How Hazing Works


Introduction to How Hazing Works
An episode of NBS's 'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit' focused on a fraternity murder. Will Hart/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

On Sept. 19, 1885, a high-school student named Edward Turnbach from Hazelton, Pennsylvania, was made to run "the gauntlet," a time-honored ritual in which Turnbach was required to run through a line of his classmates as they punched and kicked him. Turnbach died a few days later from severe injuries to his kidneys [source: Bresswein].

More than 125 years later, on Nov. 19, 2011, a young man named Robert Champion, drum major for the Florida A&M University marching band, was beaten to death while running a similar gauntlet. The ritual, known as "crossing Bus C," was supposed to be Champion's official welcome to the band's inner circle. Instead, Champion died from his injuries and one of his bandmates was sentenced to six years in prison on a manslaughter conviction [source: CBS4].

The centuries are different, but the story is the same. A young man wants to be accepted by his peers and welcomed into an exclusive group, a group that seems to represent everything he's looking for — a sense of brotherhood and belonging. He's told that all new members must pass through some initiation rites, physical and mental tests that all the older members have also endured.

These rituals and traditions will bring the new members closer together, he's promised. Going through these experiences together will form bonds that will last forever. Everybody does it. Everybody says it's worth it. Anyway, it's not that bad. You can trust your brothers, can't you?

That's an open question. Hazing is everywhere. We know it's an epidemic on college campuses, where at least one student has been killed in a hazing-related incident every year in the U.S. since 1959 [source: Nuwer]. But the groupthink psychology that perpetuates hazing isn't confined to a specific age, sex or social environment. High school girls' soccer players haze. Professional fire fighters haze. Acapella groups haze.

Our instinct to test and try newcomers is real, the product of a few hundred thousand years of human evolution [sources: Cimino]. New arrivals need to win our trust and prove their loyalty to the group. But the modern practice of hazing is a twisted take on traditional rites of passage. Fueled by alcohol and designed to demean, modern hazing serves no real purpose other than to perpetuate bogus traditions and laugh as others suffer the same dangerous humiliations that the older members suffered.

In this article, we'll try to give a definition for hazing, delve into the psychology behind it and discover how it manifests itself in different settings.

What Qualifies as Hazing?

While there's no single definition of hazing, there are some core characteristics. Hazing is any activity that's designed to humiliate, degrade, demean, abuse, endanger or intimidate, and that's expected of someone joining a group. Hazing activities also are "irrelevant," meaning that they have nothing to do with training or preparing for the regular activities of the group.

For instance, if a young man wants to try out for the cross-country team at his high school and is required to run several miles before being accepted, that would not be hazing. If, however, he has to run several miles before being allowed to join the French club or if the cross-country team requires him to down several pints of beer or run while wearing a dress, that would be considered hazing. Hazing by nature is psychologically and physically stressful and potentially traumatic [sources: Cimino, Inside Hazing, We Don't Haze].

Hazing exists along a continuum ranging from "stupid if relatively harmless" (having to memorize pages of sorority history) to deeply disturbing (sexual assault, alcohol poisoning, violent beatings) and can include a laundry list of unpleasant activities, including [sources: Allan, FIPG]:

  • Being yelled, screamed or cursed at by other members
  • Wearing embarrassing clothing or signs in public
  • Singing silly songs or perform demeaning skits in front of group members or public
  • Performing extreme forms of exercise or holding heavy weights
  • Being physically assaulted, pushed, tackled or punched
  • Eating disgusting food
  • Enduring mock kidnappings
  • Acting as an older member's slave
  • Undergoing tattooing, piercing or even branding to be initiated
  • Being forced to play drinking games
  • Being coerced to simulate or perform sex acts

Most importantly, hazing is hazing regardless of whether the individual "chooses" to participate in it. A lot of organizations will justify their hazing behavior by claiming that the people involved chose to be there. That ignores the fact that most people joining a group are lied to about the existence of hazing or told that "it's not really that bad." Until, of course, the pledge or new member is standing out in the woods on a freezing winter night with a burlap sack over his head being beaten with sticks every time he messes up the secret motto.

At that point, what choice exactly does the hazed individual have? If he tries to leave, he'd likely be harassed even more. And what about those close friendships he was forging, or the scholarship he won to play on the football team — is he supposed to just throw those things away? New members know that if they quit or tell authorities what they've experienced, they'll likely be socially ostracized by their group or team, and maybe even the entire community [source: Lipkins].

The Psychology of Hazing

The Psychology of Hazing
Food is poured on first-year medical students during the faculty of medicine hazing at the University of Granada, in Spain in 2015. Hazing has been around since the beginning of time and is found in almost all cultures. Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

Hazing has a long history in civilization. Many cultures have some kind of initiation rite that a boy undergoes to become a man, which some psychologists consider a form of hazing. Plato observed hazing among college students in the 4th century B.C.E. In 1340, the University of Paris had to forbid hazing on pain of expulsion. The first example of a hazing death was John Butler Groves in 1838 at Franklin Seminary in Kentucky, according to a family history [source: Nuwer].

Hazing primarily exists in groups that are regularly recruiting new members. College fraternities are a great example, because they lose a batch of seniors to graduation every spring and the ranks need to be filled by new freshman in the fall. The same annual "restocking" process happens in high school marching bands, college sports teams, the military, school theater groups and fire departments.

In this way, hazing can partially be explained from an evolutionary perspective. The survival of a "multigenerational" group over time requires the continual recruitment of new members, but those new members need to win the trust of the group and prove their commitment. "Freeloaders" who won't work hard and sacrifice on behalf of the group are threats to the group's very survival. This explains why rites of passage of initiatory rituals have existed across all human societies [source: Cimino].

Even today, when organizations defend hazing, they often say that only by passing through that physical and psychological gauntlet can a recruit prove that they are committed to the "values" and "traditions" of the organization, and show that they can endure the "heavy load of responsibilities" that comes with being an active member of the group [source: Zwecker].

Hazing organizations have no trouble finding new recruits because humans in general are social creatures who seek out the companionship and approval of their peers. Hazing organizations capitalize on this basic human need by portraying themselves — at least at first — as a warm and welcoming "brotherhood," "sisterhood" or even a big "family." At most fraternities and sororities, recruits are "little brothers" and "little sisters" and older members are "big brothers," "big sisters" and even "mothers" and "fathers."

Which raises the question, why would someone remain loyal to a "family" that beats and degrades them? For that, you need to understand the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance. Humans are very good at rationalizing or ignoring two realities that are in direct conflict with each other. In terms of hazing, those two realities are the friendship and love of your "brothers" versus the demoralizing experience of being hazed by those very same people. To reconcile those conflicting narratives, most individuals that are hazed "rewrite" or recast the traumatic hazing as a valuable bonding experience.

That helps explain why nine out of 10 college students who experienced one or more hazing rituals — including drinking games, yelling and name-calling, wearing demeaning clothing, being forced to exercise until they collapse — refused to recognize those experiences as hazing. It also explains why 95 percent of hazed students failed to report the hazing. Among the explanations for not speaking out were answers like [source: Allan]:

  • "It made me and my brothers better people."
  • "I had a choice to participate or not."
  • "It was no big deal."
  • "No one was harmed."
  • "Hazing is a rite of passage. If you can't take it, get out."

There are many other interesting theories around why hazing exists and persists, despite widespread agreement that it's dangerous. An important one is the psychological concept of "groupthink," in which members of highly cohesive groups suppress their own moral objections

— "Isn't this going too far?" — and go along with the greater will of the group [source: Cornell]. What victims of groupthink don't understand is that many other group members have the same moral concerns, but if none of them speak up, the behavior continues.

A hazing survey at Cornell University found that 87 percent of students believe that "it's never OK to humiliate or intimidate new members." Yet hazing persists at Cornell and on every college campus in America.

Hazing at Colleges and Universities

Hazing at Colleges and Universities
Harvard freshmen get hazed in the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1914. Although hazing can be innocent fun like this, it often has a darker side. Bettmann/Getty Images

Hazing is not only persistent, but it's pervasive. On college campuses, hazing not only happens in Greek fraternities and sororities, but on athletic teams, in religious organizations and performing arts clubs.

The best data we have about the prevalence of hazing on college campuses comes from the National Study of Student Hazing, a 2007 survey that collected more than 11,000 responses from 53 college campuses nationwide and included more than 300 personal interviews. The survey results included the following percentages of students from each type of campus organization who experienced at least one hazing behavior [source: Allan]:

  • Varsity athletic team 74 percent
  • Social fraternity or sorority 73 percent
  • Club sport 64 percent
  • Performing arts organization 56 percent
  • Service fraternity or sorority 50 percent
  • Intramural team 49 percent
  • Recreation club 42 percent
  • Other (religiously affiliated organizations, culture clubs and organizations, and student government) 30 percent
  • Academic club 28 percent
  • Honor society 20 percent

The hazing epidemic among Greek-letter organizations is well documented, but many people are surprised to learn how widespread hazing has become on college sports teams. In an earlier survey conducted by Alfred University in 1999, researchers quizzed more than 325,000 student athletes from 1,000 colleges and universities about hazing and sports. Key findings included [source: Hoover]:

  • More than 75 percent of athletes experienced some form of hazing when joining a sports team
  • 50 percent were required to participate in drinking contests
  • 66 percent were subjected to humiliating hazing, including being yelled and sworn at, wearing embarrassing clothing, and being deprived of food, sleep or personal hygiene
  • 20 percent experienced hazing that qualified as "potentially illegal," including kidnappings, beatings, and being forced to commit crimes like destroying property or harassing others

Hazing on sports teams is rationalized as a way to build team unity and commitment, and also a way to put cocky freshman "in their place" to maintain the team's power dynamics [source: Farrey]. Hazing persists, in part, because 25 percent of coaches and organizational advisers are aware of hazing activities, but look the other way [source: Allan]. Oddly, some of the sports most likely to haze, according to the Alfred University survey, were swimming, diving and soccer, sports not considered stereotypically "macho" like football or baseball.

While sports-related hazing is largely a male phenomenon, women are no strangers to demeaning initiations. The Alfred University study found widespread alcohol-related hazing on women's sports teams, and there have been several recent high-profile cases of hazing in women's sports, including a softball team at a Catholic college that forced new recruits to simulate sex acts with each other [source: Razzi].

But hazing on college campuses isn't confined to sports and Greeks. As the National Study of Student Hazing showed, 55 percent of all college students experienced some form of hazing and they belonged to every type of group imaginable, including the honor society!

Hazing Outside of College: High School, the Military and the Workplace

Even though hazing is most common on college campuses, it doesn't mean it's confined to one age group, gender or social environment. Hazing behavior has been documented in high schools as well as the workplace.

Forty-seven percent of the more than 11,000 students who responded to the National Student Hazing Study survey reported having experienced at least one hazing behavior in high school. A fraction of those students — 9 percent of males and 4 percent of females — even admitted to hazing other people in high school [source: Allan].

While hazing undoubtedly occurs across many kinds of high school organizations, sports teams have drawn the most attention in recent years thanks to several high-profile cases of male students being sexually assaulted during hazing rituals. According to a 2013 review of court documents, 40 high-school boys reported being sodomized with various objects by teammates in a single year. Ten years earlier, there were only three such incidents [source: Bloomberg News].

In the military, hazing is also a serious and underreported problem. A 2016 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 12 percent of active-duty service members reported that hazing occurred in their units. When GAO investigators interviewed focus groups of soldiers, they found that nearly half of female Marines reported being hazed (compared to more than a third of male Marines), as well as 25 percent of both male and female sailors.

It can be difficult in the military to draw the line between discipline and hazing. Viewed in a certain light, the physical exertion and psychological stress of basic training could look like hazing. After all, the prototypical drill sergeant doesn't ask recruits to drop and give him 20; he screams it directly in their face. But pushing them to the extreme to build strength and solidarity is different than hazing.

In its report, the GAO found that different branches of the armed forces had their own definitions of hazing, and this lack of uniformity — plus the overall vagueness of the definitions — had led to underreporting and general confusion about what and where behavior crossed the line.

For example, there's a tradition in the military of unit leaders encouraging soldiers to "take care of their own," which can involve punishing individuals who are slacking. Unfortunately, these punishments can take the form of violent hazing and beatings. The suicide of 21-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Harry Lew came after he was kicked, punched and forced to do heavy exercise in full body armor by his fellow Marines after he fall asleep on watch [source: Lamothe].

There's also a crossover in the military between hazing and sexual assault, particularly involving male-on-male assaults. While an astonishing 40 percent of female soldiers report being sexual assaulted in the military, 13 percent of males are also sexually assaulted, often as part of hazing rituals [source: Lamothe].

The same conditions that spawn hazing in the military — namely a hierarchical power structure with rigid ideas about what constitutes "manliness" — exist in some workplaces, particularly quasi-military fields like police, fire departments and security personnel.

In two separate hazing incidents in Houston, Texas, firefighters were accused of a "waterboarding-like" attack on a new recruit and sodomizing another with a sausage [source: Steele]. In New Jersey, airport security officers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection were arrested in 2017 for multiple vicious hazing attacks involving new hires and something called the "rape table" [source: CBS News].

When Hazing Turns Deadly

When Hazing Turns Deadly
Dante Martin, right, a former member of Florida A&M University's Marching 100 band, looks at his family as he is fingerprinted Friday, Oct. 31, 2014 after being found guilty of manslaughter in the fatal hazing of drum major Robert Champion. Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/MCT via Getty Images

There have been more than 200 hazing-related deaths at American colleges and universities dating back to the 1830s, and 40 in the last decade alone [source: The Economist]. While a handful of hazing deaths occurred under bizarre circumstances — struck by a train when left stranded by fraternity members on a bridge (Kenyon College in 1905), electrocuted when swimming in a lake exposed to a live power line (SUNY Albany 1988) — the vast majority of hazing fatalities have one thing in common: alcohol [source: Nuwer].

Binge drinking is a chronic problem on college campuses, but the combination of hazing and excessive alcohol consumption has proven particularly deadly. With shocking regularity, young fraternity pledges die of alcohol poisoning after being cajoled into drinking absurd amounts of alcohol. When Maxwell Gruver died at the Phi Delta Theta house at Louisiana State University in 2017, the autopsy revealed he had a blood-alcohol level of greater than 0.494, the equivalent of 24 shots of hard liquor [source: The Economist].

According to the National Study of Student Hazing, alcohol and hazing go hand in hand. Across nearly all types of campus groups — varsity athletics, Greek organizations, ski clubs and chess clubs — the top hazing activity reported was "participation in drinking games" (the single exception was performing arts group, where drinking games came in second to "singing silly songs and performing demeaning skits").

Alcohol-based hazing, the survey data says, is worst among varsity sports teams (54 percent of recruits played drinking games) followed closely by fraternities and sororities (53 percent). But club sports and intramural sports teams also put drinking front and center in initiation activities, coming in at 41 percent and 28 percent respectively. And yes, even 5 percent of honor society members say drinking games played a role in becoming members.

Even though all sorts of campus groups include drinking in their recruiting process, fraternities hold the dubious honor of killing more aspiring members than all the rest combined. Unfortunately, there are several logical reasons for this [source: Lipkins]:

  • Fraternity hazing rituals take place in secret and are vigorously withheld from public scrutiny
  • The impenetrable secrecy surrounding hazing activities means that there's zero oversight from college administrators or other level-minded adults
  • When the fraternity is left to its own devices, few people are sober enough to recognize when a "wild" time crosses the line to "fatal," and those that do don't know how to speak out (or fear reprisal if they do)

Another reason is that traditions change, but almost never for the safer. With hazing becoming more widespread, and starting earlier in high school, there is a cross-pollinating of "traditions," with groups adding increasingly humiliating and dangerous twists to the old standbys [source: Lipkins]. Some people link the increase in college hazing with the raising of the drinking age to 21 in the mid-1980s, which drove college drinking underground.

How to Prevent Hazing

How to Prevent Hazing
Family and friends of Armando Villa rally in 2014, to call for an end to fraternity hazing at Cal State Northridge. Villa, a student at CSUN, died while on a hike with fraternity members, reportedly from excessive hazing. Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Despite decades of solemn proclamations from college presidents, or in-depth reports like the one from the GAO about the extent of hazing in the military, hazing continues to be an intractable problem for organizations and institutions.

Elizabeth Allan, a professor of higher education at the University of Maine, who conducted the 2007 National Study of Student Hazing, compares today's anti-hazing efforts to where the anti-bullying movement was 25 years ago. Despite sincere efforts at some institutions to educate students on the dangers of hazing, and better enforce anti-hazing rules, Allan says that we still don't have reliable data telling us what works on college campuses in the battle against hazing.

Allan has partnered with some colleges and universities to institute more effective anti-hazing programming and to collect detailed data on its impact. While it will still be a few years before we have solid information to back it up, Allan can already point to some strategies that hold the most promise, at least for college hazing [source: Allan].

Define Hazing: Institutions need to agree upon and promote a clear and detailed definition of what constitutes hazing. That definition must be communicated clearly to all students, faculty, staff and administration. All campus organizations must sign off on this definition of hazing.

Create Clear Anti-Hazing Policies: Just like the definition of hazing, the rules surrounding hazing activities must be crystal clear. Organizations must agree to these rules with the understanding that any violation of anti-hazing policy, no matter how minor, will result in disciplinary action.

Comprehensive Communication: The responsibility for combating hazing needs to rest with everybody on campus, not just the directors of Greek life. It starts with the university president, who needs to come out strong against hazing and form anti-hazing coalitions on campus that include staff, students and alumni. Hazing awareness and enforcement must be stressed year-round.

Hold Organizations Accountable: Allan says that anti-hazing crusaders can learn something from the ongoing battle against binge drinking. Binge drinking is down slightly on college campuses, and according to a 2016 report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, decades of drinking research show that education and "messaging" don't do nearly as much to curb dangerous college drinking as enforcement.

Transparency: Allan says that she's visited campuses where a student was killed during a fraternity hazing just two years earlier, but students were largely unaware of it. Schools need to publicize disciplinary actions against campus groups for all hazing violations, big and small. They need to dedicate a portion of their public communication efforts — on the school website and in the alumni magazine — to reporting on anti-hazing efforts.

Make It Easy to Report: It's not enough for bystanders to recognize hazing when it's happening; they also need to know how to report it. According to the National Study on Student Hazing, a surprising number of hazing activities — 25 percent — took place on campus in public spaces. Students need to know how they can anonymously report hazing that they witness, hear about or experience firsthand.

Promote Alternatives to Hazing: Hazing organizations point to their time-honored "traditions" as ways to create loyalty and a sense of accomplishment. But these same outcomes can be achieved without resorting to demeaning and dangerous activities. Sports teams that train hard together and support one another build unity. Fraternities that take on challenging high-ropes courses and other outdoor adventures create brotherhood and a sense of accomplishment. All it takes is some creativity of the collective will to move beyond hazing.

Author's Note: How Hazing Works

I've never been a victim of hazing, but back in high-school and college, I witnessed plenty of hazing first hand, some that I thought was "harmless" and some that even then I knew was borderline dangerous or at least dangerously humiliating. Not that I'm "above" such instincts. I can fully understand why more senior team members would want to see the freshmen put through their paces, or why a club president would see value in taking the new guys "down a peg" to maintain the pecking order. I just hope that we, as a society, can strive to evolve beyond those baser instincts and learn how to create a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood through positive means.

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More Great Links

Sources

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