A recent flash mob that showed up in a Florida mall illustrates an oft researched phenomenon known as deindividuation. Just over 900 youths invaded a Florida movie theater at West Oaks Mall in Ococee. The youths all attempted to enter the theater at the same time and caused quite an uproar that resulted in at least two arrests. Lt. Paul Hopkins claims the kids caused more than a scene: "Kids show up with guns, shooting guns in the air, robbing people, stolen cars, drugs. That's a big concern to us."
Would these kids have acted the same if they were only with 4 or 5 other friends? Would any of these kids have acted the same way if they were alone at the theater? The recent events at the Florida mall illustrate an interesting phenomenon that explains the complexity of an individual's actions while 'participating' in a group. Deindividuation has been a source of topic for researchers like Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo. The results are not only surprising but also illuminate a concerning part of the human psyche. People, while in groups, are more than willing to violate valued ethics and morals. And the effects become more pronounced as the size of the crowd increases. Check out the video below of Penn State students turning over a TV van after Joe Paterno was ousted as head coach.
Deindividuation refers to a "loss of self-awareness and evaluation apprehension; occurs in group situations that foster responsiveness to group norms, good or bad." Such group norms refer to behavior that is deemed normal, or acceptable, within the particular group, although such norms may violate individual apprehensions. This phenomenon is able to explain the many complexities of group behaviors. Gustave Le Bon introduced his crowd psychology theory in The Crowd: a study of the Popular Mind. In his 1895 publication, the French psychologist theorized that individual personalities are dominated by the collective mindset of the crowd. Le Bon viewed crowd behavior as "unanimous, emotional, and emotionally weak" and the loss of the sense of personal responsibility caused people in crowds to engage in a mass delusion of sorts. As a result, individual accountability is lost within the mindset of the group and enables anyone to engage in extreme actions. Factors that contribute to deindividuation include anonymity and loss of personal control.
American psychologist, Leon Festinger, agreed with many of the assertions of group behavior made by Le Bon, but contended that the loss of the sense of self, or individuality, leads to the loss of control over internal or moral constraints. Famed researcher and architect of the Stanford Prison Experiments, Philip Zimbardo, built on Festinger's propositions and expanded the realm of factors that contribute to deindividuation, to include: "arousal, sensory overload, a lack of contextual structure of predictability, and altered states of consciousness. Zimbardo also suggested "the expression of normally inhibited behavior" may elicit both positive and negative consequences. Zimbardo has since published a book, The Lucifer Effect, which explains "how good people turn evil." Essentially, Zimbardo claims nearly anyone is subject to the perils of atrocious group behavior due to the alluring power of "situational forces." Zimbardo details the psychological underpinnings that helped create the abhorrent conditions in the Abu Ghraib prison, where prisoners were subject to incredulous torture.
Standing of the backs of research giants, like Zimbardo and Festinger, we are now able to understand the incredible power of situational forces, which contribute to flash mobs, riots, cults, and even genocide. We have a responsibility to understand the perils of group behavior lest we fall victim to the same circumstances. It should also be noted that any group is subject to deindividuation including riot police, the military, and police officers. Many claim the police that worked the Ferguson protests fell victim to deindividuation, such as the officer who threatened to kill journalists.
Below is a video of the riots that broke out in Ferguson after Officer Wilson was not indicted by a Grand Jury.