Hazing — Alive, Well, and Disastrous

January 15, 2014

Ryan Hamilton, PhD MSES
Assistant Professor
Department of Psychology
University of New Brunswick
Sport Psychology Consultant

Editors Note: This is one of two articles by Dr. Hamilton on Hazing. The next Newsletter discusses Hazing Strategies.

Hazing Defined
Hazing has been most often defined as “any activity expected of someone joining a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate” (Hoover, 1999). Others have added to the hazing definition by stating that hazing includes, but is not limited to, an activity, no matter how traditional or seemingly benign, that sets apart or alienates any member of the group based on class, number of years in the group, or ability” Hazing usually occurs as a part of the initiation process and is prevalent in many spheres of society, including fraternities, the military, corporations, and athletics.

Hazing Prevalence
The prevalence of hazing has been studied in various groups with Greek letter societies and sports teams garnering the majority of recent research attention. The present article focuses on hazing in the realm of athletics specifically; however, many of the issues described herein would apply in the majority of settings. In research focused on hazing prevalence in U.S. college athletics, Hoover (1999) found that 81% of college athletes reported being subjected to at least one “questionable” hazing act (e.g., dressing up in a costume) as rookies, 51% reported participating in alcohol-related initiation (e.g., chugging alcohol), and 21% reported engaging in an “unacceptable act” (e.g., simulating sexual activity).

Similarly, Allan and Madden (2008) found that 55% of all college students involved in clubs, teams, or organizations experience hazing. Hazing was most prevalent on varsity sports teams with 74% of U.S. varsity athletes experiencing hazing when joining their university team including participating in binge drinking (47%), being verbally harassed (21%), getting a tattoo or piercing (15%), and performing sex acts (16%). Hazing has also been found to be prevalent in U.S. high school athletics with up to 35% of high school athletes reporting participating in hazing activities as freshman. Comparable rates of hazing have been found in Canadian athletics. For instance, my research has found that 92% of athletes competing in Canadian university athletics reported being hazed as a rookie at some point in their career, including exposure to “questionable acts” (91% of athletes), alcohol-related initiations (72%), and “unacceptable acts” (42%) (Hamilton, Scott, O’Sullivan, & LaChapelle, 2013). The following table provides a breakdown of the various hazing activities surveyed in my research and the rate at which athletes experienced them as a rookie.
Download Table 1

Hazing Impact
Given the nature of hazing activities, the potential for negative outcomes is notable. There have been cases of death, near drowning, burns, cold exposure, acute alcohol intoxication, near suffocation, blood loss, blunt trauma and sexual abuse reported in the media and documented through empirical study (Bunch, 2012; Fineout, 2012; Finkel, 2002; Nuwer, 1999, 2000, 2004; Srabstein, 2008). Hank Nuwer maintains a website chronicling hazing related deaths in the US, where he has documented 174 hazing deaths, 100 of which have occured since 1980, and with the last entry in September 2013 (http://www.hanknuwer.com/hazingdeaths.html). Beyond the physical ramifications of hazing, psychological consequences include suicidal ideation, loneliness, embarrassment, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (Brackenridge, 1997; Cense, 2001; Konkol, 2009; Sussberg, 2003). Furthermore, while a common justification offered for the perpetration of hazing is its positive role in creating bonding and team cohesiveness, recent scholarship has found that hazing often has strong deleterious effects on team cohesion (VanRaalte, Cornelius, Linder & Brewer, 2007) and sense of community (Johnson, 2011). While the perceived benefits of hazing remain resistant to change students who choose to carry out these activities are at risk for criminal liability, including fines and prison time as well institutional penalties such as suspension from their team or expulsion from their school. Institutional liability is also a more than valid consideration where hazing is concerned.

Taken together, it is clear that hazing is a highly prevalent activity still occurring at alarming rates in various university groups in Canada and the United States with disastrous legal, psychological and physical effects.

Why Hazing Occurs
There are many theories as to why hazing occurs and some of these, including those investigated in my own research, are presented below.

Power. The division of status, role, and power between returning and new group members may be one factor that enables hazing to occur (Holman, 2004). New members are often joining a cohesive group of returners who already have a power structure in place; a hierarchy where the new members are likely to find themselves at the bottom. Hierarchy is imposed on rookies through the process of initiation. Without the power imbalance it would be difficult for one group to make the other group do something humiliating or degrading. For instance, we rarely (never) hear of cases where rookies haze the veterans.

Cognitive dissonance. Dissonance is an uncomfortable psychological state brought about when a person has two contradictory cognitions or thoughts (Festinger, 1957). In a hazing situation, the person being hazed may believe that he or she is a valuable and respectable person. This cognition would be dissonant with the experience of being yelled at and forced to engage in degrading behaviours. After the individual completes the initiation process, he or she is motivated to seek support and reassurance for his/her willingness to be subjected to the hazing. This typically involves validating and justifying the process endured as important, thereby relieving the dissonance. This process is likely to cause individuals to place more importance on both the group that they joined (it must be a really special group or I wouldn’t have allowed it to happen) and the process they endured (doing all those things was important to bond us together). While these thoughts are readily clung to as a dissonance reducing strategy, as they are repeated and affirmed by others they become a prevailing belief about how important hazing really is. These prevailing beliefs serve to fuel the future perpetration of hazing.

Moral disengagement (MD). Humans have the ability to control their own behaviour — including behaviours related to their morals (Bandura, 1986). When we do things inconsistent with our morals we usually feel bad about it and avoid those behaviours in the future. However, there are times when we feel less moral responsibility, or when we disengage morally. Our proneness for moral disengagement may make it more likely for us to cause harm to others (Bandura, 1990). This process of MD was found to be a significant factor in how much hazing athletes did in my research.

MD happens in eight different ways (each outlined briefly) with each providing clues for intervention (strategies in a subsequent newsletter):
(1) Moral justification – individuals cognitively reconstruct their detrimental conduct into something that is personally and socially acceptable by deeming that it serves a productive function (e.g., hazing is a means to bonding as a team) (Bandura, 1999). Hazers may say they did it to “bring the group together”.
( 2) Euphemistic labeling – it has been found that people behave more maliciously when their actions are stated in less severe or neutral terms (Diener, Dineen, Endresen, Beaman & Fraser, 1975). Hazers thus use terms like rookie party, team bonding, and welcoming ceremony instead of more accurate descriptions like public humiliation, hazing, harassment or emotional abuse.
(3) Advantageous comparison occurs when individuals use the contrast principle in which judgments about an activity largely depend on comparisons (Bandura, 1999). Perpetrators of hazing may engage in any number of exonerative social comparisons including comparing the activities that they are perpetrating to the hazing they endured or to more extreme hazing activities conducted by other groups.
(4) Displacement of responsibility involves transferring the responsibility for one’s behaviors onto a higher source of authority (e.g., captain, coach, tradition) thereby reducing the personal moral implications.
(5) Diffusion of responsibility is also an applicable form of moral disengagement in the hazing context as hazing acts are more often carried out in a team setting than by individuals thereby diffusing personal responsibility. If a single individual were responsible for initiating an incoming group member they would probably be less likely to haze as they would be solely responsible for the actions taken.
6) Disregard and distortion of consequences occurs as veterans may ignore or minimize the effect of their actions on the rookie athletes. In addition, athletes are often adept at hiding pain, so the consequences of the hazing act (physical, psychological and emotional) are not as salient as with other groups (Gervais, 2004). If the harm being caused isn’t observed, is reframed or ignored the potential for moral self-sanctioning is reduced.
(7) Dehumanization is one of the more widely investigated mechanisms of moral disengagement. In sport, rookies are often made to wear costumes, are referred to as “rooks” or “grunts”; in other groups the term “frosh” or “pledge” is used to dehumanize. It is easier to haze a frosh or a grunt then a “human”.
Finally, (8) attribution of blame may also enable moral disengagement. In the hazing context, it is possible that rookies get blamed for the hazing because they are too defiant, too compliant, too emotional, or not emotional enough.

Gender Differences.
Within the institutions of sport and Greek letter societies, researchers have found that sex differences exist in the hazing experiences of incoming group members (Allan, 2005; Allan & Madden, 2008; Hoover, 1999; Nuwer, 2000). Specifically, men appear to be more involved in hazing than are women. My research cautions the reader that female gender is not necessarily a protective factor against hazing. In my work I balanced athletes across sports and when I did I found very few differences between men and women within a sport. This is to say that women hockey players are hazed about as much as male hockey players, as is the case across the range of sports. Figure 1 below demonstrates that although some gender differences exist in hazing, hazing is more a contextual (in this case sport specific) phenomena than a gendered one
Download Figure 1

Past Hazing Experiences — The Cycle Continues.
In my research, the degree of hazing endured as a rookie was the most important determinant of the amount of hazing someone would perpetrate — the more hazing experienced, the more hazing perpetrated. Findings indicated that 76% of participants who were subjected to at least one hazing activity as a rookie went on to perpetrate at least one hazing activity as a veteran. Conversely, of the 26 (7.7%) participants in this study who had not experienced hazing as a rookie, only three (11.5%) had perpetrated a hazing activity as a veteran. There are a couple of explanations for why this trend occurs.

The first relates to social learning. During an impressionable and vulnerable time in a new social environment, rookies are likely to search for models of appropriate behavior. The most powerful and important models are the veteran athletes on the team. Rookie athletes may learn vicariously how to achieve acceptance and improved status on their new team. Achieving acceptance and status is essential to the first year athlete and they may observe that this is done by doing whatever you are asked to do by these powerful returning members. Incoming members may also become aware of the power hierarchy in their new environment and the behaviours in which those with power choose to engage and the apparent social rewards they receive for doing so.

Thus, an athletic environment that appears to support hazing satisfies many of the requirements of effective modeling and observational learning. For instance, the hazing behaviors modeled by veteran athletes are salient to rookies who may find themselves in a vulnerable position and motivated to attend. Through this narrowed attention, rookies may learn which behaviors constitute acceptable initiation, which behaviors are rewarded and also foresee themselves receiving these positive outcomes when they assume the role of veteran the following season.

Furthermore, the incentives experienced by veterans are clear and may have a substantial influence on the motivational processes that impact whether a rookie athlete will chose to perform the acquired hazing behavior. For instance, Waldron and Kowalski (2009) found that veteran athletes reported hazing because it was fun or served as an opportunity to suppress potential threats to their position on the team. These newly observed behavioral patterns and rules, the apparent acceptance of hazing in a particular sport environment, and the response facilitation effects related to the inherent social rewards experienced by veteran hazers, may account for the strong positive relationship between rookie and veteran hazing activities.

Closing Remarks
The term hazing represents a vast number of activities that potentially degrade, embarrass, endanger or abuse incoming group members. These behaviour continue to be highly prevalent as indicated by recent empirical study — in spite of the introduction of anti-hazing policies. The causes and supporting factors of hazing are vast and complex and thus, new rules are often inadequate in quelling these behaviours. Educational initiatives, replacement activities, moral engagement, and leadership moments must all be fostered to prevent the continued and cyclical perpetration of hazing behaviours. These preventative strategies will be discussed in the next Newsletter.

About the Author
Ryan Hamilton is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB, Canada and an active sport psychology consultant. Ryan’s PhD thesis examined hazing in Canadian University athletics and his program of research continues in this area. In addition to his sport psychology consulting work, Ryan conducts hazing prevention workshops in the domains of athletics, student orientation, and residential life for universities and high schools.
Dr. Hamilton cam be reached at (506) 453-5030, r.hamilton@unb.ca, or @hammy_sportpsyc on twitter

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