Anonymity in crowd behaviour

8 August 2016

Crowd behaviour has long been a point of interest for social psychologists. Psychologists have looked at how people exhibit different behaviours when they are part of a crowd. The anonymity of a crowd allows people to assume a mask which permits them to behave in a manner which is untypical for them. This can be demonstrated in both negative and positive roles, such as people rioting in a mob, as well as fans cheering for their football team. Both of these may not be characteristic behaviours for the individual, but have been spurred on by the collective behaviour of the crowd.

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Crowd behaviour can have tremendous political, social and practical ramifications, as evidenced from the enormous power mass protests can wield. Le Bon (1895) was the first person to introduce the concept of a ‘group mind’. His work came under much criticism, but it influenced social psychology in many ways, with later deindividuation theorists building on his work, as well as the social identity theory viewing crowd behaviour from another aspect. This essay aims to evaluate if anonymity in crowds is associated with a ‘loss of self’ according to all of the above perspectives.

Le Bon’s (1895) paper was a groundbreaking text in discussing crowd behaviours. Le Bon did not like crowds, and viewed them as primarily regressive in nature. He believed that an individual’s rationality is lost in crowds and people act impulsively. Le Bon claimed that crowds exert enormous power over the individual and their behaviours become submerged by the ‘group mind’. This causes them to regress to an animalistic state where they experience their unconscious aggressive instincts.

Le Bon argued that crowds allow members to feel anonymous, and thus less personally responsible for their actions. Le Bon named this process contagion which is the propensity of behaviours exhibited by one person and copied by the crowd. Le Bon believed that the anonymity was what allowed contagion to happen. Le Bon understood crowd behaviour from an external perspective as a crowd observer. (Dixon & Mahendran 2012) Le Bon’s ideas have been criticized for their lack of empirical evidence to support his views.

In particular his idea of a ‘group mind’ was difficult to comprehend, and in 1952 Festinger et al. suggested the concept of deindividuation. Deindividuation is described as a ‘sense of anonymity’ which diminishes people’s individual responsibility and allows members to behave in impulsive ways dictated by the crowd. They defined measurable points to gauge the shift in individual’s behaviours when in a crowd. Several other psychologists including Zimbardo, Deiner and Prentice-Dunn further developed this concept of deindividuation.

According to them certain structural features such as anonymity, arousal, external focus and group cohesion lead to deindividuation. This creates a loss of self and diffusion of responsibility resulting in unsocial behaviours often untypical for the individual. However critics of deindividuation argue that the negative aspects of crowd behaviour are exaggerated, and it is difficult to infer crowd behaviour from an outside researcher observing the crowd rather than an individual immersed in the crowd. Additionally they point out that crowd behaviour is often more socially regulated than individual behaviours.

This leads to a further perspective on crowd behaviour; the social identity theory approach developed by Tajfel and Turner (1979). According to this perspective individuals act in terms of their social identity and assume a collective self. As opposed to anonymity and reduced responsibility, social identity theory perceives crowd behaviour as more socially constrained with members acting in ways that express group norms. The crowd rather than being an anonymous group is a cause of social pride which helps form the identity of the individual.

The question is whether anonymity in crowds is always associated with a loss of self. Zimbardo (1969) investigated this in a famous study where he divided a group of female students into two groups. One group wore plain clothes and name tags, and the second group wore cloaks and hoods with no name tag. The participants were required to act as teachers and administer an electric shock each time the learner made a mistake. It was found that the group wearing cloaks gave much stronger shocks than those retaining their identity.

This indicates that the anonymity had increased their aggression and perhaps allowed them a loss of self. Further support for correlations of aggression and anonymity can be found from Mullen (1986). (Dixon & Mahendran 2012) Mullen examined newspaper accounts of lynch mobs in the USA and found that in a larger crowd, more people were killed. At a first glance it seems like deindividuation had occurred and crowds do lend themselves to a loss of self. However in a bigger group of lynch mobs there may simply have been more aggressive people present.

Additionally people may be injured by the force of the crowd as opposed to deliberate aggression. Additionally often evil unscrupulous people take advantage of the anonymity of the crowd to behave in ways they would not otherwise get away with. Additional research on anonymity and crowd behaviour by Freedman and Perlick (1979) examined contagious laughter in crowds. They found that when a larger group of people were watching a videotape of an attractive woman ‘smiling a lot and laughing’, they laughed much more than when a smaller group of people were watching.

The mood and behaviour of one person was spread through the group the process Le Bon called contagion. Gergen, Gergen and Barton (1973) also researched crowd behaviour where they placed groups of mixed – gender strangers in either a well lit or darkened room. After an hour the participants in the darkened room had developed a sense of intimacy with one another. (Dixon & Mahendran 2012) It seems like the anonymity of the situation had allowed them a greater sense of freedom. However the question to consider is whether this would constitute a loss of self, or a freedom from the norms dictated by society.

Moreover the cues embedded within the social context seem to play an important role in demonstrating how anonymity in crowds will affect the individual. Research by Johnson and Downing (1979) proposes that anonymity leads to conformity of the groups norms. In a replication of Zimbardo (1969) they had participants dressed in either Ku-Klux Klan robes, or nurse uniforms and had them give electric shocks to the learners. Those dressed in the Ku-Klux Klan robes administered significantly higher shocks than those in the nurse’s uniforms.

This suggests that each participant was conforming to the norms of their group. Hence crowd behaviour may be associated with a loss of the individual self. Recent research has shown that crowds can accomplish great feats in challenging social injustices as well as empowering communities. The crowds can become agents for social change, implying that crowds are not all about a loss of self and displays of aggression, but rather that crowds can have positive impacts.

When examining behaviours of football fans it can be observed that there is an almost collective spontaneity between the groups. This behaviour is unlike contagion which expresses an irrational behaviour among the crowd. This is a crowd responding to the social norms within their ingroup, with conformity depending on how strongly they identify with their ingroup. The recent 2011 riots in England could be examined to demonstrate how crowd behaviour could be understood from different perspectives.

The initial impetuous for the riots was when a peaceful demonstration about the shooting of Mark Dungan was met by riot police and a female teenager was hit as the police tried to disperse the crowd. Following this there was enormous looting and arson as well as violence in many cities in England described as a classic anti-police riot. The government responded with harsh recriminations and received analyses from scientific experts. Levine (2011) explained that in crowds people abandon their personal identity and loose all sense of individual responsibility.

This is in line with both Le Bon’s group mind theory as well as the deindividuation perspective, that the group and anonymity is the cause of reduced responsibility. Reicher and Stott (Dixon & Mahendran 2012) offered another explanation. They explained that there is an underlying rationality amongst crowds where the people become part of a greater cause as opposed to experiencing a loss of self. The crowd switched to social identity mode, and thus it was all about defending the injustice the police had inflicted on their community.

The collective crowd felt confrontation was the only way to stand up for the perceived discrimination. In sum anonymity seems to play a role in the theory of crowd behaviours. Le Bon introduced the idea of a ‘group mind’ he believed that the anonymity of the crowd allowed contagion to occur. Later deindividuation theorists refined his theory and said that anonymity diminishes individual responsibility and gives room for people to behave in unethical ways. However social identity theory did not agree and suggested that the individual assumes a collective self and behaves in ways associated with the groups norms.

From all the research it is evident that crowds are not always associated with a loss of self, as sometimes the individual shifts to become part of the collective self. It would seem like in a situation of aggression such as a riot, crowd behaviour is much more likely to cause a loss of self than in a more sociable setting such as a football game. Additionally whereas the riot may begin as group of people working for social justice, crowds lend themselves to other people joining and it may eventually becoming a group of people who experience a loss of self and the initial idealistic vision of change getting lost.

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