What Is Deindividuation (And How Can Online Therapy Help?)

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams
Updated December 14, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you heard of "mob mentality?" Most people might know the phrase but don't know that there's a generally regarded psychological term for it: deindividuation. The term is used by many to refer to how people in a group can lose their sense of identity, possibly causing them to behave in ways they normally wouldn't as a result.

Often, it can result in “innocent” crowd-oriented behavior—but not always. The more serious results of deindividuation can include anxiety disorder formation and co-dependency, to name a few. 

Deindividuation can be a serious and dangerous issue for some unless you know what to watch for. Read on to learn more about the condition and possible supportive strategies that can help. 

What's Deindividuation?

Your identity is generally a core part of who you are. It can include your self-awareness, your thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. Self-awareness, in this context, is defined as being aware of yourself in relation to your standards. It's knowing your character, your morals, and your desires—all of which can be significant factors to consider as you continue to define your personhood. 

With this in mind, deindividuation generally refers to an occurrence in which a person becomes part of a crowd or group and begins to lose their individual identity as a result. For example: They might become less aware of themselves and who they are as an individual.

The more the person becomes involved in the group, the less self-awareness they may have, which includes a possible loss of ownership and awareness of their morals, character and beliefs. These qualities, then, might start to be replaced by the identity of the group. The individual may then begin to take on the morals and character that is held by the group as a whole, for better or for worse. 

For example: Think of being surrounded by fans at your favorite team's home game. Everybody's likely yelling, some people might be thumping their chests, and you might find yourself jumping up and down. You might not exhibit these behaviors if you were standing there by yourself. However, being a part of the crowd might carry you away from your personal identity, possibly leaving you to feel free to do things you normally wouldn't.

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In some cases—like the game scenario above—acting differently in a group is not necessarily a “bad” thing, as long as you are able to remain aware of your own core values and beliefs. 

Examples Of Deindividuation

Classic examples of deindividuation can include the formation and operation of gangs, cults and large mobs of people who are unified by a governing set of beliefs or a code of conduct. The military is also generally thought to use elements of deindividuation as part of its training regimen, encouraging unified movement and thought. 

There are several examples of research that has been done regarding deindividuation and group dynamics. For example: In 1971, a psychologist by the name of Philip Zimbardo had been documented conducting an experiment to test the impact of deindividuation. 

In one of his experiments, he split up a group of male students from Stanford University. Half of them were to act as prisoners and the other half were to behave as guards. The experiment was to last for two weeks, and everyone was told to play the role in their assigned group. 

However, the time frame had to be cut short and the experiment stopped after only six days. Many have found that this was because the guards had ended up grouping up—which resulted in many treating the prisoners so badly that they could not continue with the activities. 

This study on group dynamics became known to many as the Stanford Prison Experiment

We also can see group dynamics shift in many historic examples of mass looting after traumatic weather events. Take, for example, the time period that occurred when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana. The devastation was thought by many to “shut down” the city, and mass looting followed. 

People weren’t just looting essential supplies either; many videos from helicopters were able to capture images of people walking out of stores carrying televisions, tech, and just about everything else you can think of. 

Many might agree that most people wouldn't normally engage in such activity in their own individual sphere of existence, but during this crisis, it became a common event in many areas. Many believe that this may be because people didn't feel they would be held responsible for their actions, so they crossed a line they might not have otherwise to satisfy their own motives or needs.

The Dangers Of Deindividuation

While there are some positive situations that can come as a result of deindividuation, it can often be dangerous for those who are affected. This causes many to ask the question: Why do people engage in behavior that they might know is wrong?

There are several reasons why this can occur. We’ve summarized them below: 

  • People might loosen their self-restraint in a group setting. They might feel empowered to seek and join a crowd mentality, which can prompt many to begin to act in the way the crowd is acting. In this context, people may not choose to focus on the morality of a given situation. Rather, they might begin to adopt the behaviors and attitudes of the groups that they are with, regardless if such things align with one’s personal morals. 
  • When acting as a crowd, people might feel that they cannot be found. This feeling can give them a sense of invisibility to act in ways they might not normally behave.
  • There might be an attitude of diffused responsibility in a group setting. When acting as a group, people might get the feeling that responsibility is spread out among others, possibly empowering them to take behavioral risks if they don’t believe that they will be personally at fault. This can also encourage them to take less responsibility for their own actions, especially if they don’t believe that the consequences will be as drastic.
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How To Reduce The Effects Of Deindividuation

Know Who You Are

The first step for many when it comes to reducing deindividuation is to help people be (and remain) self-aware. If you are going somewhere with a large group of people, for example, you might take a moment and think through what your morals and values are. It can be helpful to know what you stand for and where the line is you you might be unwilling to cross. 

If you are in a situation and feel yourself starting to get caught up in the energy of the crowd, you might consider removing yourself from the situation before you start to experience a change in your behavior. You can also remind yourself that you can be responsible for your behavior, regardless of how many other people are doing the same thing. 

Focus On The Individual (Whether It’s You Or Someone Else) 

If you are trying to help reduce the effects of deindividuation in your life (or someone else’s), a helpful first step can be to encourage them to focus on their individual identity. 

To begin, you might talk directly to them and address them by name. You can then begin to look for helpful strategies that make them (or yourself) more self-aware. You can then talk to them about their specific activities and what they're doing, possibly focusing on the actions’ impact on other people. 

Seek Support Through Therapy

If you believe you're experiencing the effects of deindividuation, working one-on-one with a therapist can help you get to the place where you have more self-awareness—possibly helping you to discover who you are. A therapist can also help you to forgive yourself and take correct steps to move forward from any past behaviors that might have been done as a result of deindividuation.

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Online Therapy With BetterHelp: How Can Online Therapy Support Those Experiencing Deindividuation? 

If you or someone you know is experiencing this, it can be important to seek the help of a trusted professional. However, this may be easier said than done for many, as the very prospect of outside support can feel overwhelming at times. BetterHelp offers convenient availability to online therapists who are ready to help you regain your awareness of self and keep control of it, even when in a large crowd.

Is Online Therapy Effective?

Online therapy has become increasingly popular across many social groups over the last few years, but researchers have been gauging its flexibility for some time. Veterans are actually one of the most common populations to have been studied, many of whom may have been specifically seeking support for deindividuation and its effects. 

The New York Times recently ran an article about online therapy and cited two different studies where veterans were split into two groups: one group did traditional in-person therapy, and the other group did online therapy. Both studies found information that suggests that both types of therapy are equally effective.

Takeaway

Knowing who you are and what matters to you can be important concepts to keep in mind as you work to avoid the dangers of deindividuation. Therapy can be a helpful tool to possibly assist you in establishing your sense of self-awareness. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.

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