It was a messy weekend for the costumed street performers of Times Square. A man dressed as Spider-Man punched an NYPD officer after resisting arrest for harassing a tourist Saturday, joining a long list of characters behaving badly that includes a Cookie Monster who shoved a 2-year-old and a vocally anti-Semitic Elmo. Four more characters were arrested later Saturday night.
Why all the drama? According to Sam Sommers, an associate psychology professor at Tufts, the performers’ masks may have blurred their line between action and consequence.
“When we are anonymous, the unwritten rules of society fall by the wayside and we engage in acts that we wouldn’t usually want to be held accountable for,” he said. “Masks are a good physical substantiation of that.”
In other words, without a visible, identifiable face and the responsibility (and potential accountability) it brings, the brain finds it easier to flout social norms. It’s the same reasoning behind why medieval executioners wore hoods, Sommers says — not just to inspire fear, but to make the dirty deed easier on the axe-bearer’s conscience. It’s a phenomenon known as deindividuation: hide someone’s identity, and you change the way they tick and change what they’re willing to do. (It’s also been known to occur in large crowds, even among people who aren’t wearing masks.)
Masked morality, however, is nothing new. In a 1976 study, psychologist Ed Diener and his colleagues observed over 1,000 young trick-or-treaters on Halloween, watching for how anonymity affected their behavior. When kids arrived at a house whose owners asked them de-anonymizing questions — where they lived, what their names were — they were less likely to steal an extra handful of candy. The fewer questions asked (and the more anonymous the kids felt), the more likely they were to break the rules.
So that antsy feeling you might have around Times Square’s entertainers? That’s not your Spidey sense tingling — it’s a legitimate, instinctual discomfort with the psychological shifts that can go on behind a mask.