Does Hazing Work?

In the continuing dysfunction of the Miami Dolphins—with offensive tackle Jonathan Martin having left the team after being bullied by teammate Richie Incognito and Incognito suspended as players choose sides and lawyers swoop in—the National Football League is receiving the wrong kind of attention. Media coverage has focused on the incongruous image of a 300-pound football player claiming to have been bullied, and on the question of whether Incognito—who among other things, used racist language against the half-black Martin—represents the thuggish underbelly of NFL culture, or whether Martin simply overreacted to routine locker-room hazing.

To the extent that the hazing itself has been discussed, it has been either with outrage at its excesses, or with a sort of shrug from many players. Less-discussed has been the issue of whether hazing works. After all, not only NFL teams tacitly condone the practice. Institutions from street gangs to the Marine Corps to college sororities subject recruits to humiliating, physically punishing rituals as a way to meld them into the group. Young men in Native American tribes endured harrowing ordeals to mark their passage from childhood to adulthood. “There have been been so-called initiation rites that involve a certain amount of cruelty and brutality that have characterized human society for as long as we’ve known about human societies,” says Caroline Keating, a psychology professor at Colgate University.

Some see this prevalence as evidence of man’s inhumanity to man and the sadistic results of peer pressure—a susceptibility most notoriously shown in the famous Stanford Prison Experiment led by Philip Zimbardo—and, indeed, some commentators have drawn the link to the Dolphins case.

There’s a second possible explanation, though—that hazing works. The arguments over the question tend to draw on anecdotal evidence, and part of what’s interesting is how many people have anecdotal evidence to draw on. Keating, however, is one of the few researchers to study hazing experimentally. It’s a challenge, partly as a result of studies such as Zimbardo’s. Studies that subject people to severe physical and psychological discomfort are hard to get past institutional review boards.

In a 2005 paper (PDF), Keating and her co-authors wrote up the results of three experiments on hazing. The first was a survey of 269 college undergraduates who belonged to single-sex organizations—sports teams, fraternities, and sororities, and (as this was a small, selective Northeastern liberal arts college) a cappella groups. The most interesting finding of the survey was that both harsh and enjoyable initiation rites made subjects value the group they belonged to.

The additional studies were experiments. In the first, male freshmen and sophomores were told they would “perform behaviors for evaluation by upper-class research students and could be selected to help evaluate the performances of other students.” Alone in a room, they were asked to carry out either embarrassing or innocuous charades and were told they were being watched through a one-way mirror by upperclassmen. (To forestall prejudicing the next stage of the study, the upperclassmen weren’t watching.) The embarrassing charades were such things as polishing the boots of an imaginary person and acting like a dog or slave; the neutral ones were things like rowing a boat, brushing one’s teeth, or juggling.

After the performance, the freshmen and sophomores were shown into the well-appointed observation room of the upperclassmen. Then all three groups watched a series of videos of other student performances and judged them. In some of them, the upperclassmen “judges” intentionally gave unrealistically high or low ratings.

The point of this was to test how much the test subject would conform their views: Would they tailor grades to match the clearly inflated or deflated ones of the experimenters? Yes, they would, it turns out—especially if they’d just finished embarrassing themselves. It’s interesting that those who had engaged in the embarrassing charades also reported having more fun during the induction process. Which suggests that self-reported fun and harshness in induction rituals may not be such independent variables.

The third experiment was similar to the second. The subjects were female and were told they were participating in a study of creativity. Rather than charades, they were blindfolded; using only touch and smell, they were asked to describe, as creatively as possible, items placed in front of them. Some items were neutral things such as a rubber ball or aluminum foil. Others were discomforting, like a “water snake” toy, cooked shrimp, and a dog-food snack. Then the freshmen and sophomores were ushered into the room with two upperclasswomen and asked to help them judge other students’ responses.

As in the previous study, the more humiliated subjects were more conformist in their judgments. The experimenters also measured where the subjects chose to sit in the observation room: Those who had been forced to feel the more discomforting objects wound up sitting  nearer to the experimenters. Put another way, the people who had been more humiliated tended to cluster closer to the people whom they believed had visited that humiliation on them.

These relatively tame interventions (cooked shrimp?!) are nothing compared to Parris Island, of course, or an NFL locker room, but Keating argues that the same dynamics are at work. “Brutality can net you dependency because the attachment system of human beings can get triggered by brutal treatment,” she argues, adding that “what the system doesn’t always detect is that the agent of discomfort might not be the best person to attach to.”

While the need for this sort of forced assimilation is easy to see in a group that exists at the margins of mainstream society—a cult, say, or an a cappella group—it is harder to see the necessity on a professional football team. Isn’t the desire to win—and collect a paycheck—enough to keep people committed to the organization’s success? Keating suggests that hazing persists in places like the NFL partly to counteract the influence of money and individual acclaim; hazing is a means to keep players committed to the team, rather than to their own glory. She remembers hearing an American general talk about how he saw incidences of hazing in the military rise in the 1960s, a decade where mainstream culture was consumed with celebrations of individualism.

So if we’re not going to be able to get rid of hazing—and if there is some evidence that it does what its proponents say it does—are there ways to keep its benefits while reducing its psychological impact on people such as Jonathan Martin? Can we haze better? Keating suggests that since discomfort is a big part of how hazing works, perhaps putting people through ordeals with social benefits might be a way to do it. “Building a house for Habitat for Humanity,” she suggests. “It’s physically challenging and somewhat painful, if you’re not skilled enough at it.” That’s a start, but it does lack the component of humiliation. Perhaps, though, if we made people do it while reading excruciating passages from their teenage journals, with a panel of raucous, dyspeptic judges commenting on their handiwork, we’d get more powerful effects.

Bennett is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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