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Deindividuation, as described by Leon Festinger and colleagues in 1952, is the situation where anti-normative behavior is released in groups in which individuals are not seen or paid attention to as individuals. Simply put, deindividuation is immersion in a group to the point at which the individual ceases to be seen as such.



Festinger was the first to examine deindividuation in 1952. He saw anonymity as the central antecedent to the state of deindividuation. He also included reduced public self-awareness and self-evaluation as major contributors to the state of deindividuation. Later, Jerome E. Singer conducted a follow-up study in 1965 examining uninhibited and aggressive behavior in visually anonymous situations. He found that in those types of situations, people were more violent and aggressive, to which he attributed those actions to deindividuation. In 1970, Philip Zimbardo introduced his theory in which he outlined his model for deindividuation, which was based on his follow up studies to the Stanley Milgram experiments. His model explained deindividuation in terms of a kind of recipe. Deindividuation was created through a series of input variables (or “antecedents” as Festinger categorized them) which created a kind of inferential subjective change in the individual. After those changes occurred, the final product was the behaviors experienced by individuals in the group acting as an immersed member of the group.

The most recent model of deindividuation, the Social Identity model of Deindividuation Effects (SIDE), was developed by Russell Spears and Martin Lea in 1994. They outlined their model by explaining that social identity performance can fulfill two general functions:

  1. Affirming, conforming, or strengthening individual or group identities.
  2. Persuading audiences into adopting specific behaviors.

This model attempts to make sense of a range of deindividuation effects which were derived from situation factors such as group immersion, anonymity, and reduced identifiability. Therefore, deindividuation is the increased salience of a group identity that can result from the manipulation of such factors. The SIDE model is in contrast to other deindividuation explanations which involves the reduced impact of the self. Further explanations by Reicher and colleagues state that deindividuation manipulations affect norm endorsement through not only their impact on self-definition, but also their influence on power relations between group members and their audience.

Currently, a more integrated model is more widely accepted as the model for deindividuation. This model begins with the presence of a group. Most researchers agree that true deindividuation cannot develop without the presence and influence of a group. The group presence is then coupled with physical anonymity and social arousal. Social arousal refers to the situation surrounding the group, or the external cues to which people are responding (e.g.: a high stress or high anxiety situation, ambiguous situations, etc.) The decreased self-awareness is a rather large component of deindividuation because the individual is no longer thinking of their own actions and how those actions fit into their self concept, but rather focus on the group and how to fulfill their role within the group by complying to group norms. Diffusion of responsibility, another key element, occurs when the diminishing of self-awareness occurs to the point of where an individual no longer feels responsible for their own actions due to the fact that there are other group members they can share or place the blame and responsibility. It is at this point that deindividuation occurs where the individual is totally immersed within the group and no longer functions as an individual but as a group entity. This increases responses to the situation and leads to a loss of normal inhibition of behavior which may cause a person, acting with the group, to engage in anti-normative behaviors.


There are three widely-held perspectives as to how deindividuation affects the group dynamic:

1. Deindividuation weakens people against performing harmful or socially disapproved actions. Essentially, when a person is in the group and deindividuation occurs, the person is no longer acting as the individual. Therefore, what would normally inhibit the actions of a single person acting in a social setting and conforming to social norms is removed. The result is uninhibited behavior which may be harmful or socially disapproved actions (e.g.: looting, vandalism, gang assaults, etc.)

2. Deindividuation heightens peoples’ responsiveness to external cues, which may be either positive or negative. This responsiveness refers to the situation. In the case of looting, you may see others stealing desirable items and not receiving any punishment or negative outcomes. This may make you more compelled to join the group and engage in the behavior because you see others getting away with it and you believe you won’t be singled out just like they haven’t. This type of responsiveness may also be positive. For instance, you may walk into a party and see that others are sitting around, watching television, and having a drink. You will probably feel compelled to follow the group by taking a seat in front of the TV and grabbing a drink yourself. This makes you feel more at ease because you stand out less from the group.

3. Deindividuation increases people’s adherence to norms that emerge with the group. When deindividuation occurs, new norms are set as the standard for the group. This standard pushes people to conform to the social influence of the group instead of thinking individually about how to comply with social norms. This can be exemplified in gang activities such as vandalism. Even though it is against a societal norm (and the law, for that matter) to spray paint walls with offensive terms and symbols, the norm set for the group is that it is a typical and endorsed behavior which switches from “damaging property” to “creating artwork and marking the gang’s territory.” This emergence of new group norms often leads to group think, a phenomenon characterized by faulty decision-making in a group.

Classic research

  • Milgram (1962): Stanley Milgram's study is a classic study of blind obedience, however, many aspects of this study explicitly illustrate characteristics of situations in which deindividuation is likely to occur. Participants were taken into a room and sat in front of a board of fake controls. They were then told by the experimenter that they were completing a task on learning and that they were to read a list of word pairs to the “learner” and then test the learner on accuracy. The participant then read a word and four possible matches. If the confederate got the match wrong, they were to administer a shock (which was not real, unbeknown to the participant) from the fake control panel they were sitting in front of. After each wrong answer, the intensity of the shock increased. The participant was instructed by the experimenter to continue to administer the shocks, stating that it was their duty in the experiment. As the voltage increased, the confederate began to complain of pain, yelled out discomfort, and eventually screamed the pain was too much, even began to bang on the wall. At the greatest amount of voltage administered, the confederate stopped speaking at all. The results of the study showed that 65 percent of experiment participants administered the experiment’s final, and most severe, 450-volt shock. Only 1 participant refused to administer shocks past the 300- volt level. The participants, covered by a veil of anonymity, were able to be more aggressive in this situation than they possibly would have in a normal setting. Additionally, this is a classic example of diffusion of responsibility in that participants looked to an authority figure (the experimenter) instead of being self-aware of the pain they were causing or engaging in self-evaluation which may have caused them to adhere to societal norms.
  • Philip Zimbardo (1969): This study prompted Zimbardo to write his initial theory and model of deindividuation based on the results of his research. In one study, participants in the experimental condition were made to be anonymous by being issued large coats and hoods which largely concealed their identity. In contrast, the participants in the control condition wore normal clothes and name tags. Each participant was brought into a room and given the task of “shocking” a confederate in another room at different levels of severity ranging from mild to dangerous (similar to Stanley Milgram’s study in 1961.) Zimbardo noted that participants who were in the anonymous condition “shocked” the confederates longer, which would have caused more pain in a real situation, than those in the non-anonymous control group. This study motivated Zimbardo to examine this deindividuation and aggression in a prison setting, which is discussed in the next study listed.
  • Philip Zimbardo (1971): Now a more widely recognized study since the publication of his book, The Lucifer Effect, the Stanford Prison Experiment is infamous for its blatant display of aggression in deindividuated situations. Zimbardo created a mock prison environment in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology building in which he randomly assigned 24 men to undertake the role of either guard or prisoner. These men were specifically chosen because they had no abnormal personality traits (e.g.: narcissistic, authoritarian, antisocial, etc.) The experiment, originally planned to span over two weeks, ended after only six days because of the sadistic treatment of the prisoners from the guards. Zimbardo attributed this behavior to deindividuation due to immersion within the group and creation of a strong group dynamic. Several elements added to the deindividuation of both guards and prisoners. Prisoners were made to dress alike, wearing stocking caps and hospital dressing gowns, and also were identified only by a number assigned to them rather than by their name. Guards were also given uniforms and reflective glasses which hid their faces. The dress of guards and prisoners led to a type of anonymity on both sides because the individual identifying characteristics of the men were taken out of the equation. Additionally, the guards had the added element of diffusion of responsibility (see models above) which gave them the opportunity to remove personal responsibility and place it on a higher power. Several guards commented that they all believed that someone else would have stopped them if they were truly crossing the line, so they continued with their behavior.
  • Gergen (1973): In this study, six adult males and six adult females were left in a pitch black room for one hour. For the first 15 minutes "people explored the room, chatting idly to one another". From 15-45 mintues "talk turned to predominantly serious matters". For the final 15 minutes "participants began to get physical; half hugged each other, some became intimate. 80% reported feeling sexual arousal."
  • Diener, Fraser, Beaman, and Kelem (1976): In this classic study, Diener and colleagues had a woman place a bowl of candy in her living room for trick-or-treaters. An observer was placed out of sight from the children in order to record the behaviors of the trick-or-treaters. In one condition, the woman asked the children identification questions such as where they lived, who their parents were, what their name was, etc. In the other condition, children were completely anonymous. The observer also recorded whether children came individually or in a group. In each condition, the woman invited the children in, claimed she had something in the kitchen she had to tend to so she had to leave the room, and then instructed each child to take only one piece of candy. The anonymous group condition far outnumbered the other conditions in terms of how many times they took more than one piece of candy. In 60% of cases, the anonymous group of children took more than one piece, sometimes even the entire bowl of candy. The anonymous individual and the identified group condition tied for second, taking more than one piece of candy 20% of the time. The condition which broke the rule the least amount of times was the identified individual condition, which took more than one piece of candy only in 10% of cases.

Real-life instances

  • Abu Ghraib: Accounts of abuse and torture surfaced in 2004 regarding Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Several elements added to deindividuation in this situation. Soldiers initially came into a relatively ambiguous situation, not knowing who was directly in charge of each unit or of the prison as a whole. This made diffusion of responsibility easy and relatively widespread. In fact, as the soldiers stood on trial for their crimes, most claimed that if they had crossed the line, they would have expected a ranking officer to tell them it was wrong or stop them rather than self-evaluating their own behaviors. As Zimbardo also pointed out, there was an element of dehumanization of the prisoners (which was also was present in the Stanford Prison experiment) in that the soldiers stopped viewing them as individual human beings, but rather viewed them as “the enemy,” therefore deindividuating the prisoners. Added to the situation was a strong group dynamic and group cohesion fostered by the military mindset that soldiers act as a group, a family.
  • My Lai Massacre: On March 16, 1968 during the Vietnam War, American soldiers were responsible for murdering and sexually assaulting hundreds of civilian men, women, and children, believing that they were sheltering Vietnamese enemy in their homes or in secret hiding places. Similar to the situation at Abu Ghraib, these soldiers experienced deindividuation by the same elements of diffused responsibility and a strong group cohesion. As you can see, there was a creation of a new group norm (killing innocent people) which is in direct violation of a societal norm (killing is immoral and illegal), but that strong group dynamic made adherence to emerging group norms easier to comply with. Additionally, as with Abu Ghraib and the Stanford Prison Experiment, dehumanization of the enemy also created a deindividuated state.
  • American racism in the 1960’s: A more obvious example would the racism African Americans experienced during the Civil Rights Movement. Ku Klux Klan members would dress up in robes to hide their identity in order to engage in aggressive group behaviors which would normally be inhibited if performed individually without their identity hidden.
  • Nazis during the Holocaust: Yet another clear example of destructive and horrifying acts with which deindividuation plays a part. Aside from the distinct group cohesion, there was also the emergence of hostile group norms, so much so that they became societal norms because of the magnitude of the group. During the Nuremberg Trials, almost every Nazi official stated that they never felt personally responsible for the death and destruction of the Nazi regime because there was always someone above them who gave them orders and was in charge of their actions- an explicit definition of diffusion of responsibility.

Everyday examples

  • Police Officers
  • Gangs
  • Military
  • Fraternities/Sororities
  • Chat rooms/Blogging sites
  • Cults
  • Sports Teams

All of the examples listed above, with the exception of chat rooms and blogging sites, are groups in which strong cohesion and uniformity are encouraged where welfare of the group is stressed over welfare of the individual. In some instances, but not all, these groups are more prone to being deindividuated and engaging in negative behaviors (e.g.: fraternity hazing, vandalism, slander/gossip, etc.) New developments in research, discussed in the contemporary research section, have been examined regarding online communication and blogging. In this case, the “group” would be the internet community, in which it has become increasingly easier to be anonymous and deindividuated which lowers the threshold for inhibitions and sometimes leads people to do things they wouldn’t do if not concealed by the internet medium.

Reducing deindividuation

A poignant example of reduction of deindividuation comes from a scene in the novel by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird. In this story, Atticus Finch is assigned to defend a wrongfully accused African American man, Tom Robinson. Atticus decides to spend the night at the jail, fearing mobs may come and take justice into their own hands by storming the jail and taking Tom Robinson captive. Atticus was right: an angry mob of townsmen forms and comes to the jail, demanding Tom be given to them. Atticus tries to calm the men down, to no avail. Scout, Atticus' daughter came to the jail, to her father's surprise, and began to talk to the men. She pointed out one man, Mr. Walter Cunningham, and tells him that she knows his son and to tell him "hey" and that she was sorry for fighting with him earlier in the week. Afterward, Mr. Cunningham tells them to clear out and go home.

Without realizing it, Scout used key elements in her attempt to calm the men down, which are shown to help reduce deindividuation:

  1. Personal Responsibility. By picking Mr. Cunningham out of the group, he could no longer hide within the confines of the cohesive group, but was set apart as an individual who could decide his own actions.
  2. Self-awareness and Self-Evaluation. Scout caused Mr. Cunningham to evaluate his actions and become self-aware that those actions were not desirable to incorporate into his self-concept. Essentially, she forced him to check his own actions and reflect on his behaviors, and realize that his behaviors were wrong, therefore bringing him out of the group and making him aware that he was individual acting within the group.
  3. Identity. While it may seem obvious that identifying individuals would reduce deindividuation in a group, sometimes it is an overlooked element. Simply calling people by their name, recognizing individuals, and encouraging personal differences in a group can reduce harmful effects of deindividuation significantly.
  4. External cues. Many of the above examples have a common theme: the situation led otherwise "good" people to do perceivably "bad" things. Creating unambiguous, non-threatening, non-stressful, and non-distracting situations can help people think more clearly about their own actions instead of being tempted to be swayed by negative group norms.
  5. Humanization. Although not applicable to every situation, in situations like war or in prisons, sometimes people can place blanket terms on a group (e.g.: "the enemy," "a bunch of animals," "barbarians") which can lead one to stop seeing those members as individual people and therefore minimizing their negative thoughts or behaviors toward them.


For the most part, social science research in the area of deindividuation has tended to decrease over the years. However, some researchers are still examining the effects of deindividuation as well as personal and situational factors which may contribute to the development of this phenomenon.

  • Mullen, Migdal, Rozell (2003): The authors examined how self-awareness and social identity affected deindividuation and depersonalization. Participants were asked to complete measures of self-awareness and ethnic social identity, in the form of a questionnaire, while sitting in front of a mirror, while wearing a mask, after completing a family tree delineating their ethnicity, or simply fill out the questionnaire as a control condition. Their results found an increase in self-awareness and a decrease in social identity in the mirror condition, a decrease in both self-awareness and a decrease in social identity in the mask condition, and the family tree condition demonstrated a decrease in self-awareness and an increase in social identity. These results from the mask condition are particularly applicative to deindividuation research in that participants self-reported a decreased awareness and identity by simply wearing a mask when filling out a questionnaire.
  • Guerin (1999): Guerin examined the effects of social loafing and social facilitation on deindividuation, as there had not been a link previously connecting the three phenomena. An experiment was conducted in which participants worked on a brainstorming task of finding as many uses as possible for a brick. They were either identified by name not not (anonymous) on their answer sheet (both group and individual names), and were either in cohesive groups or working alone. Social loafing was measured by the number of uses of a brick that they listed; deindividuation was measured by the number of socially acceptable or socially unacceptable answers to uses of the brick. Participants who were individually identifiable overall produced a smaller percentage of socially unacceptable uses of a brick than those who were anonymous. Those who were in groups and were individually identifiable produced a marginally smaller percentage of socially unacceptable uses for the brick. Those who were in groups and who were individually anonymous produced a larger percentage of socially unacceptable uses of a brick.
  • Postmes and Spears (1998): The authors conducted a meta-analysis in which they analyzed sixty independent research studies which manipulated anonymity, self-awareness, and group size as a means of measuring deindividuation and anti-normative behavior. Their analyses showed that there was little support for the occurrence of deindividuated behaviors or the existence of a deindividuated state. Additionally, these results indicated that groups and individuals conform more to situation-specific norms when they are believed to be "deindividuated." The authors state that their research results were explained more adequately by situation-specific than by general social norms, which is inconsistent with deindividuation theory but in support of the social identity model of deindividuated effects (SIDE- see above model.)


  • Diener, E., Fraser, S. C., Beaman, A. L. and Kelem, R. T. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33(2), 178-183.
  • Festinger, L., Pepitone, A. and Newcomb T. (1952). Some consequences of deindividuation in a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 47, 382-389.
  • Guerin, B. (1999, September). Social behaviors as determined by different arrangements of social consequences: Social loafing, social facilitation, deindividuation, and a modified social loafing. Psychological Record, 49(4), 565-578.
  • Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. HarperCollins: 1960
  • Milgram, S. (1974), Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Mullen, B., Migdal, M., & Rozell, D. (2003, September). Self-Awareness, Deindividuation, and Social Identity: Unraveling Theoretical Paradoxes by Filling Empirical Lacunae. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(9), 1071-1081.
  • Postmes, T., & Spears, R. (1998). Deindividuation and anti-normative behavior: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 123, 238-259
  • Reicher, S. D. (1987). Crowd behaviour as social action. In J. C. Turner, M. A. Hogg, P. J. Oakes, S. D. Reicher, & M. S. Wetherell (Eds.), Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory (pp. 171-202). Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell
  • Singer, J., Brush, C., & Lublin, S. (1965). Some aspects of deindividuation: Identification and conformity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1(4), 356-378.
  • Spears, R., & Lea, M. (1994, August). Panacea or panopticon? The hidden power in computer-mediated communication. Communication Research, 21(4), 427-459.
  • Zimbardo, P. G. (1970). The human choice: Individuation, reason, and order versus deindividuation, impulse, and chaos. In W. J. Arnold and D. Levine (Eds.), 1969 Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (pp. 237-307). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Zimbardo, P. G., (1969). The human choice: Individuation, reason, and order versus deindividuation, impulse, and chaos. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 17, 237-307.
  • Zimbardo, P. G., (2007). The Lucifer Effect: understanding how good people turn evil. New York: Random House.

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