The Situationist

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.

* * *

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.

8 Responses to “Deindividuation and Seung Hui Cho”

  1. Jason Chung said

    Fascinating article and one that makes a valid point. In the figurative as well as literal sense, there definitely seems to be a certain disconnect between the masked man and the unmasked man. For instance, professional athletes such as Ronnie Lott ( frequently proclaim that they are caring and non-violent individuals off the field but when they put on their uniforms they turn into different, more intense beings. The simple act of putting on the uniform makes them feel more responsible for helping the team on the field, by any means necessary, than to clinging to their off-the-field individual values or personalities.

    If such deindividuation could work for athletes playing a game with rules dictating the parameters of their physicality and violence, it is logical that social misfits such as Seung Hui Cho, Kimveer Gill, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris would gravitate to this idea in order to stiffen their spine and follow through with these heinous acts. By all accounts, these young men were meek outcasts and did not possess as individuals the necessary courage to confront their own demons and classmates let alone commit these horrible acts. However, by reinventing themselves as uniformed angels of death (with their quasi-militaristic clothing and militaristic weaponry) they did not have to associate their actions with themselves nor their individual moral codes. Instead, they could delude themselves into viewing their actions as some sort of larger moral cause and themselves as martyrs as Seung Hui Cho did.

    If we were to extrapolate the argument and conclusions advanced by this article – namely that changes in external appearance (such as uniforms) can radicalize the uniformed person’s behaviour – it would appear that deindividuation is a two-way street and that the public perception and treatment of those with altered external appearances can change drastically. For example, there is often less public and media outrage when uniformed soldiers or police officers are killed in battle than when civilians or non-uniformed officials are the victims. We may subconsciously tend to associate these authority figures as cogs of their respective organizations (and thus as expendable resources) rather than as individuals. The deindividuation that the uniform affords may colour society’s expectations of the uniformed as well.

  2. steve said

    i wonder if islamic terrorists would behave the same if they had no masks? i say we close all the mask stores in gaza and the west bank for starters and see what happens.

  3. Hey Prof. Hanson!

    This is a great blog, full of fascinating stuff. Here’s the one little thing that I don’t get, however: What’s up with all the law professor blogs these days (this one, Jurisdynamics, Money Law, etc.) that tack on so many pictures? The first picture in this post isn’t even about Cho. (I guess it’s supposed to be an example of deindividuation.) Worse, consider this typical Money-Law post — two pictures, neither of which seems relevant at all. Anyway, it’s no big deal, except that it takes a lot longer for these types of blogs to load compared to, say, Volokh, who uses pictures more sparingly (i.e., where relevant and necessary).

  4. […] Deindividuation and Seung Hui Cho at The Situationist. Below is an […]

  5. rootlesscosmo said

    A problem for this idea is that, for every mass killer or torturer who was “deindividuated” before committing acts of violence and cruelty, it’s pretty easy to find at least one who wasn’t–Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Wayne Gacy–while the “intellectual authors” of the greatest crimes, the Hitlers and Stalins et al., are highly “individuated” as Great Leaders, their faces not masked but endlessly displayed and glorified.

  6. de Rham said

    Cho Seung Hui epitomizes what it means to be an American/Westerner. He’s just emulating what we Americans did to the Indians, to the Phillipines, etc. Congratulations Cho Seung Hui, you were Western Civilization incarnate.

  7. […] Basketball,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” “Deindividuation and Seung Hui Cho,” “The Origins of Sports Team Fandom,” “Attributing Blame — from the […]

  8. […] had a return address to “A. Ishmael”, suggesting that Seung-Hui Cho was trying to reinvent himself in reference to either the biblical figure or the 1992 Quinn novel’s primate protagonist. […]

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