Case Study Design and Analysis
DEINDIVIDUATION: WHEN DO PEOPLE LOSE THEIR SENSE OF SELF IN GROUPS?
Define “deindividuation” and identify circumstances that trigger it.
In April 2003, in the wake of American troops entering Iraq’s cities, looters—“liberated” from the scrutiny of police—ran rampant. Hospitals lost beds. The National Library lost tens of thousands of old manuscripts and lay in smoldering ruins. Universities lost computers, Page 212chairs, even lightbulbs. The National Museum in Baghdad lost 15,000 precious objects (Burns, 2003a, 2003b; Lawler, 2003c; Polk & Schuster, 2005). “Not since the Spanish conquistadors ravaged the Aztec and Inca cultures has so much been lost so quickly,” reported Science (Lawler, 2003a). “They came in mobs: A group of 50 would come, then would go, and another would come,” explained one university dean (Lawler, 2003b).
Such reports—and those of the 2011 arson and looting that occurred in London, the 2014 looting in Ferguson, Missouri, and the mob sexual assaults in Germany as 2016 dawned—had the rest of the world wondering: What happened to people’s sense of morality? Why did such behavior erupt? And why was it not anticipated?
Deindividuation: During England’s 2011 riots and looting, rioters were disinhibited by social arousal and by the anonymity provided by darkness and their hoods and masks. Later, some of those arrested expressed bewilderment over their own behavior.
©Lewis Whyld/AP Images
Their behavior even left many of the rioters later wondering what had possessed them. In court, some of the arrested London rioters seemed bewildered by their behavior (Smith, 2011). The mother of one of them, a recent university graduate, explained that her daughter had been sobbing in her bedroom since her arrest over a stolen television. “She doesn’t even know why she took it. She doesn’t need a telly.” An engineering student, arrested after looting a supermarket while he was walking home, was said by his lawyer to having “got caught up in the moment” and was now “incredibly ashamed” (Somaiya, 2011).
Doing Together What We Would Not Do Alone
Social facilitation experiments show that groups can arouse people, and social loafing experiments show that groups can diffuse responsibility. When arousal and diffused responsibility combine, and normal inhibitions diminish, the results may be startling. People may commit acts that range from a mild lessening of restraint (throwing food in the dining hall, snarling at a referee, screaming during a rock concert) to impulsive self-gratification (group vandalism, orgies, thefts) to destructive social explosions (police brutality, riots, lynchings).
These unrestrained behaviors have something in common: They are provoked by the power of being in a group. Groups can generate a sense of excitement, of being caught up in something bigger than one’s self. It is hard to imagine a single rock fan screaming deliriously at a private rock concert, or a single rioter setting a car on fire. It’s in group situations that people are more likely to abandon normal restraints, to forget their individual identity, to become responsive to group or crowd norms—in a word, to become what Leon Festinger, Albert Pepitone, and Theodore Newcomb (1952) labeled deindividuated. What circumstances elicit this psychological state?
A group has the power not only to arouse its members but also to render them unidentifiable. The snarling crowd hides the snarling basketball fan. A lynch mob enables its members to believe they will not be prosecuted; they perceive the action as the group’s. Looters, made faceless by the mob, are freed to loot. One researcher analyzed 21 instances in which crowds were present as someone threatened to jump from a building or a bridge (Mann, 1981). When the crowd was small and exposed by daylight, people usually did not try to bait the person with cries of “Jump!” But when a large crowd or the cover of night gave people anonymity, the crowd usually did bait and jeer.
Lynch mobs produce a similar effect: The bigger the mob, the more its members lose self-awareness and become willing to commit atrocities, such as burning, lacerating, or dismembering the victim (Leader et al., 2007; Mullen, 1986a).
In each of these examples, from sports crowds to lynch mobs, evaluation apprehension plummets. People’s attention is focused on the situation, not on themselves. And because “everyone is doing it,” all can attribute their behavior to the situation rather than to their own choices.
How can we be sure that crowds offer anonymity? We can’t. But we can experiment with anonymity to see if it actually lessens inhibitions. Philip Zimbardo (1970, 2002) got the idea for such an experiment from his undergraduate students, who questioned how good boys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies could so suddenly become monsters after painting their faces. To experiment with such anonymity, he dressed New York University women in identical white coats and hoods, rather like Ku Klux Klan members (Figure 5). Asked to deliver electric shocks to a woman, they pressed the shock button twice as long as did women who were unconcealed and wearing large name tags. Even dimmed lighting or wearing sunglasses increases people’s perceived anonymity, and thus their willingness to cheat or behave selfishly (Zhong et al., 2010).
In Philip Zimbardo’s deindividuation research, anonymous women delivered more shock to helpless victims than did identifiable women.
The Internet offers similar anonymity. Millions of those who were aghast at the looting by the Baghdad mobs were on those very days anonymously pirating music tracks using file-sharing software. With so many doing it, and with so little concern about being caught, downloading someone’s copyrighted property and then offloading it to an MP3 player just didn’t seem terribly immoral. Internet bullies who would never say, “Get a life, you phony,” to someone’s face will hide behind their anonymity online. Most social media sites, to their credit, require people to use their real names, which constrains hate-filled comments.
On several occasions, anonymous online bystanders have egged on people threatening suicide, sometimes with live video feeding the scene to scores of people. Online communities “are like the crowd outside the building with the guy on the ledge,” noted one analyst of technology’s social effects (quoted by Stelter, 2008). Sometimes a caring person tried to talk the person down, while others, in effect, chanted, “Jump, jump.” “The anonymous nature of these communities only emboldens the meanness or callousness of the people on these sites.”
Testing deindividuation on the streets, Patricia Ellison, John Govern, and their colleagues (1995) had a driver stop at a red light and wait for 12 seconds whenever she was followed by a convertible or a 4 × 4 vehicle. During the wait, she recorded horn-honking (a mild aggressive act) by the car behind. Compared with drivers of convertibles and 4 × 4s with the car tops down, those who were relatively anonymous (with the tops up) honked one-third sooner, twice as often, and for nearly twice as long. Anonymity feeds incivility.
A research team led by Ed Diener (1976) cleverly demonstrated the effect both of being in a group and of being physically anonymous. At Halloween, they observed 1,352 Seattle children trick-or-treating. As the children, either alone or in groups, approached 1 of 27 homes scattered throughout the city, an experimenter greeted them warmly, invited them to “take one of the candies,” and then left the candy unattended. Hidden observers noted that children in groups were more than twice as likely to take extra candy than were solo children. Also, children who had been asked their names and where they lived were less than half as likely to transgress as those who were left anonymous. As Figure 6 shows, when they were deindividuated both by group immersion and by anonymity, most children stole extra candy.
Children were more likely to transgress by taking extra Halloween candy when in a group, when anonymous, and, especially, when deindividuated by the combination of group immersion and anonymity.
Source: Data from Diener et al., 1976.
Page 214Those studies make us wonder about the effect of wearing uniforms. Preparing for battle, warriors in some tribal cultures (like some rabid sports fans) depersonalize themselves with body and face paints or special masks. Robert Watson (1973) scrutinized anthropological files and discovered this: The cultures with depersonalized warriors were also the cultures that brutalized their enemies. In Northern Ireland, 206 of 500 violent attacks studied by Andrew Silke (2003) were conducted by attackers who wore masks, hoods, or other face disguises. Compared with undisguised attackers, these anonymous attackers inflicted more serious injuries, attacked more people, and committed more vandalism.
Does becoming physically anonymous always unleash our worst impulses? Fortunately, no. In all these situations, people were responding to clear antisocial cues. Robert Johnson and Leslie Downing (1979) point out that the Klan-like outfits worn by Zimbardo’s participants may have been stimulus cues for hostility. In an experiment at the University of Georgia, women put on nurses’ uniforms before deciding how much shock someone should receive. When those wearing the nurses’ uniforms were made anonymous, they became less aggressive in administering shocks. From their analysis of 60 deindividuation studies, Tom Postmes and Russell Spears (1998; Reicher et al., 1995) concluded that being anonymous makes one less self-conscious, more group-conscious, and more responsive to situational cues, whether negative (Klan uniforms) or positive (nurses’ uniforms).
AROUSING AND DISTRACTING ACTIVITIES
Aggressive outbursts by large groups are often preceded by minor actions that arouse and divert people’s attention. Group shouting, chanting, clapping, or dancing serve both to hype people up and to reduce self-consciousness.
Experiments have shown that activities such as throwing rocks and group singing can set the stage for more disinhibited behavior (Diener, 1976, 1979). There is a self-reinforcing pleasure in acting impulsively while seeing others do likewise. When we see others act as we are acting, we think they feel as we do, which reinforces our own feelings (Orive, 1984). Moreover, impulsive group action absorbs our attention. When we yell at the referee, we are not thinking about our values; we are reacting to the immediate situation. Later, when we stop to think about what we have done or said, we sometimes feel chagrined. Sometimes. At other times we seek deindividuating group experiences—dances, worship experiences, team sports—where we enjoy intense positive feelings and closeness to others.
“Attending a service in the Gothic cathedral, we have the sensation of being enclosed and steeped in an integral universe, and of losing a prickly sense of self in the community of worshipers.”
—Yi-Fu Tuan, Segmented Worlds and Self, 1982
Group experiences that diminish self-consciousness tend to disconnect behavior from attitudes. Research by Ed Diener (1980) and Steven Prentice-Dunn and Ronald Rogers (1980, 1989) Page 215revealed that unself-conscious, deindividuated people are less restrained, less self-regulated, more likely to act without thinking about their own values, and more responsive to the situation. These findings complement and reinforce the experiments on self-awareness.
Self-awareness is the opposite of deindividuation. Those made self-aware, by acting in front of a mirror or a TV camera, exhibit increased self-control, and their actions more clearly reflect their attitudes. In front of a mirror, people taste-testing cream cheese varieties ate less of the high-fat variety (Sentyrz & Bushman, 1998).
Looking in a mirror or being on camera increases self-awareness, making us think about our individual actions more carefully.
People made self-aware are also less likely to cheat (Beaman et al., 1979; Diener & Wallbom, 1976). So are those who generally have a strong sense of themselves as distinct and independent (Nadler et al., 1982). In Japan, where people more often imagine how they might look to others, the presence of a mirror had no effect on cheating (Heine et al., 2008). The principle: People who are self-conscious, or who are temporarily made so, exhibit greater consistency between their words outside a situation and their deeds in it.
We can apply those findings to many situations in everyday life. Circumstances that decrease self-awareness, as alcohol consumption does, increase deindividuation (Hull et al., 1983). Deindividuation decreases in circumstances that increase self-awareness: mirrors and cameras, small towns, bright lights, large name tags, undistracted quiet, individual clothes and houses (Ickes et al., 1978). When a teenager leaves for a party, a parent’s parting advice could well be “Have fun, and remember who you are.” In other words, enjoy being with the group, but be self-aware; maintain your personal identity; be wary of deindividuation.
SUMMING UP: Deindividuation: When Do People Lose Their Sense of Self in Groups?
When high levels of social arousal combine with diffused responsibility, people may abandon their normal restraints and lose their sense of individuality.
Such deindividuation is especially likely when people are in a large group, are physically anonymous, and are aroused and distracted.
The resulting diminished self-awareness and self-restraint tend to increase people’s responsiveness to the immediate situation, be it negative or positive. Deindividuation is less likely when self-awareness is high.
GROUP POLARIZATION: DO GROUPS INTENSIFY OUR OPINIONS?
Describe and explain how interaction with like-minded people tends to amplify preexisting attitudes.
Do group interactions more often have good or bad outcomes? Police brutality and mob violence demonstrate the destructive potential of groups. Yet support-group leaders, work-group consultants, and educational theorists proclaim the beneficial effects of group interaction. And self-help group members and religious adherents strengthen their identities by fellowship with like-minded others.
Studies of small groups have produced a principle that helps explain both bad and good outcomes: Group discussion often strengthens members’ initial inclinations. The unfolding Page 216of this research on group polarization illustrates the process of inquiry—how an interesting discovery often leads researchers to hasty and erroneous conclusions, which get replaced with more accurate conclusions. This is a scientific mystery I [DM] can discuss firsthand, having been one of the detectives.
The Case of the “Risky Shift”
More than 300 studies began with a surprising finding by James Stoner (1961), then an MIT graduate student. For his master’s thesis in management, Stoner tested the commonly held belief that groups are more cautious than individuals. He posed decision dilemmas in which the participant’s task was to advise imagined characters how much risk to take. Put yourself in the participant’s shoes: What advice would you give the character in this situation?1
Helen is a writer who is said to have considerable creative talent but who so far has been earning a comfortable living by writing cheap westerns. Recently she has come up with an idea for a potentially significant novel. If it could be written and accepted, it might have considerable literary impact and be a big boost to her career. On the other hand, if she cannot work out her idea or if the novel is a flop, she will have expended considerable time and energy without remuneration.
Imagine that you are advising Helen. Please check the lowest probability that you would consider acceptable for Helen to attempt to write the novel.
Helen should attempt to write the novel if the chances that the novel will be a success are at least
_____ 1 in 10
_____ 2 in 10
_____ 3 in 10
_____ 4 in 10
_____ 5 in 10
_____ 6 in 10
_____ 7 in 10
_____ 8 in 10
_____ 9 in 10
_____ 10 in 10 (Place a check here if you think Helen should attempt the novel only if it is certain that the novel will be a success.)
After making your decision, guess what this book’s average reader would advise.
Having marked their advice on a dozen items, five or so individuals would then discuss and reach agreement on each item. How do you think the group decisions compared with the average decision before the discussions? Would the groups be likely to take greater risks, be more cautious, or stay the same?
To everyone’s amazement, the group decisions were usually riskier. This “risky shift phenomenon” set off a wave of group risk-taking studies. These revealed that risky shift occurs not only when a group decides by consensus; after a brief discussion, individuals, too, will alter their decisions. What is more, researchers successfully repeated Stoner’s finding with people of varying ages and occupations in a dozen nations.
The risky shift: Groups of people, like these teens in a car together, may make more risky decisions than individuals alone.
©Big Cheese Photo/Superstock
During discussion, opinions converged. Curiously, however, the point toward which they converged was usually a lower (riskier) number than their initial average. Here was an intriguing puzzle. The small risky shift effect was reliable, unexpected, and without any immediately obvious explanation. What group influences produce such an effect? And how widespread is it? Do discussions in juries, business committees, and military organizations also promote risk taking? Does this explain why teenage reckless driving, as measured by death rates, nearly doubles when a 16- or 17-year-old driver has two teenage Page 217passengers rather than none (Chen et al., 2000)? Does it explain stock bubbles, as people discuss why stocks are rising, thus creating an informational cascade that drives stocks even higher (Sunstein, 2009)?
After several years of study, my [DM’s] colleagues and I discovered that the risky shift was not universal. We could write decision dilemmas on which people became more cautious after discussion. One of these featured “Roger,” a young married man with two school-age children and a secure but low-paying job. Roger can afford life’s necessities but few of its luxuries. He hears that the stock of a relatively unknown company may soon triple in value if its new product is favorably received or decline considerably if it does not sell. Roger has no savings. To invest in the company, he is considering selling his life insurance policy.
Can you see a general principle that predicts both the tendency to give riskier advice after discussing Helen’s situation and more cautious advice after discussing Roger’s? If you are like most people, you would advise Helen to take a greater risk than Roger, even before talking with others. It turns out there is a strong tendency for discussion to accentuate these initial leanings. Thus, groups discussing the “Roger” dilemma became more risk-averse than they were before discussion (Myers, 2010).
Do Groups Intensify Opinions?
Realizing that this group phenomenon was not a consistent shift toward increased risk, we reconceived the phenomenon as a tendency for group discussion to enhance group members’ initial leanings. Similar minds polarize. This idea led investigators to propose what French researchers Serge Moscovici and Marisa Zavalloni (1969) called group polarization: Discussion typically strengthens the average inclination of group members.
GROUP POLARIZATION EXPERIMENTS
This new view of the group-induced changes prompted experimenters to have people discuss attitude statements that most of them favored, or that most of them opposed. Would talking in groups enhance their shared initial inclinations? In groups, would risk takers take bigger risks, bigots become more hostile, and givers become more generous? That’s what the group polarization hypothesis predicts (Figure 7).
The group polarization hypothesis predicts that discussion will strengthen an attitude shared by group members.
Dozens of studies confirm group polarization. Three examples:
Moscovici and Zavalloni (1969) observed that discussion enhanced French students’ initially positive attitude toward their president and negative attitude toward Americans.
Mititoshi Isozaki (1984) found that Japanese university students gave more pronounced judgments of “guilty” after discussing a traffic case. When jury members are inclined to award damages, the group award tends to exceed that preferred by the median jury member (Sunstein, 2007a).
When people believed they were watching an online video of a political speech at the same time as many other viewers (vs. with no other viewers), their judgments of the speech were more extreme (Shteynberg et al., 2016).
Markus Brauer and co-workers (2001) found that French students were more adamant in their dislike of someone after discussing their shared negative impressions with others. If some individuals dislike you, together they may dislike you more.
Another research strategy has been to pick issues on which opinions are divided and then isolate people who hold the same view. Does discussion with like-minded people strengthen shared views? Does it magnify the attitude gap that separates the two sides?
George Bishop and I [DM] wondered. So we set up groups of relatively prejudiced and unprejudiced high school students and asked them to respond—before and after discussion—to issues involving racial attitudes (Myers & Bishop, 1970). Page 218For example, they responded to a case involving the property right to rent only to one’s race versus the civil right to not face discrimination. We found that the discussions among like-minded students did indeed increase the initial gap between the two groups (Figure 8). Moreover, Jessica Keating and her collaborators (2016) report that people are unaware of the phenomenon in their own lives. When small groups of like-minded people discussed whether Barack Obama or George W. Bush was the better president, participants underestimated how much the discussion polarized their attitudes, misremembering their earlier attitudes as less extreme than they actually were.
Discussion increased polarization between homogeneous groups of high- and low-prejudice high school students. Talking over racial issues increased prejudice in a high-prejudice group and decreased it in a low-prejudice group.
Source: Data from Myers & Bishop, 1970.
Studies in Britain and Australia confirm that group discussion can magnify both negative and positive tendencies. When people share negative impressions of a group, such as an immigrant group, discussion supports their negative views and increases their willingness to discriminate (Smith & Postmes, 2011). And when people share concern about an injustice, discussion amplifies their moral concern (Thomas & McGarty, 2009). Like hot coals together, like minds strengthen one another.
GROUP POLARIZATION IN EVERYDAY LIFE
In everyday life, people associate mostly with others whose attitudes are similar to their own. (See the Attraction chapter, or just look at your own circle of friends.) So, outside the laboratory, do everyday group interactions with like-minded friends intensify shared attitudes? Do the nerds become nerdier, the jocks jockier, and the rebels more rebellious?
It happens. The self-segregation of boys into all-male groups and of girls into all-female groups increases their initially modest gender differences, noted Eleanor Maccoby (2002). Boys with boys become gradually more competitive and action oriented in their play and fictional fare. Girls with girls become more relationally oriented.
On U.S. federal appellate court cases, judges appointed by Republican presidents tend to vote like Republicans and judges appointed by Democratic presidents tend to vote like Democrats. No surprise there. But such tendencies are accentuated when among like-minded judges, report David Schkade and Cass Sunstein (2003): “A Republican appointee sitting with two other Republicans votes far more conservatively than when the same judge sits with at least one Democratic appointee. A Democratic appointee, meanwhile, shows the same tendency in the opposite ideological direction.”
“What explains the rise of fascism in the 1930s? The emergence of student radicalism in the 1960s? The growth of Islamic terrorism in the 1990s? . . . The unifying theme is simple: When people find themselves in groups of like-minded types, they are especially likely to move to extremes. [This] is the phenomenon of group polarization.”
—Cass Sunstein, Going to Extremes, 2009
GROUP POLARIZATION IN SCHOOLS Another real-life parallel to the laboratory phenomenon is what education researchers have called the “accentuation” effect: Over time, initial differences among groups of college students become accentuated. If the first-year students at Big Brain College are initially more intellectual than the students at Party School College, that gap is likely to increase by the time they graduate. Likewise, compared with fraternity and sorority members, nonmembers have tended to have more liberal political attitudes, a difference that grows with time in college (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). Researchers believe this results partly from group members reinforcing shared inclinations.
GROUP POLARIZATION IN COMMUNITIES Polarization also occurs in communities, as people self-segregate. “Crunchy places . . . attract crunchy types and become crunchier,” observes David Brooks (2005). “Conservative places . . . attract conservatives and become more so.” Neighborhoods can become echo chambers, with opinions ricocheting off kindred-spirited friends.
Show social psychologists a like-minded group that interacts mostly among themselves and they will show you a group that may become more extreme. While diversity moderates us, like minds polarize.
One experiment assembled small groups of Coloradoans in liberal Boulder and conservative Colorado Springs. The discussions increased agreement within small groups about global warming, affirmative action, and same-sex unions. Nevertheless, those in Boulder generally converged further left and those in Colorado Springs further right (Schkade et al., 2007).
Page 219In laboratory studies, the competitive relationships and mistrust that individuals often display when playing games with one another often worsen when the players are groups (Winquist & Larson, 2004). During actual community conflicts, like-minded people associate increasingly with one another, amplifying their shared tendencies. Gang delinquency emerges from a process of mutual reinforcement within neighborhood gangs, whose members share attributes and hostilities (Cartwright, 1975). If “a second out-of-control 15-year-old moves in [on your block],” surmises David Lykken (1997), “the mischief they get into as a team is likely to be more than merely double what the first would do on his own. . . . A gang is more dangerous than the sum of its individual parts.” (Or, as one friend of mine [JT] put it when we were in college and had witnessed a few too many drunken antics, “Boys do dumb things when they get together in groups.”) Indeed, “unsupervised peer groups” are “the strongest predictor” of a neighborhood’s crime victimization rate, report Bonita Veysey and Steven Messner (1999). Moreover, experimental interventions that take delinquent adolescents and group them with other delinquents—no surprise to any group polarization researcher—increase the rate of problem behavior (Dishion et al., 1999).
In two trials, South African courts reduced sentences after learning how social psychological phenomena, including deindividuation and group polarization, led crowd members to commit murderous acts (Colman, 1991). What do you think: Should courts consider social psychological phenomena as possible extenuating circumstances?
GROUP POLARIZATION IN POLITICS With like-minded communities serving as political echo chambers, the United States offers a case example of an urgent social problem—political polarization. As more and more people view their party as morally superior and the opposition as corrupt, cooperation and shared goals get replaced by gridlock. Consider:
Like-minded counties. The percentage of Americans living in “landslide counties”—those in which 60% or more voted for the same Presidential candidate—rose from 38% in 1992 to 60% in 2016 (Aisch et al., 2016).
Minimized middle ground. The percentage of entering collegians declaring themselves as politically “middle of the road” dropped from 60% in 1983 to 42% in 2016, and those identifying as “far left” or “far right” has increased (Eagan et al., 2017; Twenge et al., 2016).
Increasing partisan divide. The gap between Republicans and Democrats, as expressed in congressional speeches and in citizen attitudes, has never been greater (Figure 9) (Gentzkow et al., 2017; Pew, 2017).
Antagonism. In 2016, most Republicans and Democrats for the first time acknowledged having “very unfavorable” views of the other party (Doherty & Kiley, 2016). In 1960, just 5% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats said they would be upset if their son or daughter was going to marry someone from the other political party. By 2010, 49% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats said they would be upset (Iyengar et al., 2012).
Persistent partisanship. The rate of Americans’ voting for the same party across successive presidential elections has never been higher (Smidt, 2017).
A polarizing society. Democrats have increasingly agreed that “Racial discrimination is the main reason why many Black people can’t get ahead these days” (Pew, 2017). Republicans have become less likely to agree.
This worsening divide is increasingly apparent to all, with a record 77% of Americans perceiving their nation as divided (Jones, 2016).
Groups often exceed individuals. A gang is more dangerous than the sum of its parts, much as “the pack is greater than the wolf.”
©Raimund Linke/Getty Images
GROUP POLARIZATION ON THE INTERNET From the long-ago invention of the printing press to today’s Internet, the amount of available information has mushroomed. Where once people shared the same information from a few networks and national news magazines, today we choose from a myriad of sources. With so many choices, we naturally “selectively expose” ourselves to like-minded media (Dylko et al., 2017). Page 220We embrace media feeds that support our views and slam those we despise. (Tell us which media you consume and we’ll guess your political ideology.)
As people selectively read blogs and visit chat rooms, does the Internet herd them into “tribes of common thought” (or do we have more—and more diverse—friends on Facebook than in daily life)? Do people (do you?) tend to click on content they (you?) agree with and block what’s disagreeable? Do progressives tend to friend progress