One theory of aggression is deindividuation. Deindividuation refers to when individuals lose their sense of individuality and behave in an anti-social or primitive way. Zimbardo identified a difference between individual (conforming to acceptable social standards) and deindividuated (not conforming to society’s norms) behaviour. He proposed that deindividuation is associated with increased anonymity, diminished fear of retribution and a diluted sense of guilt. A person may become more anonymous if they are wearing a uniform, or not able to be identified.
If someone feels they will not be caught or punished for what they have done, this will give them a diminished fear of retribution. People are less likely to carry out an act if they will feel guilty about doing so. Identifiability, guilt and retribution normally act as controls on our behaviour, to stop us from performing anti-social acts. When they are removed, a person becomes deindividuated and this leads to anti-social acts such as aggression. Social Learning Theory states that aggressive behaviour is learnt and imitated from observation.
It says that we are more likely to observe a model we identify with (role model) and more likely to copy the behaviour if we have high self-efficacy (ability to carry out the behaviour) and if expectancies of future outcome are good. The expectancies of future outcomes will be based on vicarious reinforcement, ie. whether the observed behaviour is punished or rewarded. Even if the behaviour is learnt, it may not necessarily be carried out if these conditions are not met.
Social Learning theory states that we already have an instinct to aggress, but we learn how and when to be aggressive. Zimbardo’s prison simulation (1973) found that guards wearing uniform became more anonymous and less identifiable. The prisoners were also dehumanised, by giving them numbers. Therefore, the aggressive behaviour shown by the guards may have been a result of deindividuation. This study was shown to have high ecological validity as it was very realistic it has been found in similar situations.
In Zimbardo’s anonymous lab coat study, those who wore the hooded lab coats gave more electric shocks than those who wore their own clothes and prominent name tags. This suggests that those who had increased anonymity became deindividuated and displayed more aggressive behaviour. However, the white lab coats looked similar to those worn by the KKK, who are associated with aggressive behaviour. Therefore the participants may have been conforming to social roles rather than deindividuation. Johnson and Downing (1979) conducted a variation of this study by introducing a third condition dressed as nurses.
They found that this group shocked less, while the KKK-like group shocked most. This shows that they are likely to be conforming to social roles, contradicting the theory of deindividuation. Bandura carried out research using Bobo dolls to test social learning theory. The findings of these studies showed that children imitated the aggressive behaviour they observed, as suggested by social learning theory. Furthermore, he found that when the models were punished the imitation dropped, suggesting vicarious reinforcement is a factor.
Also, the children learnt the behaviour in each case, even when they did not perform it as they could imitate it later when offered a reward for doing so. These findings support the principles of the social learning theory. Phillips (1986) found that US homicide rates rise the week following a major boxing match, similarly Stack (1987) found that suicide rates were high in New York City the week following Marylin Monroe’s suicide. Therefore it is likely that vicarious reinforcement from these incidents caused the imitation of their role models.