Evil Situations: The Role of Deindividuation

02.10.2020 |

Episode #8 of the course Psychology of evil by Psychology Insights Online


Welcome back! In the previous lesson, we discussed how group competition could result in hostility between people. In today’s lecture, we are going to focus on how situational norms can also change the way individuals will behave within groups.

Research from personality and social psychology clearly shows that people will behave differently by themselves versus when they are with others. For instance, it would be rare to find a person who, on their own, would riot and loot stores. Indeed, these actions occur almost exclusively in the context of a group. There are plenty of examples of people who will suspend their personal morals when pressured to do so either directly or even indirectly by other people. Social psychologists have identified several factors to explain how the presence of others alters how we act. One of these factors, in particular, deindividuation, has been implicated in evil being perpetrated by individuals in group settings.

Leon Festinger was an influential psychologist who was responsible for first describing the concept of deindividuation. Deindividuation is the process through which an individual can lose their sense of individuality in a group setting. According to Festinger, the person will subsequently experience a lessening of their ability to suppress behavior that they may normally find unacceptable. In his research, Festinger found that deindividuation not only occurs in large crowds but can also happen in smaller groups of people.

The role of deindividuation in anti-social behavior was brought to the forefront by Phillip Zimbardo, a well-known figure in the history of social psychology. While Zimbardo is best known for the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, he also conducted numerous other studies on deindividuation. Zimbardo has been a strong advocate for the situational perspective of aggression and conflict. In his research, he found that deindividuation in groups would often lead to the individual person becoming more disinhibited, irrational, and impulsive.

According to Zimbardo, aspects of the social environment can create deindividuated behavior. Specifically, if people feel that they are anonymous, that they are not individually responsible, and are emotionally aroused, they are far more likely to simply follow the crowd. Furthermore, research has also found that accountability cues and attentional cues alter behavior in groups. For instance, if people believe they won’t be held accountable in a large crowd, they are more likely to act in a deviant way. Also, large crowds can draw a person’s attention away from their own internal feelings and morals, again making them more likely to mimic the behavior of other people.

Let’s look at an example. On June 15, 2011, the Vancouver Stanley Cup riot started in Vancouver, Canada. The hometown National Hockey League team, the Vancouver Canucks, had just lost in the Stanley Cup Finals (the league championship) to the Boston Bruins. The franchise had never won the Stanley Cup, and they lost in the 7th and deciding game. Large crowds of people spilled out onto the streets of Vancouver that evening. It didn’t take long for violence, rioting, and looting to occur. When it was all over, an estimated 100+ people were injured, and more than 100 people were arrested. One image, in particular, a young man attempting to set a police cruiser on fire, made headlines internationally.

The perfect conditions for deindividuation were present that night. Large groups of people were emotionally aroused and angry that their team lost. Individual people, in their Canucks jerseys, blending into the crowd, provided a high degree of anonymity. Pair this with extensive alcohol intoxication during a long evening of partying; it is unsurprising that many people “followed the crowd” and took part in the looting and aggressive behavior.

Are these just bad apples committing violent acts because there is an opportunity to do so? Zimbardo and other social psychologists would argue that this likely isn’t the case. Instead, powerful external influences in the situation were at work, which led otherwise ordinary and good people to momentarily suspend their self-identity and become immersed in the group.

Deindividuation has been identified as a contributing factor in numerous real-world atrocities, including the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War and the torture of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad during the most recent Iraq War.

That brings this lesson to a close. In tomorrow’s lecture, we will continue our discussion of the situational perspective of evil by examining the psychology of conformity and obedience. See you then!


Recommended book

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo


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