Give a Man a Mask

‘Give a man a mask and he will show you his true face’- Oscar Wilde

I recently read this quote by Oscar Wilde and was reminded of how scarily right he could be.

A mask, be that literal or metaporical, can make someone anonymous. This loss of self awareness is called deindividuation. When people deindividuate, they are less likely to follow normal restraints and inhibitions and more likely to lose their sense of individual identity. It’s the kind of thing that leads to ‘mob mentality’. It can be seen in real life in groups like the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and groups of rioters.  Numerous experiments have shown that when people are deindividuated they perform acts that they otherwise might not.

In 1973, Zimbardo carried out an infamous study known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. He converted the basement of the Stanford University psychology building into a mock prison and recruited students to play the roles of prisoners and guards.

Prisoners were given uniforms and were referred to by number. Guards were issued a khaki uniform and dark glasses, to make eye contact with prisoners impossible. These things deindividuate them and act as the ‘mask.’

Within hours of beginning the experiment some guards began to harass prisoners. They were cruel and taunted the prisoners with insults. They were given pointless tasks, deprived of sleep and were generally dehumanized. The experiment was meant to last for a fortnight but was called off after six days as there was a real danger of mental and physical damage to the participants if it was allowed to run on.

When they were deindividuated, the particiants conformed to their roles and acted in ways they usually didn’t. The prisoners were submissive whilst, more shockingly perhaps, the guards became abusive and cruel in their roles. It can be argued that it was this deindividuation that allowed them to act in this way.

In 2011, Derren Brown released a series of TV programes called ‘The Experiments.’ One of these was The Game Show in which Derren tried to study deinviduation. He presented a pilot of a realistic gameshow called “Remote Control”, where the life of one man was momentarily controlled by the vote of a large studio audience who all wore white masks and were constantly reassured of their anonymity, deindividuating them

The audience could collectively give the man positive or negative experiences; ranging from having a drink thrown at him, to being arrested for shoplifting. The positive experiences, like being awarded money, never won a studio vote. Instead the audience collectively voted for him to have a progressively worse night. At one point the whole audience were chanting for the man’s TV to be smashed, mob-mentality indeed. By the end of the show things had escalated, the audience had voted for him to be kidnapped.

In a surprise turn of events, in running away from the kidnappers, he is hit by a car. The entire audience fall silent, a lady runs out of the room, a lone voice pipes up; ‘why are you still filming?’ and one by one the audience unmask themselves, realising their role in the events and re-establishing their social responsibility. There are several methodological issues with Derren’s show but the findings still give an idea of the effect deindividuation can have.

I’m by no means saying that these people are truly evil, so Wilde may be a little off in saying they show their ‘true face.’ But give a man a mask and many studies have shown that he can lose his sense of individual identity and act in a way that he may not if he didn’t feel anonymous. Bit of a mouthful.

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