What We Have to Gain: Why Occupy Wall Street Defies the Laws of Social Psychology

It has been well established in the realm of social psychology that, when acting within a large group, individuals often become “deindividuated” (Ziller 344).  That is, the individual disappears within the group, and no longer feels the burden of individual responsibility.  This inhibition fuels behaviors that group members would not commit on their own, but because of the safety of a group identity, feel compelled to act in a way that is not consistent with the self (Ziller 344).  However, one important aspect of this theory is not as commonly discussed: when do individuals tend to deindividuate, and when do they choose to stand by themselves?

R.C. Ziller (1964) suggests that whether or not individuals take on the group identity depends on the level of reward or punishment offered by the actions of the group.  When a situation is likely to be rewarding, group members learn to individualize themselves within the group because they want to take credit for the actions that were or will be positively recognized.  Conversely, when the outcome is negative and involves punishment, individuals are more likely to fade into the group identity to diffuse responsibility among other group members.  With this set of parameters, Ziller brings about a compelling dichotomy to group dynamics.

In the Occupy Wall Street Movement, social media is commonly used to disseminate ideas and events quickly and efficiently to a large number of people, as is discussed in Wasik’s article.  Ziller’s theory can be easily applied to the movement and this use of social media forums, like Twitter.  The two types of action, based on reward and punishment, can be transparently overlayed onto the Twitter constructs of “Followers” and “Following” for any given individual involved in the movement to any degree (whether it be actively participating in the movement, or merely knowledgable that the movement exists). 

Occupy Wall Street protesters gather in New York City in October 2011.

On Twitter, individuals can “follow” other Twitter accounts so that they receive updates from these users.  In OWS, Twitter is used to quickly get the word out about events and other happenings within the movement.  By “following” OWS-related Twitter accounts, people become “deindividuated” within the group.  That is, the group associates with them, but the individual can choose whether or not to associate with the group by ignoring, endorsing, participating in, or condemning the tweet.  On the other side, this same user also has “Followers” of his or her own.  When a person chooses to tweet about the movement, he or she is making a conscious effort to individualize the self from the group.  That is, the individual is taking credit for and acknowledging membership within the movement.

R.C. Ziller’s theory applies to Twitter in that it hypothesizes that individuals at first choose to “follow” the movement-based Twitter account as an effort to ‘test the water.’  These individuals do not yet know whether the outcome of being in such a group will be rewarding or punishing, so they remain deindividualized.  Once an individual feels comfortable with the movement and feels that there will be some type of reward for being involved, he or she chooses to individualize the self by publishing or citing tweets that endorse or condemn the movement.  Thus, by tweeting, the individual takes credit for his or her stance. 

R.C. Ziller’s theory serves to teach us that it’s really all about the outcomes: if good things happen within OWS, individuals will likely try to take credit for themselves, while if bad things happen surrounding the movement, individuals disappear into the group identity.  This rapid fluctuation of loyalty to the cause makes OWS quite volatile: if people are not instinctually driven to remain loyal to the group when the group’s actions are rewarded, the movement is liable to fall apart as soon as it comes close to reaching a major success. 

Thus, it would be to the great advantage of the group to offer rewards beyond recognition for its members.  Here we see something that Ziller did not discuss in detail: the goal of a mass movement.  OWS retains strong members throughout its ups and downs because it promises to create change for those involved, i.e. the 99%.  Although social theories like that of R. C. Ziller are largely applicable to group protests, Occupy Wall Street proves unique in its enduring nature and promise to create change for its members.



4 responses to “What We Have to Gain: Why Occupy Wall Street Defies the Laws of Social Psychology

  1. It’s fascinating the idea of social media as a social-change tool. Although I’ve read anything about the psychology of it. Very cool

  2. coffeeshoprhino

    What kind of rewards and punishments to individual players in the OWS experience? In other works, what is the reward for retweeting? What is the perceived punishment if someone individualized and didn’t retweet? Can you give specific real world examples?

  3. Yes! But this post is already ridiculously long so I will touch on those points in my next post as an extension of the same topic.

  4. Pingback: What We Have to Gain, continued | Occupy Wall Street Analysis

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