How Might de-Individuation Theory Explain the Looting Behaviour That Sometimes Accompanies Crowd Riots? What Are the Strengths and Limitations of This Kind of Approach to Understanding Collective Behavior?

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How might de-individuation theory explain the looting behaviour that sometimes accompanies crowd riots? What are the strengths and limitations of this kind of approach to understanding collective behavior?

This assignment will look at what de-individuation theory is and how this could explain looting behaviour that sometimes accompanies crowd riots. We will investigate research into de-individuation and how the theory has developed from Le Bon’s original work. Moving on to explore how the research supports de-individuation theory in relation to looting behaviour and how evidence from a social identity theory viewpoint would counter act this. Under lying interrogative themes such as power relations will be discussed as to how these also link into the riots and collective behaviour, before examining evidence that crowds / collective behaviour is not necessarily a negative thing and could go some way to explaining collective behaviour. Subsequently re-capping and tying in the evidence and evaluation to summarise into a conclusion.

De-individuation as defined by Festinger et al (1952) is a process where the individual immerses themselves into a group they no longer view themselves as individuals, causing a psychological shift toward anonymity within the group. This anonymity depending on the demands of the situation leads to disinhibited and impulsive behaviour (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012). From this definition de-individuation theory would explain the looting behavior that sometimes accompanies crowds from the respect of individuals becoming anonymous in a crowd. In becoming anonymous research has identified that as an individual believes that they become less responsible for their own actions essentially the mentality that “if everyone else is doing it it’s ok”, aggressive behavior would increase however in this case it is being related to looting behavior rather than aggressive behavior (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012).

Zimbardo a psychologist particularly interested in how anonymity related to aggression looked at Festinger et al work and conducted several of the best known experiments on the back of this. Zimbardo (1969) conducted an experiment with female university students where he split them at random into two groups, one group remained in normal clothing and issues with name tags where as the other group were given hoods and cloaks to hide their identity. The task was for each of the two groups to take it in turns to play teacher who would punish the pupil with a shock when they made a mistake and the pupil that was making the mistake. Zimbardo’s results indicated that when the cloaked and hooded ‘teachers’ were administering the shocks they were for longer than the named ‘teachers’, therefore consistent with the opinion that anonymity increases aggression. Zimbardo’s experiment would support the de-individuation that would explain looting behaviour that sometimes accompanies crowd riots. This would very much also sit with the interrogative theme of power relations as the ‘teacher’ role whether hooded and cloaked or not would still evoke a higher level of power than the pupil.

Anthropologist Watson (1973) study analysing behaviour highlighted that combatants that used war paint or masks were more likely to act more brutally than those who did not. Silke (2003) also found that paramilitary attacks carried out in Northern Ireland were also more severe where the offender’s identity was masked in some way. Zimbardo’s, Watson’s, and silke’s studies all support de-individualisation theory and this could certainly be applied to crowd aggression and linked to looting behaviour within a crowd. However it does not take into why the crowd riot started in the first place.

If examining why the riot started in the first place you could explore Social Identity Theory, rather than the individual losing their identity their individual beliefs would come together within a collective group. Looking at...
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