If you are a college student, you’ve probably heard horrific stories of hazing, whether it happened directly at your school, or another. You’ve probably asked yourself two questions: “How could anyone make someone do that?”, and “Why would anyone put themselves through that?” If you don’t know these stories, you can look up George Desdune, a student who died from hazing after being forced to eat a deadly concoction of dish soap, hot sauce and other liquids. Or, Brittany Sterling, who was treated as a “human trash can” and had to clean floors and collect trash with only her body before being physically abused. When thinking of hazing and how it occurs, a famous psychology experiment from 1971 comes to mind called the Stanford Prison Assignment.
In this experiment, college students were randomly separated into two groups: prisoners, and guards, for two weeks and placed in a simulated prison. The guards were given no specific instructions and initially felt awkward in their roles. However, even though the “guard” group was assigned at random, throughout the week, they became continuously more aggressive to their peers by ways of verbal abuse, humiliation tactics, excessive exercise, and taking away basic privileges from prisoners, like beds, clothes and enough food.
The “prisoner” group did challenge the guards at some points, but they were subjected to horrific treatment and became increasingly hysterical. They felt like real prisoners. They developed “prison talk” and some sided with guards when prisoners did not follow the “rules”. The experiment had to be ended after only six days as the abuse worsened and several prisoners had to leave the experiment due to emotional distress. Following the experiment, several guards looked back on their behavior astonished, saying that prior to the experiment, they did not think they were capable of inflicting abuse on others. When they were in the experiment, they felt no remorse.
What they described in other words is the term coined deindividuation-a state when you become so immersed in the norms of the group that you lose your sense of identity and personal responsibility. While the guards experienced this, the prisoners’ submissiveness could be explained by the term learned helplessness-a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed.This experiment showed the psychological effect of role-playing and power dynamics.
Now, let’s return to hazing. When we hear of awful hazing instances, we ask how humans can put other individuals through such treatment, and we wonder how and why individuals subject themselves to it. The chances are, those individuals don’t know the answers to those questions themselves and, prior to being introduced to Greek life, never saw themselves on either side of hazing.
There are two groups in hazing: the individuals doing the hazing, and those being hazed. Those hazing new members are a few years older and have been on the other side of it. They do not consider themselves to be malicious, and yet, at many schools, peers haze other peers through tactics of physical, sexual and verbal abuse; excess drinking/eating requirements to ensure vomiting, and stressful tasks that take time and energy from the hazed individuals’ lives. Those being hazed forget that the activities they are forced to do were constructed by other students, students who are only labeled superior to them because they are already in the fraternity/sorority.
On both sides, the groups get lost in the social roles they are given and commit to unthinkable actions. In this way, I believe hazing can be explained by looking at the outcomes of the Stanford Prison Experiment. The “guards” are those hazing and experience deindividuation, and those being hazed are the “prisoners” who experience learned helplessness.
If you’re joining Greek Life that uses hazing as an initiation ritual, I urge you to take a step back and think about how much you would be willing to go through to get into your sorority/fraternity. Is it worth it? If you are in a position to haze, take a step back and think about how much is too much. Could you be inflicting any kind of abuse on another person?
For more resources, tools, and information on hazing, please click here: https://stophazing.org/resources/digital-tools-downloads/ . Watch the “Stanford Prison Assignment” movie on Netflix or look at my sources for more information.