..that this annual celebration so often leads to the injury of people and property?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Halloween in Madison… Why is it that this annual celebration so often leads to the injury of people and property? Halloween celebrations are designed to be fun and exciting. But in recent years, I’ve heard of so many bad things happening that I wonder if it’s even safe to participate.

A: For those readers who are unaware, Madison, Wisconsin hosts an annual “Freakfest” celebration on State Street each Halloween season. People come from all over to attend this Halloween-themed street fair and numbers can grow into the thousands. Participants come in costume and stroll State Street, partaking in food, live music, performances and, yes, the consumption of alcohol (as well as less legalized substances).

While this annual spooky celebration is designed for fun and socializing, past events have been plagued with violent outbreaks, robberies and injury to people and property. One need only to do an Internet search to unveil countless reports of rioting, tear gas, and general mob-related conflicts. So before heading out to Madison this Halloween, it’s best to equip yourself with some basic knowledge about risks concerning group behavior and mob mentalities.

Anytime you have large groups of people congregate for a mutual purpose (rallies, sporting events, etc.), the potential for violent outbreaks is cause for concern. This is especially true in situations where alcohol is combined with high degrees of group energy and excitement. When alone, we are more prone to reason and feel personal accountability for our actions and conduct. But when in groups, our public identities are temporarily disengaged in exchange for identification with the group.

Known as the process of deindividuation (see 10/3/08 column), individuals in groups tend to take on a “group persona” and meld their individualities into one collective whole. Hardcore Packer fans can attest to the metamorphosis that takes place as they enter the stadium – transforming their primary identities into that of a “fan” above all else. The process of deindividuation can lead to seriously dangerous outcomes and, in extreme cases, can result in crime, violence, sexual assaults and fatalities.

In cases where group members wear clothing that further conceals their personal identities, the effects of deindividuation become accelerated. Uniforms worn by police and military, or face-paint and jerseys worn by sports fans, all reduce our sense of personal identity while accentuating our group membership. This increase in personal anonymity can open the floodgates to anti-social conduct, resulting in a mob-like wave of riotous outbursts. Because the group acts as a unified whole, no single individual considers him/herself personally liable for negative outcomes. This diffusion of responsibility provides ripe social conditions for unbridled acts of enthusiasm – as well as aggression.

Madison’s annual “Freakfest” is especially prone to the negative effects of deindividuation and diffusion of responsibility due to the fact that Halloween costumes are worn by participants. Unlike a police uniform or sports jersey, Halloween costumes and masks can literally conceal our faces and bodies – thereby maximizing the effects of deindividuation. It can be virtually impossible for law enforcement personnel to identify culprits when their personal identities are concealed by costumes. In effect, this realization of anonymity (whether conscious or unconscious) gives license to reckless, criminal and aggressive behavior.

An added element to the likelihood of dangerous behavior stems from the fact that Halloween represents a cultural icon of demonic terror. Those wearing costumes that personify “evil-doers” may be more likely to adopt such characterizations under conditions of personal anonymity in group settings. Not to say that anyone wearing a monstrous costume is destined to act in monstrous ways, but when portraying characters of horror, people are more likely to engage in horrific acts when other group members display similar tendencies.

Events like Freakfest can be an especially dangerous setting for young women who wear costumes depicting sexually provocative characterizations. While popular and “fashionable,” female high-school and college students donning such costumes make easy targets of sexual assault under conditions of deindividuation in groups. Potential sexual predators are fully aware of their own disguised identities and often consider such events as “open season” on the naive.

Can Freakfest be fun? Absolutely! Can Freakfest be dangerous? Without a doubt. So enjoy the festivities – but remain mindful of, and avoid, any sudden eruptions of mob-like behaviors. Drink in moderation and stay in public, well-lit areas where access to help is close by. And realize that this is one event where ignorance is definitely not bliss.