Crowd Psychology

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How might deindividuation theory explain the looting behaviour that sometimes accompanies crowd riots? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this kind of approach to understanding collective behaviour?

This essay considers how deindividuation theory might explain the looting behaviour that sometimes accompanies crowd riots by firstly defining the concept and evaluating some of the available evidence that seeks to validate its existence, and demonstrating how it might be applied to explaining the ‘looting behaviour’ in terms of how, when, and why it takes place.

The discussion naturally leads to the highlighting of strengths and weaknesses of the approach to understanding collective behaviour. In addition, reference is made to a contrasting approach, Social identity theory, in order to demonstrate ways in which an alternative approach might equally account for the behaviour.

Festinger et al. who proposed the concept of ‘deindividuation’ define it as ‘a process of immersion within a group such that members cease to view themselves as separate..[caused] [by]..anonymity..[leading] to disinhibited, impulsive behaviour that is responsive to the immediate demands of the situation’ (cited in Dixon et al., 2012, p.6).

They and others were inspired by the work of Le Bon who argued that ‘individual rationality is lost in crowds’ (cited in Dixon et al., 2012, p.5) and put forward a process he termed ‘contagion’ to explain how ideas and emotions spread through a crowd (Dixon et al., 2012).

A number of studies have examined the links between group immersion, anonymity, and behaviour outcomes with many focussing on ‘anti- normative’ behaviour, such as aggression. Zimbardo experimented with participants playing the role of teachers administering electric shocks to learners each time they made a mistake. Of the two groups involved, one wearing hoods and gowns without name tags, and a plainly clothed named group, the former administered shocks of far longer duration (cited in Dixon et al., 2012, p.8). Another study used stealing as its behaviour outcome and demonstrated that at Halloween whilst children were out trick-or-treating those within a group and unnamed showed higher levels of stealing than named individual trick-or-treaters (cited in Dixon et al., 2012, p.9).

Deindividuation theory might then explain how and when looting behaviour accompanying crowd riots takes place in terms of the contextual factors, group immersion and anonymity, which they would suggest leads to such anti-normative behaviour, due to individuals experiencing a loss of self-awareness causing them to act this way (Dixon et al., 2012). Whilst the studies outlined clearly show anti- normative behaviour to be intensified by such factors, they do not prove that they lead to it, hence we are left without an explanation of why.

Zimbardo’s argument that deindividuation is accompanied by a ‘diffusion of responsibility’ (cited in Dixon et al., 2012, p.7) is interesting to consider. In deindividuation terms looting behaviour might occur because ‘lost in a social group [individuals] feel less culpable for any harm…moral responsibility is psychologically distributed across the group’ (cited in Dixon et al., 2012, p.7). Although individuals may experience this altered sense of moral self-awareness, it might also be that individuals view potential punishment as being distributed across the group, and they might feel less identifiable within a larger group. Have individuals in this instance temporarily lost their minds, or are criminal opportunists involved? Without evidence for the former it cannot be assured that deindividuation has been experienced.

Research within the deindividuation tradition has largely overstated the negative in relation to collective behaviour (Dixon et al., 2012). In a study by Gergen, Gergen, and Barton anonymity and group immersion were instead shown to lead to an...
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