Know the Facts: Theories & Research

Why do groups haze members?

Evolutionary psychology: our ancestors survived by forming groups that had strong bonds. Consequently, we are social creatures with needs for affiliation. Our innate drives for connection and preservation may contribute to practices such as hazing that are perceived to strengthen the ties between group members.

Lack of external constraints: the social order of civilizations depends on accountability and shared agreement to conform to behavioral norms. When external security is decreased (e.g., in the aftermath of natural disasters), conformity to societal standards decreases (e.g., looting). In the absence of strong internal leadership and prosocial norms, groups that operate in secrecy, isolated from external constraints, are at greater risk of deviating from societal norms of conduct. Hazing among students, the abuse of prisoners in Iraq, and the Enron corporate scandal each reflect in part the absence of external constraints on group behavior.

Conformity and obedience to authority: Research has demonstrated that social context has a powerful influence on people's willingness to inflict harm on others. In Milgram's classic study, subjects being pressured by interviewers delivered what they believed were highly painful (even lethal) shocks to a person screaming in another room. In Zimbardo's (1973) Stanford Prison Experiment, college students were assigned randomly to play the role of either a prisoner or prison guard for a two-week, live-in experiment. The study was stopped after five days because the "guards" became vicious toward the "prisoners."

Cognitive dissonance: when an individual holds two opposing beliefs in tension, he or she experiences tension which may be resolved by changing one of the views. When people who view themselves as smart, reasonable people participate in degrading experiences, they may look back and minimize the extent that they experienced degradation. Otherwise they would be left saying to themselves, "I'm a smart person and I joined a group that degraded me," which would create tension. Saying to oneself, “It wasn't that bad,” creates less tension. As a result, individuals in a group that is hazed may eventually feel positively about the group that subjected them to the experience.

Groupthink: Irving Janis (1997) described a process in highly cohesive groups in which faulty decision-making arises as a result of a convergence of dynamics, including pressure for unanimity, suppression of individual moral objections, and degradation of outsiders. These dynamics result in a failure to realistically appraise alternative courses of action and may contribute to disregard for the safety of others. In Wrongs of Passage, Hank Nuwer (2001) adapted the term "groupthink" to become "Greekthink," a reference to the dangerous process in which fraternal groups engage in reckless rituals, put newcomers in danger, and demonstrate post-incident denial in the face of clear evidence that they have made a mistake.

Beliefs about masculinity: culturally-constructed notions of what it means to be a "real man" place an emphasis on physical and mental toughness, obedience to superiors, and the value of force as a means of accountability. Such beliefs, combined with desires by heterosexual men to demonstrate that they do not possess qualities associated with gay men (e.g., vulnerability, emotionality, nurturance), contribute to the perpetuation of hazing and in some cases even requests to undergo hazing (Allen, 2004). It is notable that of the more than 60 documented hazing deaths, only three have been women (Nuwer, 1999).

Sociopathy: some individuals within groups have personalities characterized by anti-social tendencies. Psychologically speaking, "anti-social" does not mean "doesn't like to party." It means traits such as to disregard the rights and safety of others, failure to conform to societal norms, and lack of remorse. While such individuals tend to be a small subset of groups, they can exert significant influence as hazing ringleaders.

Shared coping: when individuals go through a highly stressful experience together (e.g., a natural disaster, a battle), they may feel closer to each other as a result. Enduring hazing together may make a group feel more unity, but as with hurricanes, the experience may yield damage as well as benefits.

Cycles of abuse: individuals who are hazed may be at greater risk of hazing others because of a displaced desire for revenge. As one fraternity pledge said immediately after being hazed intensely, "I can't wait to do this to the pledges next year." In addition, being hazed involves a learning process by which members model for new members the accepted methods for initiation.

Identification with the aggressor: intensive hazing can involve complex strategies to “break down” individuals and “remold” them to conform to the belief structures of the group. The group may isolate new members and expose them to repeated experiences designed to conform the new member's beliefs to those of the group. They may be told that the group is special and superior, and that attainment of this status is worth whatever must be endured to achieve it. Eventually, new members may desire to become like the individuals who abuse them.

Symbolic interactionism: Stephen Sweet (1999) argues that hazing is not simply the result of psychologically- or morally-flawed individuals, but “is the result of a confluence of symbols, manipulated identities, and definitions of situations that are organized in the context of initiation rites.” Symbolic interactionists view hazing as a cultural phenomenon in which the meaning ascribed to social encounters and the power of these “realities” shape individuals' choices about their actions.

Rites of passage: As adolescents and young adults pass through the developmental stage of identity formation, rites of passage may help them mark their transition to full adulthood. Rituals serve as a way for a community to assist members through this process (e.g., commencement, birthday parties, religious confirmation, initiation into a group). Most initiation practices do not involve hazing, while some do.

Need for esteem: self-esteem is bolstered by a sense of accomplishment and acceptance by others. "Surviving" hazing may contribute to a sense of achievement and garner the "respect" of group members, both of which can enhance individuals' esteem. Those who haze may enhance their own sense of esteem and heroism by maintaining membership in a group that "weeds out the weak." Television shows such as Survivor, The Weakest Link, The Apprentice ("You're fired!"), and My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss are cultural reflections of an underlying need to earn esteem.

Expression of power: hazing may gratify individuals' desires for a sense of power and control. Some individuals acknowledge enjoying exerting power over others and even seeing others experience pain.

Need for intimacy: many members of groups that haze cite closeness as a goal of hazing. Among males, however, cultural definitions of masculinity tend to undermine overt attempts at intimacy (e.g., talking about one's feelings). Hazing activities may thus be designed to meet intimacy needs without violating cultural norms. For example, being intoxicated makes it more acceptable to share one's feelings (e.g., "I love you, man!"). Men who feel uncomfortable hugging each other may nonetheless perpetuate naked "elephant walks" in which new members hold onto each others hands or genitals in what some would describe as a homoerotic ritual.

Misperceived norms: in some groups, the majority of members believe that it is not important to humiliate, intimidate or physically abuse new members. These members, however, mistakenly believe that they are in the minority. They may therefore reluctantly perpetuate these practices because they assume that everyone else believes that they are the right things to do.

Fear of reprisal: even when an individual who has been hazed wishes to not perpetuate the practices, he or she may do so out of fear of disapproval or retaliation by the group. Groups may exert considerable pressure on dissatisfied members in order to maintain secrecy about their hazing practices.

Perceived lack of alternatives: while the underlying needs of individuals and groups can be met through non-hazing means, a lack of knowledge about those means and an absence of creativity enables individuals to perpetuate the belief that hazing is necessary. When presented with credible alternatives, many individuals agree to pursue them in place of hazing.

The National Study of Student Hazing conducted a study (http://www.hazingstudy.org/publications/hazing_in_view_web.pdf) in March of 2008 and discovered:

  • 55% of college students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations experience hazing.
  • Hazing occurs in, but extends beyond, varsity athletics and Greek-letter organizations and includes behaviors that are abusive, dangerous, and potentially illegal.
  • Alcohol consumption, humiliation, isolation, sleep- deprivation, and sex acts are hazing practices common across types of student groups.
  • There are public aspects to student hazing including: 25% of coaches or organization advisors were aware of the group’s hazing behaviors; 25% of the behaviors occurred on-campus in a public space; in 25% of hazing experiences, alumni were present; and students talk with peers (48%, 41%) or family (26%) about their hazing experiences.
  • In more than half of the hazing incidents, a member of the offending group posts pictures on a public web space.
  • More students perceive positive rather than negative outcomes of hazing.
  • In 95% of the cases where students identified their experience as hazing, they did not report the events to campus officials.
  • Students recognize hazing as part of the campus culture; 69% of students who belonged to a student activity reported they were aware of hazing activities occurring in student organizations other than their own.
  • Students report limited exposure to hazing prevention efforts that extend beyond a “hazing is not tolerated” approach.
  • 47% of students come to college having experienced hazing.
  • Nine out of ten students who have experienced hazing behavior in college do not consider themselves to have been hazed.