|Paddle to the back side - a classic hazing strategy|
Would you join a new club if you knew it meant you had to sing an embarrassing song in public, do someone else’s laundry for them, or make prank phone calls? What if joining the club meant that you had to lay still as someone poured boiling water over you, drink alcohol until you threw up, eat dog food, have your physical flaws marked with red pen, or go on an elephant walk? I imagine most of us are strongly shaking our heads “no” as we read this second list of horrors. Yet each year people knowingly join Greek houses, sports teams, the military and other groups in which hazing new members is a long held tradition. As long ago as 1684, students were getting expelled for hazing, and many laws have been put into place to eradicate the practice, yet to this day we continue to see news coverage of horrific hazing rituals gone bad. Why can’t we get rid of hazing?
Below are a few of the psychological principals that might help us understand why hazing is that pest that just won’t go away:
Hazing practices are a tightly guarded secret and not every group engages in them. Not all groups engage in hazing practices, and for those that do, many of the practices fall into the fairly harmless category, such as having to be on call to do someone’s laundry for a month. The secrecy surrounding hazing and the variability in the extent to which groups practice hazing make it difficult for people to swear off joining any group that might take part in hazing.
“It won’t happen to me.” One reason why people might join a group that is rumored to have hazing rituals is because they suffer from the “illusion of control.” People tend to believe they have more control over their outcomes than they really do. Although we know that other people get involved in hazing and end up getting hurt, we, of course, would never let ourselves get into a situation like that.
Joining the group is a “foot in the door.” Once a group has gotten us to express interest and say we'll join, our need for consistency keeps us saying ‘yes’ at each additional small step. If I joined, why wouldn’t I be willing to come live with the group for a week? If I am okay to live with the group for a week, why wouldn’t I be okay to do their chores all week?
It’s a slippery slope. The “foot in the door” technique may also help explain why hazing practices become so extreme. What may start out as a fairly harmless initiation rite can begin to move towards extremity in small steps. It’s not likely that a group in one week will start out having their pledges do their laundry, and then jump straight to having them eat wet biscuits, but you can imagine the progression from one pledge class to the next as each hazing ritual gets a tiny bit more extreme. By moving in such small steps, the line between okay and not okay quickly gets blurred.
By the time we get hazed, our efforts are a sunk cost. Even when we realize that we may find ourselves in the midst of hazing rituals, we may not step away because giving up at this point may feel like a sunk cost. We’ve already put in effort that we cannot get back, so isn’t it better to keep going than to feel like it was all for nothing?
“It was worth it.” After going through the hazing, how do we justify the experience we put ourselves through? By telling ourselves it was worth it, and liking the group all the more for having had to work hard to join it. This “justification of effort” effect has been shown in psychological studies. Researchers find that people who go through a good deal of trouble to attain something value it more than people who attained the same thing with minimal effort.
Hazing creates cohesiveness. How would you feel towards the people with whom you had to spend the night locked in the trunk of a car, share your deepest secrets, or hold hands as you downed cup after cup of alcohol? The pledges who go through hazing together are likely to feel an instant sense of kinship and closeness with each other, and after making to the other side of hazing, with the group as a whole. These types of practices may also create an “us” versus “them” atmosphere in which members of the group feel like it’s them against the world, particularly when they know the world won’t understand what they just put themselves through.
The need to give back. After surviving a hazing ritual and getting to the other side, group members may find themselves fervent supporters of the hazing traditions. They may continue to justify their own hazing experiences by believing that the hazing is necessary to help new recruits feel like part of the group. They may also believe that their group is so great that people should have to work to get into it. And more simply, there is the principal of fairness – I had to do it, so you should too.
Hazing and initiation rituals occur the world over, and efforts to eradicate horrible hazing accidents don't seem to be effective. Perhaps we have the wrong approach, and its time to look into ways to make initiation rituals safer rather than try to eliminate them all together?
Do you think we can effectively eradicate hazing? Do you have suggestions for ways to make it safer? Any other psychological principals behind hazing that you think we should highlight?
Further reading:Aronson, E., & Mills, J. (1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59 (2), 177-181 DOI: 10.1037/h0047195
Campo S, Poulos G, & Sipple JW (2005). Prevalence and profiling: hazing among college students and points of intervention. American journal of health behavior, 29 (2), 137-49 PMID: 15698981