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Anonymity and 'Loss of Self' in Crowd Theory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 1687 words Published: 11th Apr 2018

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  • Phillip Tyler

In locating and explaining the place of anonymity in the behaviour of crowds, and it’s association with a ‘loss of self’ (Dixon and Mahendra, 2012), an appeal must be made to crowd behavioral theory and evidence to support these theories. This paper will look to the history of the study of crowds, the process of de-individuation and the theory of crowds based on a theory of social identity to provide a picture of the place of anonymity in crowd theory, and the association with loss of self. The first instance of anonymity being a quality significant to crowd behaviour, can be found in the work of Le Bon.

Le Bon laid foundations for the psychological study of crowds with his 1895 text La Psychologie Des Foules, in which he described crowds in generally negative and unfavourable ways. He remarked on their tendency towards impulsive behaviours, to become easily irritated and their seeming inability to use reason to decide action (Le Bon, 1896). This last quality was among the most important for Le Bon, as he believed that the crowd lost any individuals’ rationality and, therefore, could not be rational in itself. Instead, there existed a ‘group mind’ that the individual became a part of, and this experience brought to the fore deeply hidden tendencies for aggression, leading to similarly aggressive actions, all of which was made possible by the removal of the rationality of thinking actions through to their consequences. The crowd was highly open to emotional and ideological suggestion, with sentiment able to move through the crowd swiftly as if such things were contagious (Dixon and Mahendra, 2012). All this was made possible by the key feature of anonymity. Actions could be performed without thought for consequence because it was the crowd, and not the individual, performing the action; the individual remains unseen or anonymous, and hence defers responsibility for said action from them personally, to the crowd. For Le Bon, anonymity and loss of individual self were clearly and strongly associated, as when becoming part of the group the individual gave up their individuality.

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Le Bons work was based largely on distanced observation and his work was unsupported by evidence as would be required by modern psychology. He also had little experience of being in a crowd himself, this coupled with his belonging to a higher social class, could have led to his negative outlook on crowds. Though, it is mostly the lack of evidence that makes Le Bons case for anonymity less convincing, his was a stepping stone for other theorists and researchers to take the quality of anonymity on to sturdier ground.

Anonymity was defined more clearly by Festinger, Pepitone and Newcome in 1952 as a reduction in the individuals perceptions that they are, personally, being noticed and evaluated for responsibility for actions performed (Dixon and Mahendra, 2012). This sense of anonymity was key to their theory that claimed that this reduced perception allowed an individual to stop seeing themselves as singular, but more immersed in the group, which then led to a group or crowd being able to be more uninhibited and impulsive than any one individual, a process they called deindividuation. This theory replaced Le Bons and was able to be formalised for the gathering of evidence by stating requirements for deindividuation to occur, measuring psychological changes in people in the deindividuated state and observing changes in behaviours. The association with loss of self can also be seen here, as the individual stops seeing themselves as singularly responsible, and part of something larger.

Zimbardo (1969) put forward that the individual feels less morally culpable for any harm the group may cause. It is for this reason – that each member of the group feels less responsible for the actions of the group as a whole – that more violent and aggressive behaviour is sometimes exhibited (Dixon and Mahendra, 2012). Zimbardo found that participants in a scenario where some wore masks and cloaks to hide their appearance, gave higher electric shocks to other participants, than those with their appearances un-masked (Zimbardo, 1969). Robert Watson (1973) found that those involved in violent clashes with other groups, who had first altered their appearance with masks or paint, perpetrated more acts of heightened and prolonged violence than those that did not. Some research seeks to take measurements other than violence or aggression as a measure of the effects of anonymity.

Participants in a darkened room took to feeling more intimate towards one another other as was evidenced by their conversation, touching and feelings of sexual arousal (Gergen, Gergen and Barton, 1973), over participants in a non-darkened condition. This experiment shows that aggression isn’t the only possible outcome of anonymity, and may not be an inevitable one. The anonymity provided by the darkness allowed for curiosity to develop, producing the conversation of a more serious and intimate nature than the other condition produced, allowing for the possibility that it’s the context of the crowd plus anonymity, rather than anonymity on its own, that influences crowd behaviour (Dixon and Mahendra, 2012). When general social rules are not applicable, such as meeting strangers in the dark, curiosity rather than aggression was the response. This may still represent a loss of self, though not a negatively focused, aggressive or violent one. The loss of self in this example could be seen as a dropping of usual personal inhibitions, then cued by the context of the crowd to pursue personal conversation rather than the violence seen in the previous examples. If violence is the measurement taken by the experiment, then that feature is present in the crowd context and taken up by deinvididuated participants, when this is not the case, participants are not naturally violent.

When masked and told to administer electric shocks to participants, those dressed as Ku Klux Klan members did so with marginally more intensity than those in unmasked Ku Klux Klan costumes. Though, those dressed in nurses uniformed did so significantly less, when masked, compared to unmasked nurses, and both KKK groups (Johnson and Downing, 1979). This suggests, quite strongly that there is a loss of self that comes with anonymity, but that the contextual cues taken by participants , for example, from being dressed as part of a group who’s associated qualities involved caring and compassion, are significantly important. If anonymity and a mask produced more violent behaviour in KKK costumes than unmasked, it does follow that there is to be an increase in caring and compassion from those dressed as nurses, in the masked versus the unmasked condition, because the participant relies on the qualities of the group they are associated with, and it’s these qualities that become exaggerated. This may be a loss of self through anonymity, but in becoming part of the group, the groups social identity cues become guides for behaviour.

An alternate view to the way deindividuation theory looks at crowd behaviour is to say rather than becoming part of a group mind, or losing one’s rationality to the crowd through anonymity, crowds are made up of people with similar, if broader, social identities, and that these identities are exaggerated, or brought to the fore, by being a member of this group. Football matches are a good example.

People who may have nothing else in common, but support the same football team, for example, may act in unison as a group when at a football game, as the contextual cues bring these in-group qualities to the fore. Anonymous in a crowd in a football stadium and identifying with the social context, rather than losing one’s self, crowd members act according to their social identity. It is this social identity that provides guidelines for behaviour, rather than being the cause of breakdown of all social rules, leading to violent or aggressive behaviour (Dixon and Mahendra, 2012). Motivated by the context to act in ways approved by in-group values and to demonstrate in-group membership, behaviour can sometimes be predicted more accurately because the individuals desire to remain as part of the in-group means they tend to adhere more to in-group behavioural norms. Adhering close to ones social identity, when in a social setting, does not necessarily represent a loss of self, as the qualities being displayed are part of the individual as a whole, it is simply the context they are in that bring them to the fore.

When viewed from an outsiders point of view, crowd behaviour seems to include an inevitable loss of self, stemming from the individuals experience of anonymity that leads to aggression and violent tendencies in behaviour. When violence is not the measurement taken, other outcomes are shown that include intimacy and conversation. The view of social identity theory is that individuals in crowds do not necessarily experience a loss of self, rather it is that social identity informs behaviour and in-group values and behavioural norms are more likely to influence behaviour of the group than individual identity.


Dixon, J., and Mahendra, K. (2012) ‘Crowds’ in Holloway, W., Lucey, H., Phoenix, A. and Lewis, G. (eds) Social Psychology Matters, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Festinger, L., Peptone, A. and Newcome, T. (1952) as cited in Dixon and Mahendra (2012) p6.

Gergen, K., Gergen, M. and Barton, W. (1973) as cited in Dixon and Mahendra (2012) p10.

Johnson, R. D. and Downing, L. L. (1979) as cited in Dixon and Mahendra (2012) p8.

Le Bon, G. (1896), as cited in Dixon and Mahendra (2012) p5.

Watson, R. I. (1973) as cited in Dixon and Mahendra (2012) p8.

Zimbardo, P. G. (1969) as cited in Dixon and Mahendra (2012) p6-7.


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