The Situationist

Archive for June 21st, 2007

Deindividuation and Seung Hui Cho

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on June 21, 2007

War 2

“Sure, this robe of mine doth change my disposition.”
~William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale

Phil Zimbardo, in his great book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, describes “how a simple change in one’s external appearance can trigger dramatic changes in overt behavior.” The term of art is “deindividuation,” and the evidence for its powerful effects is as strong as it is disturbing.

For instance, Zimbardo reports one Milgram-like experiment in which “women in the deindividuation condition delivered twice as much shock to . . . victims as did the comparison women” who were not anonymous. It didn’t’ matter what the deindividuated women had previously felt about their shock victims. Regardless, they “increased shock time . . . over the course of twenty trials, holding their finger down ever longer on the shock switch as their victims twisted and moaned right before them. In contrast the individuated women discriminated between . . . likable and unpleasant targets, shocking the pleasant woman less over time than they did the unpleasant one.”

Zimbardo also reports the findings of anthropologist, R.J. Watson who found that of twenty-three societies for which data was available, the warriors for those societies changed their appearance significantly in fifteen.

“They were the societies that were the most destructive: fully 80 percent of them . . . brutalized their enemies. By contrast, in seven of eight of he societies in which the warriors did not change their appearance before going into battle, they did not engage in such destructive behavior. . . . [Put differently,] 90 percent of the time when victims of battle were killed, tortured, or mutilated, it was by warriors who had first changed their appearance and deindividuated themselves.”

Why does this happen? Zimbardo attributes the change of behavior to the fact that deindividuation “creates a unique psychological state in which behavior comes under the control of immediate situational demands and biological, hormonal urges.” “With inner restraints suspended, behavior is totally under external situational control; outer dominates inner.”

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (see clip of 1990 video above) captured the effect of deindividuation when Jack puts on a mask, which transforms him and, in turn, his young cohorts, as he admired his creation in the water’s reflection:

[Jack] looked in astonishment, no longer at himself but an an awesome stranger. He . . . leapt to his feet, laughing excitedly. Beside the pool his sinewy body held up a mask that drew their eyes and appalled [the other boys]. He began to dance and his laughter became a blood-thirsty snarling. He capered toward Bill, and the mask was a thins on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness.

From that moment forward, of course, all hell broke loose. According to Zimbardo, there is, unfortunately, a large quantity of real-world evidence further demonstrating that deindividuation plays a significant role in encouraging or permitting particularly heinous behavior. That brings us to today’s news.

Seung Hui Cho

The increased ability to engage in brutal acts behind a deindividuating facade may have played some role in the Virginia Tech massacre. In today’s Washington Post, Sari Horwtiz has a fascinating piece on Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech student who, on April 16, shot and killed 32 students and faculty members and wounded 25 others. (For an NPR, Here and Now audio interview of Washington Post editor Mike Semel on this topic, click here.) According to investigators, Cho, among other things, radically changed his identity in the days and weeks leading up to the shooting. “Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives . . . think Cho mentally and physically tried to transform himself . . . before his rampage.” His identity modifications included:

  • When Cho was ready for his shooting spree, he wrote “I am Ax Ishmael,” an identity thought to be based on the biblical figure Ishmael, who lived as an outcast.
  • Taking pictures of himself in poses associated with other persons, including those where he mimics the appearance of Jesus Christ on the cross and where he depicts himself as a soldier.
  • Eliminating any traces of his identity as Seung Hui Cho from his computer, such as by deleting his Hotmail account and removing his hard drive.
  • Methodically obtained weapons and clothing, such as the cargo pants he wore during the rampage, to become a “soldier.”

Of course, there is much more to the story, but one crucial piece of it seems to be this metamorphosis that separated his actions as “Ax Ishmael” from the “inner restraints” that might have existed in Seung Hui Cho.

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For a post about the possible influence of Cho playing of first-person shooters on computers and video game systems, click here. For related posts on the consequences of deindivduation, go to Maintaining Army, Internet Disinhibition, and March Madness.

Posted in Conflict, Social Psychology | 8 Comments »

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