Deindividuation: Definition, Causes, & How to Overcome It

Ever been in a buzzing stadium where the crowd’s energy takes over, making you do things you wouldn’t normally do? Or joined an online group where you felt lost in a sea of voices, pushing you to be bolder?

That’s the mysterious power of deindividuation at play. Let’s dive in!

Key Takeaways

  • Deindividuation is a loss of self-awareness and personal identity, often leading to reduced self-regulation and heightened deviant behavior.
  • This phenomenon arises from factors such as anonymity, group size, and environmental cues.
  • Understanding deindividuation can provide insights into group behavior dynamics and help mitigate negative consequences.

What is Deindividuation?

Deindividuation is a phenomenon in social psychology where individuals lose their sense of self-awareness and personal identity, often resulting in reduced self-regulation and a heightened propensity to engage in deviant or harmful behavior.

This state typically occurs when people are part of a group or crowd, providing a sense of anonymity and immersion that weakens their personal accountability for their actions.

In simpler terms, when you're part of a group, you might be more likely to act in ways you normally wouldn't if you were alone.

Historical Perspectives

The concept of deindividuation has deep historical roots, with Gustave Le Bon, a French social psychologist, being one of the first to explore this phenomenon in the late 19th century. Le Bon’s work influenced many other researchers, including Sigmund Freud, who formulated his own theory on the topic.

In the 1950s, American social psychologist Leon Festinger made significant contributions to understanding deindividuation. He argued that anonymity and reduced cognitive dissonance in groups can lead to lessened self-awareness, resulting in the individual’s behavior becoming increasingly influenced by the group.

Philip Zimbardo, known for his Stanford Prison Experiment, also studied deindividuation. He suggested that the loss of individual identity and anonymity within a group can lead to decreased personal constraints against actions that would typically be considered unacceptable.

Experimental Research on Deindividuation

Festinger and the Study of Conformity

Imagine being with a group of friends, and all of them have a different opinion than yours on a topic. You might feel a push to agree with them just to fit in. This is somewhat what Festinger focused on in his studies. He wanted to understand why people sometimes change their behavior or thoughts to match those of a group.

Festinger found that when you are part of a group, there is a force that often makes you go along with what the group is doing or thinking, even if it is not what you truly believe. This is a kind of deindividuation because you are losing a bit of your personal identity to blend in with the group.

Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment

Picture yourself in a role-playing game where you take on a character very different from your real self. Philip Zimbardo carried out an experiment where he asked some people to play the roles of prisoners and others to play the roles of guards in a mock prison setting.

The result was astonishing. The people who played the guards started to show very harsh behavior, losing sight of their personal morals and values, acting in cruel ways they wouldn’t normally.

This experiment showed how powerful deindividuation can be, as people got so lost in their group roles that they forgot their individual principles and behaved in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Diener’s Halloween Study

Edward Diener utilized the festive setting of Halloween to delve deeper into human behavior. During the trick-or-treating ritual, he observed an intriguing pattern: children who were in groups and wore costumes that concealed their identities were more inclined to overstep boundaries, like taking more candies than allowed.

The combined factors of being in a group and having one’s identity hidden seem to imbue these children with a sense of anonymity. This feeling of anonymity, as observed, appeared to encourage behavior they might not typically exhibit when alone.

Diener’s study provides a thought-provoking glimpse into how group dynamics and concealment can influence and even alter one’s actions.

Causes and Mechanisms


When you feel like just another face in the crowd, it can change how you act. Being anonymous, whether in a large gathering or online, can lead to a sense of freedom.

Imagine you’re at a masquerade ball with a mask; you might feel liberated to behave in ways you wouldn’t typically. That’s because the mask, literal or metaphorical, shields your identity.

Practical Example: Online trolls in digital spaces often behave rudely or aggressively because they believe their true selves are hidden behind usernames.

Diffused Responsibility

Have you ever been in a situation where a task was given to a group, and everyone thought someone else would do it? This is a classic example of diffused responsibility.

When in a group, people often believe that the responsibility is spread out, so they don’t need to act or intervene. Think of a situation where someone needs help on the street; if you’re the only one around, you might feel more compelled to help. But if there’s a crowd, you might think, “Someone else will probably help them.

Group Size

It’s a bit like a drop in the ocean. When you’re in a small group, your individual actions stand out. But in a massive crowd? Not so much.

As groups get bigger, the collective identity starts to overshadow individual identities. You begin to feel less significant as an individual, making it easier to act in ways you might not usually.

Practical Example: You might scream or dance with abandon in a massive concert, while you'd be more restrained in a smaller, intimate gathering.

Altered Consciousness

Substances that alter consciousness play a dual role in deindividuation. Firstly, they can lower personal inhibitions, making you more susceptible to group influence. Secondly, they can amplify the emotions or impulses the group is collectively experiencing.

So, if you’re at a party and everyone is celebrating and drinking, alcohol might not only make you feel more euphoric but also more attuned to the collective joy of the crowd, leading to actions you might not take when sober.

Environmental Factors

Your surroundings can influence your sense of self. Darkness, for instance, can create a sense of invisibility or anonymity. Think about how you might feel more free to act out in a dimly lit club as opposed to a brightly lit office.

Uniformity, on the other hand, aligns with the idea of blending in. When everyone looks the same, whether in school uniforms or team jerseys, individual identities can fade, making you feel more a part of the collective.

Other factors like loud noises or intense visuals can also be disorienting, pushing you further towards group behavior.

Deindividuation and Behavior

Antinormative Acts

One of the intriguing phenomena witnessed in large gatherings is the emergence of antinormative acts. These are behaviors that deviate from what’s typically considered normal or acceptable.

For instance, you might observe someone becoming excessively boisterous at a concert or a sports event, even if they’re generally reserved. This is attributed to the anonymity that large groups provide.

Individuals often feel obscured or lost in the crowd when enveloped within such groups, giving them an illusionary shield of invisibility. This perceived anonymity can embolden people, leading them to behave in ways they wouldn’t ordinarily consider.

Moral Disinhibition

At the core of our individual behaviors, there’s an inherent moral compass that guides us. It’s the internal voice that discerns right from wrong and acts as a check on our impulses.

However, the phenomenon of deindividuation can muffle this voice, leading to what experts term “moral disinhibition.”

In the context of deindividuation, individuals may find themselves engaging in acts they would typically deem inappropriate or even immoral. It’s akin to the moral voice taking a brief hiatus, granting a window of opportunity for uncharacteristic behaviors to surface.

Role of Arousal and Accountability

Groups, especially large ones, possess an electric atmosphere. The collective energy, the cacophony of voices, and the sheer magnitude of being a part of something grand can be exhilarating. This heightened sense of emotion and sensation is referred to as arousal.

This pulsating energy, when combined with the aforementioned sense of anonymity, results in diminished feelings of accountability.

Essentially, if you feel like you’re just a face in the multitude, there’s a reduced sense of individual responsibility. When you pair this intoxicating mix of excitement and perceived invisibility, it can serve as a potent catalyst for impulsive and potentially regrettable actions.

Deindividuation in Groups

In Online Spaces

Online spaces such as social media platforms and message boards can facilitate deindividuation, as anonymity and physical distance lead to a decrease in self-awareness and personal accountability.

This can result in increased bullying and other harmful behavior as individuals feel less concern about repercussions.

Examples include:

  • Cyberbullying on social media platforms.
  • Harassment in online gaming communities.
  • Offensive or hateful comments on news articles.

In Gangs/Cults

Deindividuation plays a role in the formation and actions of gangs and cults. Members often feel a strong sense of belonging and become immersed in group dynamics, potentially resulting in:

  • Increased likelihood to engage in antisocial behavior.
  • Suppression of personal values and opinions.
  • Social loafing, where individual effort decreases in group tasks.

In extreme cases, this can lead to instances of violence, crime, and exploitation within these groups. To avoid falling victim to deindividuation in such contexts, maintain your sense of self, think critically, and seek external support when necessary.

Relevance of Groupthink

Imagine you’re in a team, and everyone seems to agree on a particular idea. You have a different opinion, but you don’t voice it. Why? Because sometimes, in groups, people feel pressure to conform and agree with everyone else. This is called ‘groupthink’.

When groupthink takes over, a team can make hasty or unwise decisions because no one wants to rock the boat. So, while teamwork is great, it’s also essential to remember to speak your mind and think critically.

Deindividuation Effects

You Lose Your Self-Awareness

When you are part of a large group, it’s easy to forget about your own personal rules and boundaries. You might find yourself doing things that you would never do if you were alone. This is because, in a group, you might feel less responsible for your actions.

You Might Follow the Crowd

Being in a group can sometimes make you just go along with what everyone else is doing. This could be good or bad, depending on the situation. For example, you might join in a fun dance at a party because everyone else is doing it. But, on the flip side, you might also end up doing something dangerous because you saw others doing it.

You Could Feel More Free

With many people around, you might feel a kind of freedom that you don’t feel when you’re alone. This freedom comes from the feeling that no one is watching you closely and you can do things without being judged.

You Might Act More Spontaneously

In a group, people often act more quickly and without thinking too much. This is because they feel less pressure to be perfect, and they might take actions that are more spontaneous and free.

You Could Experience a Change in Your Moral Values

When you’re in a group, you might notice that your ideas of right and wrong can change. This happens because the group’s ideas can influence you, and you might start to see things from the group’s perspective, even if it’s different from your own personal views.

Overcoming Deindividuation

Strategies for Individuals

  1. Enhancing Self-Awareness: Look in the mirror regularly or wear something that reminds you of your individuality. This helps you remember who you are, even in a crowd.
  2. Mindfulness Practices: These are techniques that help you stay present. Take deep breaths. Focus on the here and now. Remind yourself of your values and beliefs. Simple exercises can help you stay grounded and not get lost in the crowd.

Environmental Changes

  1. Lighting: Ever notice how you act differently in dim light? Brighter light can make people feel like they’re being watched. And when we feel watched, we tend to act more like our true selves.
  2. Reducing Anonymity: Wear name tags or introduce yourself. When people know who you are, you’re less likely to lose yourself.
  3. Varied Attire Instead of Uniforms: Wearing different clothes helps you stand out. When everyone looks the same, it’s easier to lose your sense of self. So, instead of matching outfits, try to be a bit different!

Leadership and Norm-Setting in Groups

Leaders play a big role in how groups act. If a leader sets good examples and reminds the group of the right behaviors, the group is more likely to act in good ways.

  1. Good Leadership: If you’re a leader, remind your group of the importance of each person. Encourage individual voices and ideas.
  2. Norm-Setting: Setting standards or ‘norms’ in a group helps everyone know how to behave. It’s like having a set of rules that everyone follows. This way, even in big groups, people can remember the right ways to act.

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Brenda Calisaan is a psychology graduate who strongly desires to impact society positively. She aspires to spread awareness and knowledge about mental health, its importance, and its impact on individuals and society.

She also has a passion for working with children and hopes to dedicate her career to positively impacting their lives.

Outside of work, Brenda is an avid traveler and enjoys exploring new experiences. She is also a music enthusiast and loves to listen to a variety of genres. When she's not on the road or working, Brenda can often be found watching interesting YouTube videos, such as Ted-Ed content.