing, 1979; Postmes & Spears, 1998). In Maslach (1974), participants were given the opportunity to deindividuate or individuate themselves. The study found when a reward was anticipated, participants tended to individuate themselves however when there was a negative outcome they were significantly less likely too. The study showed that, not only can individuals continue to make personal and social evaluations regardless of being surrounded by a group or not; they can even make a conscious choice and react based on the context. The idea of self efficacy, first introduced by Bandura (1982), can be applied the phenomenon of deindividuation. The individual can certainly learn from the environment through vicarious learning and the environment can certainly influence an individual’s behaviours. Therefore, it is very unlikely that individuals will be completely absorbed by either extreme. Further research will be required on this approach as it has been much avoided due to its limited ability to predict behaviour.

Our behaviour is ultimately the cause of our conscious choice and not by deindividuation, although it may have an influence as seen in Zimbardo (1969). Groups may relinquish decision making leading to deindividuation. However, an individual may oppose the ideas of the out-group and accentuate their philosophies to influence situation norms. The interplay between these two extremes induces an individual’s desire to transit from their individual identity to the identity of the social dimension as described by the S.I.D.E. model (Reicher, et al., 1995). However, as in Bandura (1982), the transition from an individual’s identity to the social dimension is in the hands of the individual, as much as the environment surrounding them. Therefore, deindividuation is not inevitable because the buffer between the extremes of individuality and deindividuation certainly exists, as seen by Johnson & Downing (1979) .


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