Explain the place of anonymity in theories of crowd behaviour. Is it always associated with a ‘loss of self’?
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. 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. (Dixon & Mahendran 2012) 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. (Dixon & Mahendran 2012) 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...
References: Dixon, J. & Mahendran, K. (2012) Social Psychology: Crowds, in Social Psychology matters, pp. 2 – 26, the Open University, Milton Keynes.
Hollway, W. (2012) Social Psychology: past and present, in Social Psychology matters, pp. 28 - 54, the Open University, Milton Keynes.
Stott, C. (2014) Podcast interview: Module Website, the Open University, Milton Keynes.
This will be my final module before completing my BSc in Psychology. I am really excited about finally completing my degree, but of course am also busy researching different master programme option. (Will I ever stop studying?!) Since I have a lot going on this year in my personal life, I am a little worried about completing all my assignments in the best possible way. I am hoping to do well in this module, as I know this will count a lot towards my final pass in the degree.
Since this is just the first TMA, I have only gotten a little taste of what social psychology is all about. However I have to say my first impression is very positive. It seems so much more applicable to real life than cognitive psychology is. I think social psychology contributes an enormous amount to psychology – it is about understanding interactions with people in day to day life. It is probably more difficult to research than cognitive psychology, because it is not so tangible. Cognitive psychology leaves room for many more quantitative experiments. These generally need much less time or resources to complete than qualitative research which social psychology needs.
It also appears like there are many different aspects of social psychology, and it is important to give voice to and explore what all the different theorists have to offer. However as with all topics in psychology this is evolving. Human behaviours and societal norms change, and with that social psychologists will be forced to revise their theories in a much more significant way than cognitive psychologist will have to. This module will give me the opportunity to see how social psychology has evolved in the last 50 years, and it would be fascinating to re-visit this topic in 20 years from now and see which theories are still relevant.
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