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Anonymity and deindividuation

“The intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is the square root of the number of people in it, Terry Pratchett, Jingo

Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one, Charles MacKay

Kill a Gook For God, penned on helmet of a U.S. soldier in Vietnam.

Traditionally, deindividuation has been associated with crowd behaviour. It occurs in situations where anonymity and reduced self-awareness lead people to show dis-inhibited, violent, anti-regulatory, and irrational behavior. Examples are: the Klu Klux Klan, the Nazis, the Rwandan Genocide, and lynch mobs.

Gustave Le Bon in his book The Crowd, 1895, described the crowd as “It will be remarked that among the special characteristics of crowds there are several ― such as impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgement and of the critical spirit, the exaggeration of the sentiments, and others besides ― which are almost always observed in beings belonging to inferior forms of evolution — in women, savages, and children, for instance.” Needless to say that this last sentence is a great example of how literature also teaches prejudice.

The crowd

The crowd

Basically, deindividuation is the perceived loss of individuality, in other words, the loss of self awareness and individual accountability in a group. The self is lost, the identity is lost, there is no cognitive control anymore, but many people behaving intensely and impulsively. In other words, the collective becomes so powerful that it can transform almost anyone no matter what their personal values and characteristics are.

The presence of a large number of people diffuses the responsibility amongst the members of the group. Attention is focused outward, away from the individual. It leads to a mob mentality, that is, when the group is acting as one and no one seems to care or be thinking about consequences or outcomes. People do together what they would never do alone. It is “an exponential refraction of a common mindset that overrides individual choice and will.” People become more irrational and impulsive, so they are more likely to perform aggressive and violent actions.

There are a number of factors that lead individuals to this loss of self: alcohol and drugs, anonymity (for example, crowds that form at night under the cover of darkness or a file sharing service), diffusion of responsibility, arousal (a stirring speech, a mind-melting concert, etc.), sensory overload (when your senses are overwhelmed and you can’t process anything at that time, e.g., when you are surrounded by too much noise or exposed to many visual stimuli), group membership, a lack of contextual structure or predictability, the size of the group, etc.

Some authors argue that these individuals do not lack social values, classically defined as the absence of any restraints, disregard for the law, etc. They think that, in reality, the opposite happens, people identify with their groups. Thus, deindividuation is the assimilation of the group by the individual, it is the transition from a personal to a more social or collective identity. People feel, think, and act in ways that are consistent with the group's norms. The behaviour is completely rational and in line with group norms and specific situations, but may vary greatly from general social norms.

Virtual communication in the Internet provides the possibility, or may I say, the sense of anonymity. There are two points I want to make:

Evil triumphs, they say, when good men do nothing. Therefore, it is essential the heroic and good actions of men and women who work together and sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

A paradigmatic case happened to Kitty Genovese who was stabbed to death in 1964 outside her home in New York, by a serial rapist and murderer while many neighbours reportedly ignored her cries for help. Even though, the events of Kitty’s death are subject to dispute, many agree that many witnesses did not intervene or alert the authorities.

This case is called the bystander effect and it occurs because the group dilutes the responsibility of the individual, each person thinks that their intervention is not necessary because other people who are also present should intervene (relatives, police officers, etc.). This is more likely to occur under conditions of anonymity.

Many times people do not intervene because they fear the possible consequences of their actions, they are afraid of getting their fingers burned in the quarrel. Gangsters and rapists may be carrying some weapons and may turn them on the person who is trying to help the victim. It is a real possibility, isn’t it? “Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax was stabbed several times in the chest while saving a woman from a knife-wielding attacker.” However, the incredible part is yet to come: “Then he bled to death while dozens of people walked by ― one stopping to snap a picture of the dying man with his camera phone before leaving the scene,” HuffPost New York, December 13, 2013.

However, on other occasions, this threat does not even exist. This is the tragic case of a two-year-old girl, Yue Yue, who was left alone on a road in China. “Video footage shows the little girl crossing the road at Guangfo Hardware Market, without spotting the van approaching. […] The girl is hit by the van, which fails to stop leaving her lying on the road and dozens of people then drive or walk past the critically injured child without stopping to help her,” MailOnline, 20 October 2011.

It is also true that in our civilization where filing a lawsuit is relatively cheap, people fear that if they got it wrong and cause additional damage, they may be sued in court and be held accountable. This trend has actively discouraged some people from helping their neighbors because they are scared. It is a sad paradox that laws which should protect us all, scare off “good Samaritans” because they may end up being fined!

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