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Anonymity in Theories of Crowd Behaviour

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 1907 words Published: 10th Apr 2018

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  • Darrin Paul

Explain the place of anonymity in theories of crowd behaviour. Is it always associated with a ‘loss of self’ (Dixon and Manhendran, 2012)

Social psychology provides much information with regards to collective behaviour and the interaction of individuals within a crowd. It has been observed that an individual’s behaviour can be influenced and therefore altered when they become part of a large group or crowd. Dixon and Manhendran (2012, p.3) ‘state that anonymity shapes crowd behaviour’; to evaluate the effect of anonymity on collective behaviour, psychological and social processes need to be examined. Dose anonymity render individuals powerless to control their actions, resulting in primitive regressive behaviour as proposed by Le Bon (1895). Or is a loss of self, were crowd participants cease to identify themselves as individuals a factor of anonymity. Other theories such as social identity theory address the issue of identity and how people perceive themselves and others in a crowd, what they conform to and how they express their identity. Does anonymity within crowds inevitably lead to aggressive or antisocial behaviour or does it influence identity salience and group norms as well as strategic factors and power relations (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012)?

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Early research regarding collective behaviour of groups was proposed by Le Bon, he developed his theory of crowds in the latter years of the nineteenth century. Le Bon was of the opinion, that when people joined large relatively unstructured social groups, they engaged in spontaneous and atypical regressive behaviour. Le Bon proposed that crowds are ruled by a collective mind or ‘group mind’ were individual rationality is lost to a hypnotic state in which group members experience unconscious primitive instincts devoid of reason and culture. Due to an unconscious process known as contagion individuals become influenced by ideas, feelings and emotions generated within the crowd, which spreads rapidly throughout creating a collective mass, leading to a ‘loss of self’. The physical presence of others creates a sense of anonymity were the individual can feel masked, diminishing their sense of responsibility from social and moral norms, thus generating a sense of unaccountable power form their presence within the crowd. Freedman and Perlick (1979) studied the effects of laughter on crowds; they showed that mood and behaviour are likely to spread through the group via contagion (Dixon and Manhendran, 2012).

Deindividuation theory proposed by Festinger, Pepitone and Newcomb (1952) is a translation of Le Bon’s theory. They defined clear antecedent variables such as anonymity and group immersion that lead to subjective changes in the individual. Deindividuation is defined as a loss of personal identity or loss of self were crowd members merge and become anonymous, rather than separate distinct individuals. This leads to weak constraints against impulsive behaviour and hence an inability to monitor or regulate the immediate demands of the group. Deindividuation theory differs from Le Bon, in that it challenges the concept of a group mind, it dose not propose that group members lose their mind to the collective mind, instead it’s the loss of self that effects the social context leading to a loss of control. The effect of anonymity releases the individual from internal moral restraints, generating behaviour that is impulsive, irrational and regressive (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, p.6). Festinger et al found that males in a group, who remembered the least amount of information that was individuating, were more likely to show hostile, aggressive behaviour towards their parents (Dixon and Manhendran, 2012).

Zimbardo (1969) further developed deinviduation theory, especially in relation to the association between anonymity and aggression. He believed that crowds provide a cloak of anonymity which diffuses personal responsibility for the consequences of an individual’s actions. A loss of individual identity produces a reduced concern for social evaluation. Zimbardo carried out a study to support his theory; he dressed up some of his subjects in overalls and hoods and left the others in their own clothes with large name tags so they could be identified. The results appeared to support his theory, when asked to administer electric shocks in a, ‘learning experiment’, participants who had been deindividuated in hoods and overalls, gave shocks for longer periods, suggesting that anonymity had intensified aggression.Recent studies would also support Zimbardo’s findings; Silke (2003) found that statistics of paramilitary attacks in Northern Ireland showed that the severity of attacks increased with high levels of anonymity when the perpetrators were disguised (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012).

However other studies have shown that anonymity does not necessarily lead to acts of aggression or anti-social behaviour. Gergen, Gergen and Barton (1973) observed strangers in mixed gender groups in well or dimly lit rooms. Their observations revealed that participants engaged in acts of physical and emotional intimacy which created feelings of sexual arousal. It would indicate that the social context of a group can produce cues that influence whether anonymity produces negative behaviour.

In relation to Gergen et al’s results, Johnson and Downing (1979) replicated Zimbardo’s 1969 experiment giving half the subjects Ku-Klux-Klan outfits and half a nurse’s outfit, were each group was either anonymous or not. Results showed that participants in the anonymous nurse condition reduced the amount of shocks given compared to those in the other conditions. Zimbardo also replicated his experiment with Belgian soldiers and found that the anonymous group shocked less, the exact opposite to his previous results. These results would suggest that aggressive, anti-normative behaviour, is not always the outcome and that deindividuation may involve a desire to conform to situational group norms rather than a disregard for social regulation (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012).

Diener (1980) observed there was a problem in expressing the relationship between deindividuation and anonymity. He proposed that anonymity does not directly lead to deindividuation and a loss of self, but a loss of self awareness. The ability to remain self focused increases the ability for self regulation and individuation, he believed that the above studies made participants become more self-aware and therefore less likely to engage in aggressive behaviour. As with most theories deindividuation has been open to criticism regarding it’s mostly lab based studies that don’t allow more naturalistic studies to increase ecological validity, taking into consideration the insider viewpoint of participant meaning and purpose. The over emphasis of aggressive anti-normative behaviour ignores the positive normative outcomes of crowds and that social norms from the immediate environment, can be the basis of controlled, meaningful behaviour (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012).

Social identity theory adopts the concept of social identification, individuals identify with the social identity of the crowd and conform to normative group behaviour through conformity of shared group norms. The theory states that during crowd membership and other deindividuating settings, ‘the individual does not simply experience a loss of self, but makes the transition from an individual identity to a more collective sense of self’ (Dixon and Mahendran, p. 13). This shift in the sense of self is a key difference when compared to deindividuation theory. Unlike Le Bon’s concept of contagion, individuals through inductive categorisation respond to cues from group representatives that define the beliefs, attitudes and objectives of the group, resulting in behaviour that is regulated by social standards. Individual identification of intergroup relations, also effects to what extent an individual will conform to the emergent, spontaneous and normative cues of the group (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012).

Reicher (1984) adopted an internal crowd perspective by examining testimonies of the St. Paul’s riots which occurred in Bristol in1980 and found that black and white youths identified with one another due to police and social injustices, creating a collective social identity which created an intergroup struggle against authority. In Reicher and Stott’s (2011) study of the 2011 London anti police riots, observed that participants were not seen as anonymous, but part of a community that knew one another. They argue that ‘rioters did not experience a loss of identity or self but rather a shift to a collective shared identity which gave their actions purpose and meaning’ (as cited in Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, p.19). They also point out that violence was not indiscriminate but targeted at police and symbols of authority (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012).

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Stott (2012) points out in his audio interview that the ability of crowds to express their identity is very important, especially when that ability is suppressed by police. He points out that dialogue and engagement are vital aspects of communication that are essential in creating perceptions of legitimacy in policing. This brings into consideration the influence of power relations on crowd behaviour, Holloway (1012) states that ‘it is a two way dynamic rather than something exercised by the powerful on the powerless’ (p. 47). Social identity theory outlines that manipulation of anonymity affects the power that the in-group has in expressing aspects of group norms that are deemed anti-normative by the out group, in this case the police (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012).

There has been a significant amount of research and studies carried out into collective crowd behaviour; resulting in evidence that membership of a crowd alters human behaviour and the psychological state of an individual. Although Le Bon’s work lacks empirical evidence it was hugely influential on crowd behaviour and the role of anonymity in understanding the psychological dynamics of crowds. But as Reicher points out he exaggerates the violent and irrational nature of crowds. Deindividuation theorists can show evidence for loss of self and the relationship between anonymity and increased intensity of aggression, however as Deiner (1980) and Prentice-Dunne and Rogers show, deindividuation does not necessarily lead to a loss of self and anti-normative behaviour. Social identity theory provides evidence of the role of social identity in collective crowd actions that express group norms, but does not see the role of anonymity as a negative aspect of crowd relations. It would appear that further research is required to develop a more comprehensive theoretical model than can explain the relation between anonymity, and identity in group relations.

Word count: 1625


Dixon, J., Mahendran, k. (2012). Crowds In Hollway, W., Lucey, H., Phoenix, A., and Lewis, G. (eds). Social Psychology Matters (p.1-22). Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Stott, C. (2012). Assessment of the 2011 riots. Milton Keynes: The Open University.



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