How De-Individualisation Can Help (and Harm) You In Crowds of People

You can learn a lot about human nature in unexpected places. As an introvert and/or highly sensitive person you’re probably quite good at this. Do you ever notice the absurd responses and little hypocrisies that underpin how we interact with each other?

Having recently re-kindled my early morning swimming habit, I’ve noticed some funny thoughts creeping in.

There are unspoken politics in a swimming pool. Especially during busy periods. In particular, we can learn a lot about ourselves when we understand how anger creeps into life.

Yes I know…I probably over-think the whole thing. But I guess that’s just part and parcel of being an introvert. And it has its uses, because it teaches me a lot about what is important.

How De-Individualisation Helps (and Harms) Us Around Crowds of People

When There’s No Space

It’s always hit and miss at the pool in the mornings when it comes to how busy it is. Trying to get into a packed pool is a challenge. No one wants you swimming along their line. Some people get quite militant in how they move. They might refuse to change their line, and even (yes I’ve been on the receiving end), deliberately widening their stroke to give a swipe/kick as you swim past them. The anger is sometimes quite palpable.

Yet there is no choice but to get involved. When it’s busy everyone has to work out how to get along together. You’ve just got to get in and work things out as you go, ducking and weaving around the other swimmers until you’ve established a consistent line.

You are Not Stuck in Traffic

There was an billboard advert a few years ago that said “You are not stuck in traffic. You ARE traffic.” I often think about this whenever I feel anger with a crowd, or during times when everyone seems to be where I want to be.

Because it’s not my right to be there any more than someone else’s. It’s not their objective to make me miserable. They are here for similar reasons to me. I need to understand that.

It’s no different in a busy pool. When I see someone standing at the side trying to find a space to get in. I might think to myself “oh no you don’t”, and resent them swimming where I am. But I was that person. I AM that person. And I will be that person when I come back tomorrow.

Just because I’m in a new position (one of “belonging”), it shouldn’t make any difference to my empathic relationship to that person. We often adapt so quickly to positions of privilege that we fail to empathise with people.

Until you’re in the club you resent it for being too exclusive and unwelcoming of new members. Once you’re in the club you don’t want anyone else joining. I’m sure you can think of one or two places where you’ve experienced that kind of hypocritical thinking.

De-individualisation and In-Group/Out-Group Thinking

Anyone who has ever driven a car has probably experienced some level of anger at another road user. There are studies that show people behave in ways that “aren’t them” when they get behind the wheel of a car. In other words, they act towards other people in ways they wouldn’t if they were just hanging out with other people on a pavement.

There is a sense of anonymity, like we might feel when engaging in discussions online. This is linked to the process of “de-individuation”, a concept described by MIT social psychologist, Leon Festinger.

We might de-individualise ourselves (feel less accountable for our actions), and also de-individualise others (placing them within another group). In the context of driving this de-individuation might place all other road users as a part of this alien group (people who can’t or wont drive as well as me).

This might occur in relation to one type or make of car in particular, it might be turned towards cyclists, or just anyone using the road that you’re on.

Are You Quick to Anger?

You can become self-aware of those moments when you feel de-individualisation taking hold. Jerry Deffenbacher, a Colorado State University psychology professor analysed drivers and found some common characteristics among those who are quick to anger.

  • Aggressive Thinking: they report more judgmental and disbelieving thoughts about other drivers.
  • Risk Taking: they see others as in their way, engaging in behaviours like speeding, rapid lane swapping, tailgating, and skipping red lights.
  • Name Calling: they are quick to get visibly angry. They will swear, gesticulate, and shout/sound their horn through anger at other road users.
  • Cause Accidents: they have twice as many accidents, and more speeding tickets.

Gentle Rebellion is about intervening in those behaviours and thought processes that mean we contribute in some way to removing value from the world. Recognising where and how we de-individualise ourselves and others is key in building our own character and engaging in better ways.

Put space between the stimulus and the response so that you’re not simply reacting. Reactive living overrides empathy. This leads you to act in ways you may well regret down the line. It’s obviously a lot easier said than done, but it’s definitely not beyond our control over time.

You ARE Traffic

It’s the same with many situations where you might find the anger bubbling. You are not stuck in a crowd. You ARE the crowd. Be patient, be calm, be focussed and remember your ability to choose how (and if) you are going to react to the things going on around you.

In the pool I’ve noticed that if I’m in there long enough, eventually people get out and I carve out my own space and rhythm. This is never helped by feeling stressed or resenting the presence of anyone else. Those things are unnecessary drains on my energy levels, and they will only lead to the creation of more decision fatigue, and even less self-control.

Over to You

Have you ever behaved in a way that “wasn’t you” that surprised you afterwards? I would be fascinated to hear your response to this question in the comments below.

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