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The place of anonymity in theories of crowd behaviour

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All social psychology theories agree that being part of a crowd alters human psychology however, they differ on where they believe this alteration is situated. Early work of Le Bon laid the foundations for later deindividuation theories suggesting that being part of a crowd leads to the loss of self. It suggests that people follow crowd behaviour mindlessly, often displaying uncontrolled and/or violent behaviour. The group provides a degree of anonymity and therefore accountability, responsibility and culpability are all diminished.

Deindividuation (loss of self), is criticised by the Social Identity Theories (SIT) for ignoring the social, cultural and individuality of the self, suggesting that people act as individuals within a crowd and are brought together with a common social identity, different identities bring with them different norms of social conduct. This essay aims to address the place of anonymity within these theories of crowd behaviour and explore whether anonymity is always associated with a loss of self.

Taking a look at the origins of the deindividuation concept, Le-Bonn put forward the idea of a group mind. He suggested that the loss of self was a result of individuality being taken over by the dynamics of the group. He used the term contagion to describe the primitive, unconscious, aggressive behaviour displayed in crowds. He suggested that, facilitated by the crowd, these primitive emotions transfer from person to person and that the individual becomes anonymous, lost in the basic features of the crowd and less responsible for his/her own actions.

The theory of the group mind was to become less favourable by later research into deindividuation who, while keeping with the theme of crowds and violence, suggested that crowd violence was more associated with diminished moral responsibility and culpability which would inevitably make crowd violence more likely. Le-Bonn’s negative contagion concept was furthered by the research of Freedman and Perlick (1979) who showed that group contagion was not always a bad trait. They carried out a study on contagious laughter and found that positive moods and laughter are just as likely to spread within groups as aggression.

Deindividuation theorists suggest that the loss of self is a result of crowd behaviour which encourages people to act in aggressive and impulsive ways. Festinger et al suggest that people cease to view themselves as individuals and anonymity is a result of the reduced perception that they are individually noticed. This in turn leads to impulsive behaviour which fits with the current situation, this notion will be revisited later when we cover the topic of the London riots. His stance is that diffusion of responsibility accompanies deindividuation which feeds the notion of anonymity.

Other theorists argue that anonymity does not always lead to deindivduation, and suggest that it only occurs when an individual’s attention is distracted from the self (for example when disguised – robbers wearing balaclavas). It is argued from this perspective that it is only when an individual loses sight of the self that impulsive, aggressive behaviour is demonstrated. Deiner’s and Prentice-Dunn and Rogers’ acknowledge anonymity but suggest that it is not the sole cause of behaviour change and other areas such as arousal, external factors and social cohesion all lead to the loss of self, diffusion of responsibility and a lack of concern for social evaluation. These factors lead to impulsive, sometimes aggressive behaviour and distorted perception. But is anonymity always at the heart of group behaviour and is group behaviour always aggressive?

Zimbardo’s (1969) experiments explored the links between aggression and anonymity by randomly dividing a group of female students into two groups. One group retained their identities by wearing ordinary clothes and wearing name tags, while the other group wore hoods and gowns to hide their identities. Asking both groups to take the role of ‘teacher’ and administer electric shocks to learners who answered incorrectly, results showed that the hood and cloak group administered shocks for significantly longer than the identifiable group, indicating a link between anonymity and aggression. Further research has shown an increase in brutality correlates with increased size of crowds and the altering of appearances (disguises).

Zimbardo’s work was later replicated by Johnson and Downing (1979) with a slight deviation. Groups were asked to wear either Ku-Klux Klan robes or nurses uniforms. The results of this experiment, did indeed show an increased level of aggression within the Ku-Klux Klan group, however, the disguised nurses demonstrated significantly less aggression, suggesting that anonymity does not necessarily produce negative behaviour and deindividuation may lie in the social norm of a particular group, rather than a loss of self, which brings us to the Social Identity Theory (SIT).

Rather than seeing crowd behaviour as a loss of self and a negative aggressive process, the SIT highlights the role that crowds play in empowering communities, challenging social injustices and expressing collective values. From this perspective, individuals are not seen as losing their sense of self, rather acting within a crowd in a way which fits their social identity. It sees members as identifying with the crowd, rather than becoming lost within it, resulting in more socially constrained behaviour than in other social contexts.

The view of the SIT on crowd behaviour is a more positive expression of social identity in promoting feelings and views of the people as a whole, which has structure and direction, rather than (as suggested by deindividuation) spontaneous acts of mindless, rowdy aggression. Rather than ‘contagion’, as suggested by Le-Bonn, SIT uses a concept of inductive categorisation, suggesting that members of the crowd conform to the social norms of the group. Take for example football fans singing, conformity spreads between the social group in a spontaneous but socially coordinated manner, rather than the act being unorganised and primitive.

There are also differing psychological views surrounding the causes of the recent riots in London and the influence of power relations over crowd behaviour. Between the 6th and 10th August 2011, rioting and looting started in London and then spread to different parts of the country. Riots began when a peaceful demonstration was met by the riot police. One of the demonstrators was struck by a police officer which turned the peaceful demonstration into an anti police riot. News of the unfairness of the police spread to other parts of the country as did the rioting and looting. Prime Minister David Cameron described the events as ‘criminality pure and simple and there is no excuse for it’. Scientific experts were invited by the media to give their opinion on the recent events. Jack Levine, a professor of sociology and criminology explained that in crowds, people ‘abandon their sense of personal identity and lose all sense of individual responsibility’, this would support the deindividuation concept.

Epidemiologist Gary Slutkin likened ‘groupness’ to a virus that infects the mind and causes ‘a collective communal group-think motivated violence’, not dissimilar to Le-Bonn’s group mind theory. From a SIT perspective, Steve Reicher and Cliff Stott challenged both of these offerings in favour of the notion that ‘it takes two to start a riot’. They argue that it is not a loss of identity or anonymity which causes the violence, rather a switch of social identity as a reaction to current events. They also argue that the acts of destruction during the rioting were not anonymous and random, but were aimed at the police or institutions of authority and injustice. Reicher and Stott identified ‘a sense of grievance’ as one of the underlying causes of the London rioting which was enhanced by the absence of dialogue between local communities and the authorities immediately preceding the demonstration.

As is evident, social psychology has offered some very different perspectives on the subject of crowd behaviour, anonymity and the loss of self. Initially Le-Bonn suggested a group mind was responsible for less individuality, anonymity and culpability thus enhancing violent behaviour. Zimbardo’s experiments highlighted that anonymity can increase acts of violence but this was later challenged by Johnson and Downing, showing that anonymity did not solely affect acts of aggression but indeed worked the other way, suggesting that social conformity, not loss of self, was the more likely cause of behaviour within a crowd. This view is echoed by the SIT who view crowd behaviour as a positive, constructive expression of social identity, rather than mindless, uncalculated acts associated with the loss of self claimed by the deindividuation concept. From the evidence presented above it could be said that while the feeling of anonymity can come from crowd membership, it is not always associated with the loss of self.

I am not really sure what to expect from this module. I am guessing that social psychology focuses more on observing people than on processes within the brain, however, at residential school for DD303, I was told that I would have to dismiss everything I had learnt on DD303 because DD307 disagrees with it all, which doesn’t fill me with much confidence. Whether it does or not is not yet clear to me. My main hope is to make it to the end of the module and finally claim my degree, my main fear is that I will not last that long if chapters 2 and 3 are anything to go by. I really enjoyed chapter 1 of book 1 and was feeling a little better after reading the introduction to book 2 because the material in there seems relevant and interesting unlike the previous 2 chapters I have read but couldn’t actually tell you anything about.


Freedman, J.L. and Perlick, D. (1979) ‘Crowding, contagion, and laughter’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol 15, pp. 295-303

Johnson, R. D. And Downing, L. L. (1979) ‘Deindividuation and valence of cues: effects of prosocial and antisocial behavior’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 37, pp. 1532-8.

Zimbardo, P. G. (1969) ‘The human choice: individuation, reason and order versus deindividuation, impulse and chaos’ in Arnold, W. J. And Levine, D. (eds) (1969) Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, vol. 17, pp. 237-307.

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