Deindividuation. Or “Everyone does it, so it must be OK … Right?”

(Repost from Facebook, 24 Apr, 2018)

This post is somewhat abstract and is a consideration of human behavior. It’s kind of just an out-loud rumination on “group think.” If that bores you, trust me, skip it. I won’t be offended. 🙂

As part of researching inter-group judgementality and polarization I came across this tangential concept known as “deindividuation.” It’s not really that earth-shattering an insight and is arguably still somewhat flawed/not completely fleshed-out as a concept. So I don’t really recommend investing the time even to consume the Wikipedia entry.

Interesting, however, is that one of the studies of the topic cites the phenomenon back in the late ’90s of music pirating. If you weren’t around then, before iTunes and Spotify there were these services that used massive scale peer-to-peer file sharing, like Napster, Gnutella, Kazaa, BitTorrent, etc to allow you to easily and anonymously swap music files free, as MP3. The problem is the music was copy-righted, so this sharing was illegal. As well as morally wrong.

And what was interesting is that everyone did it anyway. Everyone of a certain generation anyway, which to protect the innocent we will refer to only as, let’s use … an “X.”

Why? Why did millions of people, on a massive scale, rationalize doing something that was morally wrong?

Interesting question.

If today you ask people who participated in this how they rationalized it, likely most would respond with some version of four different arguments:
1) Everyone was doing it, so, therefore it didn’t feel wrong.
2) The music industry had been unfairly raping us anyway and deserved to be stolen from.
3) Sean Parker got me stoned and convinced me that “Creative works want to be free.”
4) What’s the big deal? And you’re breaking the speed limit as you illegally type this post while driving.

Now that it is behind us, with the somewhat greater objectivity of 20/20 hindsight, in my opinion it was clearly wrong, if admittedly not terribly consequential (No farm animals were injured in the filming). I actually thought this at the time, though cannot claim to have been 100% innocent myself before I early enough came to this conclusion.

One of the interesting observations is that anonymity facilitates antinormative behavior. The odds of anyone knowing you were doing this if you didn’t want them to were, in the beginning, essentially zero, so you couldn’t be judged (when that later changed, surprise, so did the volume of illegal file sharing).

But I’m really kind of fascinated by a second observation, that group endorsement facilitates anti-normative behavior. This notion of “everyone was doing it.”

There was, of course, one point when no one was doing it.

So there had to be a point where only one person was doing it. And they were, by definition, criminal and of questionable moral character. But a second person followed them anyway. And a third followed the second. Then a fourth, and so on. These individuals in the beginning likely were not constrained by notions of what society considered right or wrong. Which makes it really ironic that at some tipping point, a broader population justified immoral actions on a massive scale by citing the fact that a large enough group was already doing it, therefore it must be alright (even though that group was morally corrupt). That is kind of like arguing, “There are a lot of people in prison, therefore it must be alright to break a law.” Irrational?

And yet history is rife with examples, some of them historically tragic, of humans proverbially “jumping off the cliff” because everyone else was doing it (despite everyone’s mom, ever, warning us against exactly that, and that further, someone might put out an eye).

In and of itself, this is no novel insight. But do we apply it today?

If Napster’s parallel arose today, 100% guaranteed everyone would rush to do it again. So it does raise the question, where might it be happening today and how does one stop it? And, metaphorically, are any farm animals dying? (For instance, vegetarians would argue that yes, indeed, farm animals are dying.)

Just thought that was an interesting question to explore.

And no, I am not really typing this while driving. But I do break the speed limit quite frequently.

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