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Research & Theory

Social scientists have conducted relatively little research on hazing among college students. Below are highlights from two key studies, including research at Cornell.  

Hazing Deaths

Numerous deaths have occurred from hazing, though little research has been done to assess the incidence of hazing-related fatalities (or injuries). Author Hank Nuwer has developed a website that serves as an "Unofficial Clearinghouse to Track Hazing Deaths and Incidents." The second documented hazing death on a U.S. campus was at Cornell in 1873 (Nuwer, 1999). Kappa Alpha Sigma pledge Mortimer N. Leggett fell into the Six-Mile Creek gorge in Ithaca and died after while trying to find his way home after being taken into the woods at night.  

Hazing at Cornell

In 2002-2003, undergraduate honors researcher Gretchen Poulos '03 and Cornell faculty members Dr. Shelly Campo and Dr. John Sipple conducted a survey on team building, initiation and hazing among Cornell students.  

Background information:  

  • Anonymous, self-report web survey
  • Sample size = 736 undergraduates completed
  • Response rate of 37%
  • Representative sample
  • Results study were published in 2005 in the American Journal of Health Behavior, 29(2), 137-149.  

Highlights of findings:  

  • Thirty-seven percent indicated that they had been involved in an at least one activity that the researchers identified as meeting the university's definition of hazing.
  • Only 12% of students identified themselves as having been hazed. Therefore, some students either do not realize or do not agree that they have been hazed.
  • Percentage of students who experienced forms of hazing at least once at Cornell:
Participating in a drinking contest/games 17%
Being deprived of sleep 15%
Carrying around unnecessary objects or items 14 %
Being required to remain silent or being silenced 13%
Being yelled, cursed, or sworn at 10%
Having food thrown at you or other new members 6%
Being kidnapped or transported and abandoned 5%
Acting as a personal servant to others 5%
Being pressured to eat something you didn't want 5%
Associating with specific people, not others 4%
Destroying or stealing property 4%
Being tied, taped up or confined 3%
Engaging in or simulating sexual acts 2%
Being hit, kicked or physically assaulted in some form 1%
Making body alterations (branding, tattooing, piercing) <1%
  • Males, athletes, and members of fraternities or sororities were more likely than other students to have engaged in hazing.
  • Although the subset of fraternity members in the study was relatively small, it is notable that over three-fourths of them indicated that they had participated in at least one of the above activities.
Hazing Among Athletes

In 1989-99, researchers at Alfred University in New York conducted a national survey examining hazing among student-athletes at National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) schools. 

Below is an edited version of the executive summary of the study and a link to the full report which includes information on the study's methodology:  

Over 325,000 athletes at more than 1,000 National Collegiate Athletic Association schools participated in intercollegiate sports during 1998-99. Of these athletes:  

  • More than a quarter of a million (250,000+) experienced some form of hazing to join a college athletic team.
  • One in five was subjected to potentially illegal hazing. They were kidnapped, beaten or tied up and abandoned. They were also forced to commit crimes destroying property, making prank phone calls or harassing others.
  • Half were required to participate in drinking contests or alcohol-related hazing.
  • Two in five consumed alcohol on recruitment visits even before enrolling.
  • Two- thirds were subjected to humiliating hazing, such as being yelled or sworn at, forced to wear embarrassing clothing or forced to deprive oneself of sleep, food or personal hygiene.
  • Only one in five participated exclusively in positive initiations, such as team trips or ropes courses.  

Athletes most at risk for any kind of hazing for college sports were men; non-Greek members; and either swimmers, divers, soccer players, or lacrosse players. The campuses where hazing was most likely to occur were primarily in eastern or southern states with no anti-hazing laws. The campuses were rural, residential, and had Greek systems.  

  • Women were more likely to be involved in alcohol-related hazing than in other forms of hazing.
  • Football players were most at risk for dangerous and potentially illegal hazing.
  • Non-Greeks were most at risk of being hazed for athletics, even though a Greek system on campus is a significant predictor of hazing.
  • Eastern and western campuses had the most alcohol-related hazing.
  • Southern and midwestern campuses had the greatest incidence of dangerous and potentially illegal hazing.  

Read the full report of Alfred University's national survey: "Initiation Rites and Athletics for NCAA Sports Teams ." 

Theoretical Perspectives

There are many theoretical explanations for hazing. One way to understand why hazing occurs is to ask individuals who engage to explain their motivations. To review a summary of the purported benefits of hazing reported by those who haze, go to Arguments For and Against Hazing.  

Beyond the reasons given by individuals who haze, there are other influences which likely contribute to hazing. Since no single theory can adequately explain hazing entirely, it is important to consider how multiple factors may lead individuals to deviate from their own ethical standards or the norms of society.  

Below is an overview of some elements that may play a role in hazing:  

  • 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. As one Cornell sorority sister stated, "There is no need to subject girls to degrading acts; it is selfish and only provided the elder girls with a sense of power." 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.

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