Humiliation during student hazing does not create a bond

Humiliation during student hazing does not create a bond

Student associations, fraternities and sororities cherish the deeply rooted tradition of hazing new members before they’re allowed to join. Humiliation and degradation often plays a major role. Liesbeth Mann, a social psychologist at Tilburg University, did research into humiliation during such initiation procedures and came to the conclusion that it has a negative effect on group solidarity and bonding.

And that’s where the problem lies: student associations subject their new members to hazing, a rather brutal initiation process, so that they build a strong bond with each other and the association. Mann’s research shows that humiliation is actually counterproductive. Freshmen do not grow a band at all when they get poured with beer, are being laughed at or publicly judged on their appearance. Do student associations and disputes overshoot their mark here?

In the 1960s research was already done into the effects of hazing. Aronson and Mills, for example, tested the difference between heavy and light initiation rituals. They found that the heavier the initiation, the more enjoyable people find the group they become members of. This is partly due to cognitive dissonance: you try very hard to belong to a certain group. Therefore you judge that group more positively afterwards, in order to polish away conflicting convictions (‘wasted effort because group turns out to be boring’). This study did find positive effects of hazing on the perceived attractiveness of the group, but did not investigate the role of humiliation.

“Solidarity does not require humiliation”

Cross out the humiliation

Mann did. On the basis of a large questionnaire, filled in by students who had undergone initiation, no positive, but only a negative connection between severe hazing and group affiliations was found. The reason? The component of humiliation. This ensures that people develop negative associations with the student union or the fraternity. If you get through the process without humiliation, it could be that the initiation has a positive effect on the sense of community,” Mann explains.

It seems that the solution is within arm’s reach: remove the humiliating part from the initiation process and only the positive effects remain. Because let’s not forget, these positive effects are indeed there. Mann says that recent Australian research shows that if you hurt people just a little bit, it will create a strong sense of belonging to a group. “In this study, a group of strangers had to lay their hands in ice water for as long as possible. After a while it would hurt a bit. This task led to a strong sense of community among the participants.” Now Mann doesn’t want to argue in favor of painful initiation rituals, but she does think that physical renunciation can lead to more solidarity within a group. “And that does not require any humiliation,” she says.

People with low self-esteem and high insecurity are more likely to be “picked out”


Mann also researched the effect of humiliation on individual and group level. “In that research, we had people practice dance moves. The test leader then cut off the dances and exclaimed: ‘What are you doing?’ She mocked and debased them, individually as well as collectively. Humiliation on an individual basis led to a more negative effect on the group bond than humiliation as a group. “Knowing this, it’s all the more harsh that initiations often do not take individual differences into account. Everyone is dealing with that humiliation in a different way. Those with a low self-esteem or those who are insecure are the ones that get picked out earlier,” says Mann.

The social psychologist finds it bizarre that hazing as a form of initiation still occurs these days. “It’s crazy, isn’t it? When time passes, people will think: ‘Unbelievable that we once did things like that…’ A little like the process of disgust that is now starting to evolve around the bio-industry.” But will it ever be possible for student associations to make a cultural change in terms of hazing? Mann: “People within associations are very sensitive to this subject. It’s tradition, so you have to stick to it. And tradition is something people are very emphatic about: look at the discussion about ‘Zwarte Piet’ (Black Peter) for instance. But I think it helps that a societal debate has now erupted over this matter. This way, associations are finally forced to at least discuss it with each other.”

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