Don't kill the mockingbird. Image courtesy of wikipedia.
A pivotal scene in Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird involves a mob about to lynch an African American accused of raping a white woman. Just as they are about to storm the jail, disaster is averted when the young girl Scout strikes up a personal conversation with someone in the mob. That little intervention brought the man back to himself.
While that's obviously a work of fiction, it does highlight some important truths about human behavior. People are more likely to engage in acts of violence and aggression when they part of a group, are caught up in a role they are playing, and/or are in a state of anonymity..
The psychological term for this is deindividuation. Together with the dehumanization of the victim or enemy group, it is one of the most powerful vectors of evil.
Often, a state of deindividuation is accompanied by a change in how one looks. This is particularly true in the case of warfare. As Philip Zimbardo wrote in The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,
Cultural wisdom dictates that a key ingredient in transforming ordinarily nonaggressive young men into warriors who can kill on command is first to change their external appearance. Most wars are about old men persuading young men to harm and kill other young men like themselves. For the young men, it becomes easier to do so if they first change their appearance, altering their usual external facade by putting on military uniforms or masks or painting their faces. With the anonymity thus provided in place, out go their usual internal compassion and concern for others.
Deindividuation isn't always about personal appearance. It can happen in environments where people feel that no one knows who they are. Factors such as conformity, obedience to authority, groupthink, etc. all can contribute to deindividuation.
According to Zimbardo, there are two effective ways for bringing about this moral transformation. One is to "reduce the cues of social accountability of the actor (no one knows who I am or cares to)..." The other is to "reduce concern for self-evaluation by the actor," for example by the use of alcohol or drugs, emotional arousal, or by projecting responsibility outward onto others. A classical example of the latter is the belief that "I was just following orders."
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