Hazing Prevention Strategies

January 14, 2014

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

Editors Note: This is the second of two articles by Dr. Hamilton on Hazing. The first article appeared in Volume 8#2.
The term hazing represents a vast number of activities that potentially degrade, embarrass, endanger or abuse incoming group members. These behaviors continue to be highly prevalent as indicated by recent empirical study – in spite of the introduction of anti-hazing policies. Indeed, more than 90% of varsity athletes report being hazed at some point in their athletic career, with 86% reporting being hazed as a part of joining their university team (Allan & Madden, 2008; Hamilton et al., 2013). The causes and supporting factors of hazing are vast and complex and thus, new rules alone are often inadequate in quelling these behaviours. This is not to say that new rules are not important, but simply that they are not sufficient to create meaningful changes in initiation practices. Educational initiatives, replacement activities, moral engagement processes, and leadership moments must all be fostered to prevent the continued and cyclical perpetration of hazing behaviours. Hazing prevention strategies are the focus of this article.

Moral disengagement has been linked to hazing perpetration (Hamilton, 2011). Specifically, individuals who are more prone to avoid self-sanctioning reactions when they commit some form of harmful act are more likely to subject others to embarrassing and dangerous hazing activities. Conversely, if a person feels morally responsible for the initiation practices being carried out, they will be less likely to subject incoming members to injurious activities. Individual differences exist amongst any group or team(some people will naturally be more inclined to morally disengage); however, certain features of a social environment may also promote moral disengagement. It’s important to look at the situation this way, as hazing is not exclusively the behavioural domain of the morally corrupt; indeed many fine students, athletes, orientation leaders, and colleagues may commit harmful behaviour in the right (or wrong) context. What follows is a list of the key contributing factors to moral disengagement and suggestions of how to mitigate them.

(1) Moral justification occurs when 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”. If you truly believe that what you are doing is a justified means to an end then you are less likely to feel morally responsible for the wrongdoing. To prevent this justification process I suggest two things. First, leaders should be educated about the detrimental impacts of hazing to group dynamics. There is a growing body of literature demonstrating that hazing actually fractures a group (e.g., VanRaalte et al., 2007) rather than unites it (think about it, an immediate division is made between newcomer and returner). The second strategy I recommend is to have leadership groups think first about the type of team, fraternity, group they want to have; to really explore the way they want their new members to feel and then design activities to meet that end. The common alternative is to pursue the same traditional hazing activities and then retrospectively find a way to justify them as producing some desirable outcome. The activity should be generated from the purpose, not the purpose from the activity.

( 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. Don’t allow leaders to speak in generalities when describing the orientation activities they are pursuing. Have them be specific to exactly what is being done and the purpose of each of these things. General descriptions tend to mean one of two things that could open the door for hazing: 1) not well planned so the actual activity will be more of an ad hoc occurrence; and 2) purposefully misleading.

(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. When an individual feels that what they are doing isn’t as bad as what was done to them or what has happened somewhere else they may be lulled into believing that their activity is not dangerous or humiliating at all. Leaders should be reminded to look at the activities planned for newcomers in isolation, not relative to some other group or other year. Much damage can be done under the guise of not as damaging as before.

(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. This particular moral disengagement mechanism is important to consider. Student leaders need to know that they are responsible for any individual activity that they engage in, including being complicit while others engage in wrongdoing. The word tradition comes up frequently as a justification for hazing behaviour. Administrators should be clear with all levels of group leadership that the wrongdoings of previous years are not a defense for wrongdoings in the present year. Furthermore, coaches, residence leaders, orientation committee chairs, and other levels of leadership must be clear on their position about hazing. If lower levels of leadership feel that hazing is tolerated by their immediate supervisors they will be less likely to feel morally responsible for any activity that they engage in. We need to take away the excuses of tradition and supportive higher authority in order to put the moral responsibility for initiation activities squarely on the individuals responsible for carrying out orientation.

(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. Diffusion of responsibility is less available to student leaders when they are informed specifically that they are responsible for any actions that they take regardless of the larger group. Furthermore, by having individual returning members champion specific activities they are given more individual responsibility for what occurs. Associating leaders’ names to each aspect of the orientation may make them less likely to advocate, tolerate, or ignore hazing activities as they are personally responsible for what occurs, not just the generalized team or group.

6) Disregard and distortion of consequences occurs as returning group members may ignore or minimize the effect of their actions on the incoming members. In sports settings, 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. All new members of a group are under pressure to fit in and appear ready to join the group to which they are being initiated; thus, they are likely to state that everything is fine and that they accept everything they are being asked to do. This may not be reality. It is incumbent upon the returning group members to ensure that no harm will be done while designing the activities rather than having an ad hoc approach where the activity will be stopped at the first sign of harm.

(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”. I believe it is essential to “humanize” incoming group members before any initiation or orientation activities begin. The more information that can be gained about a new group member, including a sense of their struggles and concerns, and developing a sense for their vulnerabilities will make it more difficult to commit wrongful behaviour in their direction. Other ways to humanize include minimizing the use of costumes (especially degrading ones), calling individuals by their first names in place of nicknames (especially degrading ones), and increasing the number of close and supportive conversations that occur between returning and incoming group members.

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. To avoid this, all activities should be designed and framed as what you can do FOR the incoming group member, rather than what you are going to or have to do TO them.

Importantly, the preceding suggestions are grounded in moral disengagement theory and empirical findings. Other factors found to be related to hazing perpetration are attitudes toward initiation and previous experiences with hazing. In particular, practitioners should especially consider past hazing experiences of team/group members and explore the culture of hazing that exists within particular teams or groups. Understanding these past experiences can provide insight as to what activities may be carried out and how strongly committed group members are to hazing. The more hazing experiences people have had as a victim is directly related to their increased willingness to perpetrate hazing as a perpetrator; these past learning experiences must not be overlooked.

While the preceding discussion of hazing is somewhat theory laden and written with the administrator in mind I have also provided some more tangible suggestions to help groups determine if their activities are hazing and some suggestions to help prevent hazing.

Is this Hazing or Not?
Below are 8 questions that leaders can ask themselves to determine if the activity they are using is a hazing activity or not. If the answer to any of the questions is YES, than the activity should likely be avoided.
1) Is alcohol involved?
2) Will returning members of the group hesitate to participate or be uncomfortable with participating in the activities being asked of new members?
3) Does the activity risk emotional or physical harm?
4) Do you have any reservation describing the activity to your parents, to a professor, to the first year student’s parents or to an administrator? If not, do so.
5) Would you object to the activity being photographed by the local paper or filmed by a local TV crew?
6) Is there any risk of the first year student being embarrassed, insulted or degraded
7) Is the activity more for your own enjoyment than for the benefit of the first year student?
8) Will you have to coerce the first year student to participate?

Other Suggestions for Preventing Hazing
1) Ask Yourself: “Who is this activity for?”
2) Know that bystanders are the key to stopping hazing that is occurring. Typically if someone is being hazed, both parties (hazee and hazer) are committed to the activity. It is thus incumbent upon those observing the activity to stop it.
3) Challenge group decisions that don’t sound quite right. If you are involved with planning orientation or initiation activities, value doing the right thing over protecting group consensus.
4) Don’t try to tone down old hazing practices – be creative and create new traditions that will produce the group identity that you desire..

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 can be reached at (506) 453-5030, r.hamilton@unb.ca, or @hammy_sportpsyc on twitter.

Allan, E.J., & Madden, M. (2008). Hazing in view: College students at risk. Initial findings from the National Study of Student Hazing. Retrieved, July 10, 2008, from http://www.hazingstudy.org/publications/hazing_in_view_web.pdf
Bandura, A. (1999). Moral disengagement in the perpetration of inhumanities. Personality and Social Psychology Review. (Special Issue on Evil and Violence), 3, 193-209.
Diener, E., Dineen, J., Endresen, K., Beaman, A. L., & Fraser, S. C. (1975). Effects of altered responsibility, cognitive set, and modeling on physical aggression and deindividuation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 328-337.
Gervais, J. (2004). Cracking the myths of hazing. Paper presented at the meeting of the National Hazing Symposium, West Lafayette, IN.
Hamilton, R., & Scott, D. (2012, November). Using social cognitive theory to predict hazing in athletics. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for Psychomotor Learning and Sport Psychology, Halifax, NS.
Hamilton, R., Scott, D., O’Sullivan, L.F., & LaChapelle, D.L. (2013). An examination of the rookie hazing experiences of university athletes in Canada. Canadian Journal for Social Research, 3 (1), 35-48
Van Raalte, J.L., Cornelius, A.E., Linder, D.E., & Brewer, B.W. (2007). The relationship between hazing and team cohesion. Journal of Sport Behaviour 30(4), 491-507.

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