Deindividuation at work in schools

Thursday, 09 Feb 2023

The video footage of the Memphis Police brutalising (and ultimately killing) Tyre Nichols was horrendous and left me feeling numb. Initially, it may seem hard to imagine how or why people can revert to such animalistic behaviour showing little compassion - not to mention carrying out their role and duty in ways contrary to their employer, communal standards and expectations. Where was the voice of compassion - the (inner) voice saying to stop? There has been enough study on ‘mob’ or ‘crowd’ psychology to explain why this happens. Various theories have been posited over the years by a number of theorists to explain how mass psychology can take root in a society or within a group (see: Convergence theory / Emergent norm theory / Social identity theory / Deindividuation theory etc).

The Stanford Prison experiment (for one) of the 70’s is a reminder of how average ‘decent’ people can succumb to the tyranny of the group. Participants in this study were recruited from the local community with an ad in the newspapers offering male students who wanted to participate in a "psychological study of prison life." Volunteers were chosen after assessments of psychological stability, and then randomly assigned. 

‘Those volunteers selected to be "guards" were given uniforms specifically to de-individuate them and instructed to prevent prisoners from escaping. The experiment officially started when "prisoners" were arrested by real Pallo Alto police. Over the following five days, psychological abuse of the prisoners by the "guards" became increasingly brutal. After psychologist Christina Malachi visited to evaluate the conditions, she was upset to see how study participants were behaving and she confronted Zimbardo. He ended the experiment on the sixth day.’ (Wikipedia).

Related to this is the theory of the ‘bystander effect’ (often referred to as ‘bystander apathy’) which simply states that people are less likely to intervene and offer help to a victim when in the presence of other people. ‘If a single individual is asked to complete the task alone, the sense of responsibility will be strong, and there will be a positive response; however, if a group is required to complete the task together, each individual in the group will have a weak sense of responsibility and will often shrink back in the face of difficulties or responsibilities.’ (Wikipedia) 

So where is this going? There is a vast chasm of difference between what we saw on the video and what kids do at school but there is often a tenuous link. Kids’ moral compasses would generally not be so broken but group behaviours can often reveal an uncharacteristic act in the individual.  I often ask children to be ‘upstanders’ - that is, to speak out against bullying when they see it. To do so, requires courage - probably extraordinary courage in an order of magnitude unimaginable for a child. Is this realistic to ask children to do this? 

Deindividuation theory offers us one way to understand how individuals can act in ways that are well outside of their own conscience. Deindividuation is a state when you become so immersed in the norms of the group that you lose your sense of identity and personal responsibility. An individual relinquishes individual responsibility for actions and sees behaviour as a consequence of group norms and expectations. (Think of the way you may have behaved at a heated football match! Or the way children stand around chanting in unison that another child is ‘out’ in handball).   

Kids often do this - they seek first to blame others and/or the group and generally take little or no responsibility for their own actions or take no responsibility for their part in the act.  “He made me do it.” This is not uncommon but we have to keep doing all we can to encourage and reward courageous behaviour even if it reduces the person to a social pariah in the eyes of the group. 

My reaction - I am sure your reaction - to seeing Tyre Nicholls mercilessly beaten was as visceral as mine. Trying to comprehend this evil act requires some soul searching because these acts are perpetrated too often on hapless victims. I’d never suggest for one moment that acts as awful as these would be regular occurrences at schools, but the acts of bullying find succour and multiply when opposing voices are absent. Deindividuation makes it possible for others to join the gang so as to gain acceptance. Being a bystander is hard work - as a child can face social ostracism, however, it marks out the courageous child in ways that are especially praiseworthy. 

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