Public Influence: How Deindividuation Theory Helps Explain Suicide Baiting

Categories: Science

Andrew J. Nilsen
The 2012 edition of Social Psychology Matters opens with a chapter titled "Crowds." The introduction begins by telling the story of Dylan Yount and the "crowd of onlookers gathered at the foot of his building" who watched him jump of a third-story ledge.

As we wrote in our recent feature "Public Influence," some in the crowd shouted "Jump!"

Upon hearing the details of Yount's suicide, the natural question was: How could people yell that? The chapter, written by social psychologists John Dixon and Kesi Mabendran, seeks to explain just that.

See Also: Public Influence: The Immortalization of an Anonymous Death

It has something to do with the concept of "deindividuation." Coined in 1952 by a team of social scientists led by Leon Festinger, deindividuation is "a process of immersion within a group such that members cease to view themselves as separate and distinct individuals."

The theory is not a be-all-end-all. As the authors explain, critics of deindividuation "point out that crowd behavior is often more and not less socially regulated than individual behavior."

However, deindividuation does make some sense of otherwise inexplicable actions. The theory helps explain how people in the crowd below Yount's building -- many of who were probably normal, upstanding citizens -- could act so cruel in that moment.

"Certain contextual factors -- notably the sense of being part of a large group gathered under a building, emotional tension at the prospect of watching someone jump to their death, and the focus on a dramatic external event -- would have created a situation in which individuals' self-awareness was reduced," Dixon and Mabendran write. "As a result, their sense of themselves as discrete morally culpable individuals would also have been reduced."

This could also explain why more people didn't yell "Don't jump!" Moral culpability was diffused among the hundreds in the crowd: hopefully somebody else will say something, but if nobody does, well, at least you're not the only one.

According to deindividuation, people in crowds are more susceptible to acting like fools when others around them are acting like fools. Actions -- laughter, anger, or whatever else -- can be contagious.

"For this reason, on 16 February 2010, underneath the building on Powell Street, when one person shouted jump, others followed suit," the textbook states. "And when one person laughed or pulled out a mobile phone to take photographs of Mr. Yount's distress, others did so too."

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kathieyount topcommenter

"Kathy Yount, Individually And In Her Capacity As v. City and County of San Francisco" is scheduled for a jury trial to begin July 28, 2014, with the Honorable Cynthia Ming-mei presiding. My two newest columns about the suicide baiting death of Dylan Yount in Halldie Plaza, San Francisco, are "7734: Are police in San Francisco public servants?" And "The SFPD: Still fighting the art do de-escalation" at


Paul Varga
Paul Varga

Simple answer: because they're assholes.

kathieyount topcommenter

SFPD authorities were alerted about suicide baiting and deindividuation July 2, 2010.  I outlined for them the research of social psychologist Leon Mann and described the factors most likely to contribute to suicide baiting:  anonymity, large crowd size, physical distance, and crowd frustration (when the would-be suicide takes too long).  The 6th to 12th floor is called "the twilight zone of humanity" because anything below, the bystanders can recognize the distress of a fellow human being; anything above, the jumper is out of earshot.  Dylan's last perception of humanity occurred on the 6th floor for 45 minutes with the crowd below granted instant impunity. Who would want to live in a society where suicide baiting is acceptable?  Believe it or not, in my research I have discovered those--so morally bankrupt--they have bragged about participating in suicide baiting.  If compassion alone is not enough for police intervention, then should we not at least expect our police officers to enforce the law?  (CA Penal Code 401).  Arbitrarily deciding which laws to enforce should scare everyone.  

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