Depending on your social circles while in college, the practice of hazing may seem to be a familiar phenomenon or a distant and incomprehensible act to you. Many students fall into the former category. According to HazingPrevention.org, over 50 percent of college students in group-oriented organizations have experienced it. Not every student may experience hazing first hand, but it’s safe to say that when examined critically, its presence in campus groups is baffling.
Hazing is the practice of forcing new initiates to a group (whether it be a fraternity, sorority, sports team, club, or another organization) to do certain tasks or endure a number of negative experiences. These tasks and experiences can range from the slightly embarrassing to dangerous, and sometimes, fatal. Oftentimes, alcohol is abused during hazing. Instances of severe alcohol poisoning are often cited as negative impacts of hazing.
There are many things that can motivate students enough to allow them to accept hazing. “You cannot underestimate people’s need to belong,” UW psychology professor Dr. Nicole McNichols said.
For some, a sense of community is inextricable from self-esteem. As a result, being hazed seems a small price to pay for a group of individuals to be deeply bonded with. Some may even argue that going through the process of being hazed with one’s peers can bond them more closely. As Dr. Tabitha Kirkland of the UW’s psychology department notes, “Shared hardship can bond people together.” Furthering this, many students may perceive a lack of alternatives; in other words, if they don’t belong to a certain social group, they will have no friends at all, a terrifying thought to many, especially on such a large campus.
Of course, there is no real reason hazing needs to occur, yet it remains a long-standing tradition in many groups. Kirkland suggests that there are a number of psychological reasons behind this.
“It’s thought that oftentimes when we go through something that is difficult, we have the need to justify why we put ourselves through that kind of situation,” Kirkland said. “This is a term called effort justification.”
Effort justification rose to prevalence following a famed study by Elliott Aronson and Judson Mills in the late 1950s. In their experiment, they “hazed” women by forcing them to read explicit words to supposedly prove their competence for participation in an invented study. The fictionalized study was designed to be excessively boring; however, the group of women who were hazed claimed that it was interesting and important, while the control group of women admitted to the study’s dullness easily.
This concept is deeply entwined with another psychological phenomenon: cognitive dissonance. This occurs when a person’s behavior contradicts their internal beliefs. The ensuing reaction to this experience is that a person feels uncomfortable and either changes their beliefs to justify their actions or begins to behave differently.
“When social psychologists talk about cognitive dissonance, the primary example they give is that of hazing,” McNichols said.
Although it doesn’t make any logical sense that one’s peers and friends should be torturing a student to allow them admittance to a group, a student may still consent to being hazed, resulting in dissonance.
Those who lead the process of hazing, the “hazers,” aren’t any different than regular students. In fact, there are theories concerning an evolutionary reason for why some people feel the need to haze newcomers. This reason stems from a desire to protect a group from being exploited, its resources used by a less dedicated or possibly dangerous member.
“Newcomers pose a problem to any group. Newcomers are risky,” McNichols said. “So, one idea is that hazing evolved to kind of beat down newcomers, to change their behavior and make them conform so they weren’t as risky to the group.”
Although evolution may be, on some level, prompting us to haze, clearly our rational selves should know that this isn’t necessary. Phenomena like deindividuation and the cycle of abuse counteract our normal logic.
A student may experience deindividuation while engaging in hazing, feeling as if they are a unit of their larger group rather than an individual. This can lead to problems in dangerous situations such as alcohol poisoning, as no one student may feel they have the agency or independence to speak up and call for help. If none of their peers are doing anything, they may be less likely to help.
The cycle of abuse, on the other hand, occurs when an initiate who’s undergone abuse starts to believe that they are deserving of this abuse, and causes them to want to act out their revenge. Within the sphere of hazing, this could mean abusing a new initiate.
Of course, there are also rare individuals with sociopathic tendencies: those who lack empathy. Although the practice of hazing itself may seem to require a lack of empathy, sociopathy isn’t necessary to be a hazer.
“Sociopathy is really only relevant in extreme cases. I want to stress this is very normative,” McNichols said. “Anyone is susceptible to hazing; you don’t have to be a sociopath.”
As McNichols said, hazing is normative, and that is a definite part of the reason why it is so difficult to rid it from campuses.
“I went to Cornell, where hazing is a real problem and has a long history of being a big problem, and so I’m very familiar with hazing as a phenomenon, both as a student and as a professor,” McNichols said. “It is something that is widespread. You know, people tend to think that maybe it only happens among fraternity members, but it’s actually something that shows up across different cultures, in different societies, among different groups.”
Understanding the psychology behind hazing is crucial in attempting to prevent it. With the phenomena that is hazing, it’s also important to acknowledge another influential variable: alcohol.
“I think that alcohol just takes all of this in terms of reducing people’s inhibitions, talk about a lack of restraints, you know people just completely lose their ability to judge when things have gone too far and lose their ability to just have sound judgement about when somebody needs to go to the hospital,” McNichols said. “If I were to change fraternities, I would almost just try to get them to drink less.”
The UW has not been silent on the issue of hazing. UW Policy states that any student organization engaging in hazing is at risk of losing university recognition. However, the UW has had issues with hazing and it is undoubtedly still practiced. Most schools threaten punishment for hazing, but this rarely has a major impact as college officials cannot, of course, monitor all student organizations all the time.
Hazing clearly does not serve any real, worthy purpose, and it can be agreed that it is ethically problematic at best and abusive, violent, and even fatal, at worst. Despite these clear reasons not to engage in this act, it’s still common, but it seems that education on the psychology behind it may be a new approach to prevention. If students can understand and address the feelings and thought patterns that emerge in themselves or their peers during group situations such as initiations, maybe they can address them in healthier ways.
Reach Special Sections Editor Alyson Podesta at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @Alyson_Podesta