Friday, July 06, 2007

Deindividualization and the Monster within Us

Norton Publishing has put together a sociology blog for college students, entitled, and they kindly asked (and are paying me) to contribute.

Here's my first post for them:

Right now, the Weekly Shopper sits on my coffee table. It’s a free weekly newspaper that contains advertisements for local businesses, usually with accompanying photographs of the smiling owners. It also has slice-of-life news stories with edgy headlines such as “families enjoy fishing derby” and “high school class graduates” and “new exhibit at library.”

What I like, however, is the section called “Speak Out.” Here people write in to express themselves about just about anything—from speed bumps to the war in Iraq.

What’s interesting about this section is that what people write can be, well, rather . A common theme is: “I am right and you’re an idiot,” as people write things they would not say in person.

Several weeks ago, someone wrote in suggesting that people should be required to pass a hearing test in order to receive a driver’s license (to make sure that they could hear sirens and horns honking). This week, however, a hearing impaired person wrote in to angrily denounce this suggestion. After citing his clean driving record, he scolded the previous writer: “How dare you… next time think before you make another comment that may offend someone.”
Another writer told of going to a local restaurant with her three-year old-son, who is autistic. When the child started to act out, the family next to them moved to a different table. How did the mother react? She didn’t say anything at the time, but instead she wrote in to “Speak Out” to castigate the family, concluding “you should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Another writer complained about her boyfriend spending too much time playing on his X-box. As she put it, “my boyfriend is sweet and everything, but if he gets his hands on that controller, forget it. It’s an all-night thing. What happened to spending quality time together?” What does she do? Instead of talking to him directly, she writes to “Speak Out” to warn him, and all men, that if they play too much X-Box that they will probably “lose their women.”

These types of no-holds-barred comments don’t appear only in small-town newspapers. A similar thing happens with student evaluations of professors. Now, I’m luck because I my evaluations are usually positive (and hopefully not just because I serve cookies during tests). However, some professors are hit pretty hard. Various websites, such as and, allow college students to rage against their professors. When students don’t like a professor—watch out, because they will say some wicked things. Here are some actual examples.

"If there is no way to get out of taking him I suggest that you bring a coloring book for something to do that is worthwhile. May I suggest a Spider-Man one."
"I swear, she must have gotten her degree out of a vending machine."
"Made about as much sense as a dissertation about world peace written by a chipmunk on speed."
"Avoid her like a hippy would a war."
And the comments don’t stop with teaching ability. They often address the professor’s personal characteristics:
"His facial hair makes him resemble the wolf dad in the movie Teen Wolf starring Michael J. Fox."
"His insanely colored polo shirts will blind you."

Why does this happen? While the rest of the Weekly Shopper is filled with small-town, apple-pie optimism, the Speak-Out section can be plain mean. College students may be unfailing polite to their professors in person, but they can take potshots in evaluations.

The answer has to do with the fact that both Speak-Out and the student evaluations are anonymous, and as such they invoke a social-psychological process called “deindividualization.” When we are anonymous, we feel that we can act without social consequences. If no one knows who we are, then we feel as though we are not responsible for what we do. We feel freed from social norms of behavior. We do things that we’d never do otherwise. Deindividualization strips away our social identity and frees us to act out our antisocial desires or to respond solely to situational cues. In fact, we don’t even need to be completely anonymous for deindividualization to work—being part of a group or in a uniform might be enough.

Deindividualization matters because it explains some of society’s most undesirable behaviors. The relative anonymity of driving a car can lead drivers to road rage. Large groups of people in a riot allow the individual to smash property and harm others. Hiding in the dark allows a rapist to assault a woman. Wearing uniforms allows prison guards at Abu Ghraib to abuse prisoners. Wearing costumes enable Ku Klux Klan members to promote racism while hiding their identities.

Deindividualization also shows us the power of groups to regulate behavior. Day-in and day-out we are extraordinarily civilized people. We walk into a classroom and quietly sit where we are supposed to. We buy coffee by standing in line, greet the cashier, and pay for it. We don’t punch people every time someone bothers us. We don’t just grab somebody’s cellphone just because we want it (though we might if it’s the new iPhone).

Why are we so civil? There are lots of reasons—socialization, habits, social control—but one reason is that if people know who we are, we act differently. Take away that recognition, that individualization, and we become a different person. Out comes our inner-monster.


Knumb said...

Great essay. Forgive me for dumbing down the conversation to movie quotes, but you made me think of one of my favorites from "Men in Black."

Will Smith's Character:
"Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it."

Tommy Lee Jones' Character:
"A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals. You know it."

S.S.Stone said...

This was excellent!! Thank you for posting it. Reminds me of halloween, people can pick whatever they want to be and act it out for the night.

Brad Wright said...

I love the quotation, John. That movie series has a lot like that.

Sarah, astute point... halloween is actually used as an example of deindividualization for the exact reasons you say.

Benjamin said...

Congrats!!! That is awesome!!! Getting paid to blog.... sweet!!!!

rahi said...

I would like to respectfully disagree with you on the section relating to professor rating sites as being bad. Do you not do your research before going out to eat in an expensive restaurant? For students and their parents, college is the most expensive investment. De individualization is not a very strong argument because survey and ratings are meant to be anonymous. You would never get correct results if the identity of these students were known. How about those evaluations that are given in class at the end of the semester? are they not anonymous also? yes they are. Thats how it works. Sure there are some irresponsible students who just want to skip their way through college...but there really are not many as hard as it may be for some to believe. Why do we have students going to Harvard instead of the local community college? The education is much much easier in a community college than it is in Harvard is it not? I just think that teachers let their personal emotions cloud their judgment towards these rating sites such as and . Teachers are simply upset because they can't sit around and do absolutely nothing and only present the slides that came with the book CD. If I wanted to see slides for an hour, I would just go to youtube and not pay thousands for a class.