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Social Psychology in the Public Interest

15 January, 2016 - 09:16

Deindividuation and Rioting

Rioting occurs when civilians engage in violent public disturbances. The targets of these disturbances can be people in authority, other civilians, or property. The triggers for riots are varied, including everything from the aftermath of sporting events, to the killing of a civilian by law enforcement officers, to commodity shortages, to political oppression. Both civilians and law enforcement personnel are frequently seriously injured or killed during riots, and the damage to public property can be considerable.

Social psychologists, like many other academics, have long been interested in the forces that shape rioting behavior. One of the earliest and most influential perspectives on rioting was offered by French sociologist, Gustav Le Bon (1841–1931). In his book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, Le Bon (1895) described the transformation of the individual in the crowd. According to Le Bon, the forces of anonymity, suggestibility, and contagion combine to change a collection of individuals into a “psychological crowd.” Under this view, the individuals then become submerged in the crowd, lose self-control, and engage in antisocial behaviors.

Some of the early social psychological accounts of rioting focused in particular on the concept of deindividuation as a way of trying to account for the forces that Le Bon described. Festinger et al. (1952), for instance, argued that members of large groups do not pay attention to other people as individuals and do not feel that their own behavior is being scrutinized. Under this view, being unidentified and thereby unaccountable has the psychological consequence of reducing inner restraints and increasing behavior that is usually repressed, such as that often seen in riots.

Extending these ideas, Zimbardo (1969) argued that deindividuation involved feelings of reduced self-observation, which then bring about antinormative and disinhibited behavior. In support of this position, he found that participants engaged in more antisocial behavior when their identity was made anonymous by wearing Ku Klux Klan uniforms. However, in the context of rioting, these perspectives, which focus on behaviors that are antinormative (e.g., aggressive behavior is typically antinormative), neglect the possibility that they might actually be normative in the particular situation. For example, during some riots, antisocial behavior can be viewed as a normative response to injustice or oppression. Consistent with this assertion, Johnson and Downing (1979) found that when participants were able to mask their identities by wearing nurses uniforms, their deindividuated state actually led them to show more prosocial behavior than when their identities were visible to others. In other words, if the group situation is associated with more prosocial norms, deindividuation can actually increase these behaviors, and therefore does not inevitably lead to antisocial conduct.

Building on these findings, researchers have developed more contemporary accounts of deindividuation and rioting. One particularly important approach has been the social identity model of deindividuation effects (or SIDE model), developed by Reicher, Spears, and Postmes (1995). This perspective argues that being in a deindividuated state can actually reinforce group salience and conformity to specific group norms in the current situation. According to this model, deindividuation does not, then, lead to a loss of identity per se. Instead, people take on a more collective identity. Seen in this way, rioting behavior is more about the conscious adoption of behaviors reflecting collective identity than the abdication of personal identity and responsibility outlined in the earlier perspectives on deindividuation.

In support of the SIDE model, although crowd behavior during riots might seem mindless, antinormative, and disinhibited to the outside observer, to those taking part it is often perceived as rational, normative, and subject to well-defined limits (Reicher, 1987). For instance, when law enforcement officers are the target of rioters, then any targeting of other civilians by rioters is often condemned and policed by the group members themselves (Reicher & Stott, 2011). Indeed, as Fogelson (1971) concluded in his analysis of rioting in the United States in the 1960s, restraint and selectivity, as opposed to mindless and indiscriminate violence, were among the most crucial features of the riots.

Seeing rioting in this way, as a rational, normative response, Reicher and Stott (2011) describe it as being caused by a number of interlocking factors, including a sense of illegitimacy or grievance, a lack of alternatives to confrontation, the formation of a shared identity, and a sense of confidence in collective power. Viewing deindividuation as a force that causes people to increase their sense of collective identity and then to express that identity in meaningful ways leads to some important recommendations for controlling rioting more effectively, including that:

  • Labeling rioters as “mindless,” “thugs,” and so on will not address the underlying causes of riots.
  • Indiscriminate or disproportionate use of force by police will often lead to an escalation of rioting behavior.
  • Law enforcement personnel should allow legitimate and legal protest behaviors to occur during riots, and only illegal and inappropriate behaviors should be targeted.
  • Police officers should communicate their intentions to crowds before using force.

Tellingly, in analyses of the policing of high-risk rioting situations, when police follow these guidelines, riots are often prevented altogether, or at least de-escalated relatively quickly (Reicher & Stott, 2011). Thus, the social psychological research on deindividuation has not only helped us to refine our understanding of this concept, but has also led us to better understand the social dynamics of rioting behavior. Ultimately, this increased understanding has helped to put more effective strategies in place for reducing the risks to people and property that riots bring.

Two aspects of individual differences in self-awareness have been found to be important, and they relate to self-concern and other-concern, respectively (Fenigstein, Scheier, & Buss, 1975; Lalwani, Shrum, & Chiu, 2009). Private self-consciousness refers to the tendency to introspect about our inner thoughts and feelings. People who are high in private self-consciousness tend to think about themselves a lot and agree with statements such as “I’m always trying to figure myself out” and “I am generally attentive to my inner feelings.” People who are high on private self-consciousness are likely to base their behavior on their own inner beliefs and values—they let their inner thoughts and feelings guide their actions—and they may be particularly likely to strive to succeed on dimensions that allow them to demonstrate their own personal accomplishments (Lalwani et al., 2009).

Public self-consciousness, in contrast, refers to the tendency to focus on our outer public image and to be particularly aware of the extent to which we are meeting the standards set by others. Those high in public self-consciousness agree with statements such as “I’m concerned about what other people think of me,” “Before I leave my house, I check how I look,” and “I care a lot about how I present myself to others.” These are the people who check their hair in a mirror they pass and spend a lot of time getting ready in the morning; they are more likely to let the opinions of others (rather than their own opinions) guide their behaviors and are particularly concerned with making good impressions on others.

Research has found cultural differences in public self-consciousness, with people from East Asian, collectivistic cultures having higher public self-consciousness than people from Western, individualistic cultures. Steve Heine and colleagues (2008) found that when college students from Canada (a Western culture) completed questionnaires in front of a large mirror, they subsequently became more self-critical and were less likely to cheat (much like the trick-or-treaters discussed earlier) than were Canadian students who were not in front of a mirror. However, the presence of the mirror had no effect on college students from Japan. This person-situation interaction is consistent with the idea that people from East Asian cultures are normally already high in public self-consciousness compared with people from Western cultures, and thus manipulations designed to increase public self-consciousness influence them less.

So we see that there are clearly individual and cultural differences in the degree to and manner in which we tend to be aware of ourselves. In general, though, we all experience heightened moments of self-awareness from time to time. According to self-awareness theory (Duval & Wicklund, 1972), when we focus our attention on ourselves, we tend to compare our current behavior against our internal standards. Sometimes when we make these comparisons, we realize that we are not currently measuring up. In these cases, self-discrepancy theory states that when we perceive a discrepancy between our actual and ideal selves, this is distressing to us (Higgins, Klein, & Strauman, 1987). In contrast, on the occasions when self-awareness leads us to comparisons where we feel that we are being congruent with our standards, then self-awareness can produce positive affect (Greenberg & Musham, 1981). Tying these ideas from the two theories together, Philips and Silvia (2005) found that people felt significantly more distressed when exposed to self-discrepancies while sitting in front of a mirror. In contrast, those not sitting in front of a mirror, and presumably experiencing lower self-awareness, were not significantly emotionally affected by perceived self-discrepancies. Simply put, the more self-aware we are in a given situation, the more pain we feel when we are not living up to our ideals.

In part, the stress arising from perceived self-discrepancy relates to a sense of cognitive dissonance, which is the discomfort that occurs when we respond in ways that we see as inconsistent. In these cases, we may realign our current state to be closer to our ideals, or shift our ideals to be closer to our current state, both of which will help reduce our sense of dissonance. Another potential response to feelings of self-discrepancy is to try to reduce the state of self-awareness that gave rise to these feelings by focusing on other things. For example, Moskalenko and Heine (2002) found that people who are given false negative feedback about their performance on an intelligence test, which presumably lead them to feel discrepant from their internal performance standards about such tasks, subsequently focused significantly more on a video playing in a room than those given positive feedback.

There are certain situations, however, where these common dissonance-reduction strategies may not be realistic options to pursue. For example, if someone who has generally negative attitudes toward drug use nevertheless becomes addicted to a particular substance, it will often not be easy to quit the habit, to reframe the evidence regarding the drug’s negative effects, or to reduce self-awareness. In such cases, self-affirmation theory suggests that people will try to reduce the threat to their self-concept posed by feelings of self-discrepancy by focusing on and affirming their worth in another domain, unrelated to the issue at hand. For instance, the person who has become addicted to an illegal substance may choose to focus on healthy eating and exercise regimes instead as a way of reducing the dissonance created by the drug use.

Although self-affirmation can often help people feel more comfortable by reducing their sense of dissonance, it can also have have some negative effects. For example, Munro and Stansbury (2009) tested people’s social cognitive responses to hypotheses that were either threatening or non-threatening to their self-concepts, following exposure to either a self-affirming or non-affirming activity. The key findings were that those who had engaged in the self-affirmation condition and were then exposed to a threatening hypothesis showed greater tendencies than those in the non-affirming group to seek out evidence confirming their own views, and to detect illusory correlations in support of these positions. One possible interpretation of these results is that self-affirmation elevates people’s mood and they then become more likely to engage in heuristic processing, as discussed in Social Cognition.

Still another option to pursue when we feel that our current self is not matching up to our ideal self is to seek out opportunities to get closer to our ideal selves. One method of doing this can be in online environments. Massively multiplayer online (MMO) gaming, for instance, offers people the chance to interact with others in a virtual world, using graphical alter egos, or avatars, to represent themselves. The role of the self-concept in influencing people’s choice of avatars is only just beginning to be researched, but some evidence suggests that gamers design avatars that are closer to their ideal than their actual selves. For example, a study of avatars used in one popular MMO role-play game indicated that players rated their avatars as having more favorable attributes than their own self-ratings, particularly if they had lower self-esteem (Bessiere, Seay, & Keisler, 2007). They also rated their avatars as more similar to their ideal selves than they themselves were. The authors of this study concluded that these online environments allow players to explore their ideal selves, freed from the constraints of the physical world.

There are also emerging findings exploring the role of self-awareness and self-affirmation in relation to behaviors on social networking sites. Gonzales and Hancock (2011) conducted an experiment showing that individuals became more self-aware after viewing and updating their Facebook profiles, and in turn reported higher self-esteem than participants assigned to an offline, control condition. The increased self-awareness that can come from Facebook activity may not always have beneficial effects, however. Chiou and Lee (2013) conducted two experiments indicating that when individuals put personal photos and wall postings onto their Facebook accounts, they show increased self-awareness, but subsequently decreased ability to take other people’s perspectives. Perhaps sometimes we can have too much self-awareness and focus to the detriment of our abilities to understand others. Toma and Hancock (2013) investigated the role of self-affirmation in Facebook usage and found that users viewed their profiles in self-affirming ways, which enhanced their self-worth. They were also more likely to look at their Facebook profiles after receiving threats to their self-concept, doing so in an attempt to use self-affirmation to restore their self-esteem. It seems, then, that the dynamics of self-awareness and affirmation are quite similar in our online and offline behaviors.

Having reviewed some important theories and findings in relation to self-discrepancy and affirmation, we should now turn our attention to diversity. Once again, as with many other aspects of the self-concept, we find that there are important cultural differences. For instance, Heine and Lehman (1997) tested participants from a more individualistic nation (Canada) and a more collectivistic one (Japan) in a situation where they took a personality test and then received bogus positive or negative feedback. They were then asked to rate the desirability of 10 music CDs. Subsequently, they were offered the choice of taking home either their fifth- or sixth-ranked CD, and then required to re-rate the 10 CDs. The critical finding was that the Canadians overall rated their chosen CD higher and their unchosen one lower the second time around, mirroring classic findings on dissonance reduction, whereas the Japanese participants did not. Crucially, though, the Canadian participants who had been given positive feedback about their personalities (in other words, had been given self-affirming evidence in an unrelated domain) did not feel the need to pursue this dissonance reduction strategy. In contrast, the Japanese did not significantly adjust their ratings in response to either positive or negative feedback from the personality test.

Once more, these findings make sense if we consider that the pressure to avoid self-discrepant feelings will tend to be higher in individualistic cultures, where people are expected to be more cross-situationally consistent in their behaviors. Those from collectivistic cultures, however, are more accustomed to shifting their behaviors to fit the needs of the ingroup and the situation, and so are less troubled by such seeming inconsistencies.