Deindividuation and Anger-Mediated Interracial Aggression:
Unmasking Regressive Racism
Ronald W. Rogers and Steven Prentice-Dunn
University of Alabama
A factorial experiment investigated the effects of deindividuation, anger, and
race-of-victim on aggression displayed by groups of whites. Deindividuating situational cues produced an internal state of deindividuation that mediated aggressive behavior. Deindividuation theories were extended by the finding that
the internal state of deindividuation was composed not only of the factors SelfAwareness and Altered Experience, but also Group Cohesiveness, Responsibility,
and Time Distortion. As predicted, nonangered whites were less aggressive toward black than white victims, but angered whites were more aggressive toward
blacks than whites. Interracial behavior was consistent with new, egalitarian
norms if anger was not aroused, but regressed to the old, historical pattern of
racial discrimination if anger was aroused. This pattern of interracial behavior
was interpreted in terms of a new form of racism: regressive racism.
Mob violence that has occurred since the
time of the Roman republic has been attributed typically to short-term economic motives and political issues (cf. Rude, 1964).
Economic and political motives, however,
were inadequate to explain the torture, mutilation, and burning that frequently occurred in outbursts of interracial violence.
Lynch mobs convinced social scientists that
"the fundamental need was for a better understanding of the causes underlying the resort to mob violence" (Southern Commission
on the Study of Lynching, 1931, p. 5). The
major purpose of the present experiment was
to examine interracial aggression within a
group context, especially a context conducive to deindividuation.
Deindividuation is a process in which antecedent social conditions lessen self-awareness and reduce concern with evaluation by
others, thereby weakening restraints against
the expression of undesirable behaviors (e.g.,
Diener, 1977; Zimbardo, 1970). Prentice-
Dunn and Rogers (1980) provided the first
confirmation of deindividuation theory's major assumption that deindividuating situational cues produce an internal state of deindividuation that mediates the display of
aggressive behavior. The deindividuating
cues lowered self-awareness and altered cognitive and affective experiences. This deindividuated state weakened restraints against
behaving aggressively that are normally
maintained by internal and external norms
of social propriety. In the present study,
therefore, we hypothesized that deindividuating situational cues would produce more
aggression than individuating cues, and that
an internal state of deindividuation would
mediate the effects of deindividuating cues
on antisocial behavior.
Many problematic forms of interracial
conflict occur in group contexts. The major
contribution to our understanding of interracial aggression has come from the Donnersteins' research program (cf. Donnerstein
& Donnerstein, 1976), which has focused on
The authors gratefully acknowledge Kevin O'Brien, situations involving one aggressor and one
Henry Mixon, George Smith, and Rod Walls for their victim; no published studies have examined
assistance in collecting the data.
Requests for reprints should be sent to Ronald W. interracial agression displayed by a group
Rogers, Department of Psychology, University of Ala- of whites toward a black individual. The
bama, University, Alabama 35486.
present experiment examined interracial
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1981, Vol. 41, No. 1, 63-73
Copyright 1981 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 0022-3514/81/410I-0063S00.75
RONALD W. ROGERS AND STEVEN PRENTICE-DUNN
aggression in a group setting in which angry
aggressors were deindividuated. This social
situation approximates many naturalistic
Studies of interracial aggression have consistently shown that the strength of aggression directed toward a different-race victim
varies as a function of, for example, potential
censure (Donnerstein & Donnerstein, 1973),
threatened retaliation (Donnerstein, Donnerstein, Simon, & Ditrichs, 1972), and the
victim's expression of suffering (Baron, 1979;
Griffin & Rogers, 1977). Donnerstein and
Donnerstein (1976) have reported that, in
a variety of conditions, white subjects manifest less direct aggression toward black than
white victims. Griffin and Rogers (1977) interpreted their white subjects' more lenient
treatment of blacks than whites in terms of
"reverse discrimination" (cf. Dutton, 1976):
To avoid appearing prejudiced, whites treated
blacks more favorably (i.e., less aggressively) than they treated whites.
Reverse discrimination is the overt manifestation of white people's viewing themselves as egalitarian and feeling threatened
by the prospect of appearing prejudiced.
Blacks would not be expected to display reverse discrimination, and studies of blacks'
aggression have confirmed they do not (Wilson & Rogers, 1975). Both blacks' and
whites' behavior, however, can be traced to
the same underlying source: Both races seem
to be "reacting against the older, traditional
patterns for their races" (Griffin & Rogers,
1977, p. 157).
For whites, the historical pattern of appropriate behavior toward blacks was racial
discrimination and inferior treatment. Although whites may have negative attitudes
on several specific issues such as blacks'
economic gains (Ross, Vanneman, & Pettigrew, 1976) and race riots (Davis & Fine,
1975), survey data indicate that the new
norm is an egalitarian view of the races
(Brigham & Wrightsman, in press; Campbell, 1971; Taylor, Sheatsley, & Greeley,
1978). This new norm is especially prevalent
among college students. Surveys at the university where the present study was conducted confirmed that the current norm
among white students is an unprejudiced,
egalitarian view of the races (Rosenberg,
Note 1). Theoretically, reverse discrimination is a product of this relatively new egalitarian view of blacks (Dutton, 1976).
For blacks, the historical pattern of appropriate interracial behavior was to inhibit
aggression toward whites and to displace it
to fellow blacks. The new norms favor more
militancy, antiwhite attitudes, and overt hostility toward whites (Caplan, 1970; Wilson
& Rogers, 1975). The new norms for blacks
and whites represent dramatic departures
from the deep-rooted values of the past. Both
races have been found to act on these new
norms if they are not emotionally aroused
by a verbal insult. Thus, blacks are more
aggressive towards white than black targets
(Wilson & Rogers, 1975), and whites are
more aggressive toward white than black
targets (Griffin & Rogers, 1977).
But what happens to behavior based on
these new norms if the aggressors are insulted? Baron (1979) reported a three-way
interaction effect among race-of-victim, insult, and pain cues. An examination of the
conditions comparble to those to be studied
in the present experiment (i.e., Baron's nopain-cues condition) indicated that when
white subjects were not insulted, black victims received less aggression than white victims (i.e., reverse discrimination); if insulted,
the level of aggression expressed toward
blacks increased, but did not significantly
differ from the level directed toward the
Since we wish to understand interracial
aggression in general and not merely whites'
behavior toward blacks, let us also examine
blacks' aggression toward whites. To interpret the interracial aggressive behavior of
blacks, Wilson and Rogers (1975) suggested
that emotional arousal produced a regression
to a chronologically earlier mode of responding. The data from that experiment were interpreted as evidence that blacks' behavior
could be understood as a product of "the
conflict between new militant norms and the
residue of oppression" (p. 857). Anger-mediated aggression should not be as firmly
under the cognitive control of new norms of
in-group solidarity and pride. The black students had been exposed to the traditional
DEINDIVIDUATION AND INTERRACIAL AGGRESSION
values of in-group rejection and out-group however, the effects of anger in a group conpreference for many years before the ap- text have not been investigated. Virtually all
pearance of the Black Power movement. studies of deindividuation and aggression
They undoubtedly retained some residual have involved unprovoked aggression. Yet,
symptoms. Thus, when they became emo- anger adds an important theoretical and aptionally aroused, the new values, which had plied dimension to our understanding of mob
not been fully internalized, gave way to the violence. It was hypothesized that insult, or
older, more traditional pattern. Similarly, anger arousal, would facilitate the expresthe young white adults in the present study sion of aggression among members of small
had been exposed during their socialization groups.
to the older tradition of belief in black inOne class of deindividuation theories posferiority.
tulates that deindividuated behavior is not
The foregoing considerations converge to influenced by usual discriminative stimuli.
suggest an interaction between race-of-vic- It may be derived from these theories that
tim and insult variables. If whites are not prior insult would have less impact on deangered, we predicted that they would dis- individuated than individuated group memplay reverse discrimination, directing weaker bers. On the other hand, it may be derived
attacks against blacks than against whites. from Diener's (1980) theory that "because
If angered, we hypothesized that whites self-regulation is minimized or eliminated
would regress to the traditional pattern, dis- the deindividuated person is more susceptiplaying more aggression toward blacks than ble to the influences of immediate stimuli,
emotions [e.g., anger], and motivations" (p.
One class of deindividuation theories sug- 211, italics added).
gests that victim characteristics (e.g., difThere are several limitations to deriving
ferent race) become less salient under con- predictions of interaction effects from these
ditions of deindividuation. For Festinger, two classes of deindividuation theories. First,
Pepitone, and Newcomb (1952), the defin- neither theory explicitly states how the variing characteristic of deindividuation is that ables of insult or different-race victim would
individuals are not paid attention to as in- interact with deindividuation. Thus, other
dividuals. As elaborated by Zimbardo interpretations are possible. Second, the
(1970), deindividuated behavior is not under form of the interaction effect may vary as
the controlling influence of usual discrimi- a function of the strength of the deindividnative stimuli; it is "unresponsive to features uation state. The present study is certainly
of the situation, the target, the victim" (p. not an experimentum crucis, but perhaps it
259). Based upon this theoretical position, can shed light on the interaction of deindiany differential treatment of different-race viduation and anger-mediated interracial
victims should vanish when group members aggression.
become deindividuated. On the other hand,
Diener's (1980) theory of less extreme forms
of deindividuation postulates that crowd
members are more responsive to external Design and Subjects
stimuli as a result of the focus of attention
A 2 X 2 X 2 factorial design was employed with three
shifting away from the self. It is plausible between-subjects manipulations: (a) deindividuating
versus individuating cues, (b) white versus black
to infer that any differential treatment of cues
victim, and (c) no insult versus insult. Ninety-six male
different-race victims should be enhanced by introductory psychology students participated in the
deindividuation. Therefore, the present study experiment to earn extra credit. Twelve subjects were
was designed to test these two alternative randomly assigned to each cell.
Verbal attack, or insult, is a potent and Apparatus
well-established antecedent of aggression in
The shock apparatuses were modified Buss aggression
dyadic situations involving one aggressor machines connected to a polygraph. Each of the four
and one victim (see review by Baron, 1977); aggression machines had 10 pushbutton switches that
RONALD W. ROGERS AND STEVEN PRENTICE-DUNN
could be depressed to deliver "shocks" of progressively
increasing intensity. Of course, shocks were not actually
delivered. A Grason-Stadler noise generator (Model
901 A) was used to produce white noise in the deindividuating cues condition.
The procedure was highly similar to one we had used
previously (Prentice-Dunn & Rogers, 1980). Subjects
arrived in groups of five; four were naive participants
and one was our assistant. The study was explained as
a combination of two experiments. The subjects had
signed up for an experiment entitled "Behavior Modification" and were to be tested together. Our assistant,
ostensibly another introductory psychology student, had
volunteered for a study labeled "Biofeedback." After
the experimenter determined who had volunteered for
each topic, the biofeedback subject was sent to another
room to receive detailed instructions for the biofeedback
After hearing explanations of the concepts of behavior
modification and biofeedback, the four white behavior
modifiers were told that the response of interest in both
studies was heart rate. It was indicated that the biofeedback subject would be attempting to maintain his
heart rate at a predesignated, high level. Whenever his
heart rate fell below the predetermined level, the behavior modifiers would administer an electric shock. The
purpose of having groups of four behavior modifiers was
explained as an attempt to establish a laboratory analog
of a ward at the local state hospital where behavior
modifiers actually worked in small groups.
We explained to all subjects that they received their
extra credit points for simply showing up and that they
could discontinue at any time. Each subject was asked
if he had any quesitons about or any objections to the
use of electric shock. All questions were answered and
no one declined to participate. In addition, written informed consent was obtained. Two mild sample shocks
were administered to the behavior modifiers (i.e., the
subjects) via finger electrode. The shocks were from
Switches 4 (.3 mA) and 6 (.45 mA) on the aggression
machine and each lasted for 1 sec. These samples were
administered to convince the subjects that the apparatus
really worked and to give them some idea of the shocks
they would be delivering.
The behavior modification subjects were then taken
to an adjoining room, seated at aggression machines
with partitions that blocked observation of others' responses (thus, responses were experimentally independent), and given instructions for operating the shock
apparatus. Each time the biofeedback subject's heart
rate fell below the predetermined level, a signal light
would be illuminated on their panels. It was explained
that the higher the level chosen and the longer the switch
was depressed, the stronger the shock administered
would be. The "shock" received by the biofeedback subject was alleged to be the average of the intensities and
durations selected by the four behavior modifiers.
The final instruction given to the subjects was that
any of the 10 shock switches would be sufficient for the
purposes of the experiment. It was explained that the
equipment had been designed with different shock intensities because we had not known how strong the
shocks would have to be to increase heart rate. We explained we had discovered that the different shocks all
had equal effects on the biofeedback subject's heart rate,
so the naive subjects could choose any intensity they
wished on each trial. These instructions were designed
to eliminate any potential altruistic motivation, and they
made clear that use of the lowest possible intensity on
every trial would fulfill the requirements of the experiment. Use of any intensity greater than "1" would only
result in additional pain to the biofeedback subject.
Each group was presented with 20 signal lights over
the course of the experiment. The interval between the
appearance of any two signals was initially chosen randomly, ranging from 20-50 sec. The intervals were then
held constant across subsequent trials.
The experimenter then left to bring the biofeedback
subject from a waiting room to the experimental room.
The doors were left open, so that subjects heard the final
instructions given by the experimenter to the biofeedback subject about his role. Thus, the naive subjects
would easily hear, but not see, their future victim.
The first manipulation attempted to differentiate
maximally between deindividuating situational cues and
individuating ones. In the deindividuating cues condition, the experimenter did not address subjects by name.
They were informed that the shocks they used were of
no interest to the experimenter and that he would not
know which intensities and durations they selected (anonymity to the experimenter). Subjects were further informed that they would not meet or see the biofeedback
subject (anonymity to the victim). The experimenter
indicated that he assumed full responsibility for the biofeedback subject's well-being (no responsibility for
harm-doing). Finally, white noise was played at 65 dB
(SPL) in the dimly lit room under the guise of eliminating any extraneous noise from the hall or other experimental rooms (arousal). Prentice-Dunn and Rogers
(1980) have shown that such manipulations decrease
the subjects' feelings of identifiability and self-awareness.
In the individuating cues condition, the subjects wore
name tags and were addressed on a first-name basis. As
in Zimbardo's (1970) study, the "unique reactions" of
each subject were emphasized, and the experimenter
expressed his interest in the shock intensities and durations used by the subjects. Subjects were informed
that they would meet the biofeedback subject on completing the study. It was emphasized that the biofeedback subject's well-being was the responsibility of each
individual behavior modifier. The room was well-lit and
no white noise was broadcast.
A second independent variable, race of victim, was
manipulated through the use of four experimental assistants, two whites and two blacks. Assistants were assigned to the treatment cells randomly, with the exception that they appeared an equal number of times in
each treatment combination. Analyzing this "assistants" factor as an additional variable in the factorial
DEINDIVIDUATION AND INTERRACIAL AGGRESSION
design yielded no main or interaction effects. Thus, the
data from the assistants of each race were pooled in the
analyses reported below.
The third independent variable was introduced when
the behavior modifiers overheard a conversation in an
adjoining room between the experimenter and the biofeedback subject. This conversation took place immediately after the naive subjects received their instructions. This insult manipulation was operationalized as
a series of questions and answers between the experimenter and the biofeedback subject (i.e., our assistant).
Care was taken that the insulting remarks applied to
all of the subjects and were devoid of any racial content
or connotation. In the insult condition, the biofeedback
subject, when asked if he objected to the behavior modifiers shocking him, responded that the equipment
looked complicated and he wondered if people who appeared as dumb as the behavior modifiers did could follow instructions properly. When the experimenter reiterated the biofeedback subject's option to withdraw
from the experiment, the biofeedback subject answered
that he hoped the behavior modifiers were not as stupid
as they appeared. Finally, when asked by the experimen ...
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