Hazing—defined as an activity designed to degrade, humiliate, abuse, or endanger new members of a group—is still practiced all over the U.S. despite numerous cases of serious injury and even death. Most common in college club, teams, and organizations, hazing can occur as early as middle school and runs along a wide spectrum of severity. The practice encompasses everything from being forced to dress weirdly at school after making the 8th grade cheerleading squad to dangerous levels of alcohol consumption, sleep deprivation, sex acts, and beatings.
Cases such as the death of Florida A&M drum major, Robert Champion, from blunt force trauma after a hazing experience, and the very recent near death of Tennessee fraternity member Alexander Broughton from alcohol poisoning after a bizarre form of alcohol ingestion has thrust the practice into the forefront of public consciousness once again. Though many people willingly submit to hazing because of the tradition behind it and expectation that the ritual will bond them to the rest of the group, many victims are given no choice but to participate. Hazing, by definition, does not take the victim’s wishes into consideration.
So, what is the psychology behind hazing, and why does it persist despite the dangers?
Hazing in the U.S. goes as far back as the mid-seventeenth century and, at that time university presidents actually condoned the practice. According to a national study on collegiate hazing by the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention, 55% of students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations experience hazing. In 25% of cases, coaches or alumni are either present or aware of the hazing. When students felt they had experienced, hazing 95% did not report it to campus officials. Interestingly, the survey found that hazing was far from just a fraternity and sorority problem—all kinds of groups are hazing new members, including sports teams, performing arts groups, honor societies and academic clubs, recreational clubs, and religious groups.
According to psychologist and hazing expert, Susan Lipkins, hazing is a cyclical tradition in hierarchical groups, which is perpetuated by a psychological “blueprint.” New group members are subjected to the practice in order to prove worthy to be a part of the group. The next year, they observe the same happening to newer members, and then finally, they get to be the ones to perpetrate the tradition. Lipkins points out that it’s common for perpetrators to add a new twist or a little extra something to what their own experience was, which is how something that begins as mildly as singing in public can, over time, turn deadly.
Lipkins adds that, with hazing, comes a code of silence and victims are often intimidated into keeping quiet. This silence, along with the deep the sense of camaraderie, tradition, and bonding it can produce among group members, is part of why the practice is so difficult to stop.
As with any tradition, there are supporters of hazing, who argue that the few deaths that have occurred are isolated incidents and don’t mean hazing should be outlawed. Hazing supporters assert that hazing promotes group loyalty and discipline, creates a shared history, promotes bonding, creates a sense of pride and accomplishment, and prepares a person for challenges later in life.
Opponents cite injury—both emotional and physical—and preventable death as major reasons why hazing should be outlawed. The psychological and physical trauma can lead to lifelong problems. In addition, the vast majority of hazing incidents involve excess use of alcohol, most often among underage children. Hazing can also lead to serious liability risks, loss of the organization, and mistrust or resentment between group members.
At this time, 44 states have anti-hazing laws and 31 define the practice as a crime, but it is still occurring on high school and college campuses all over the U.S. In fact, in the U.S. military, hazing isn’t considered a crime, despite incidents such as the death of Army Private Danny Chen who, like others before him, committed suicide after months of physical and verbal abuse. Earlier this month, several members of Congress sent a letter to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense urging a change to the Uniform Code of Military Justice to include a statute specifically banning hazing.
Meanwhile, hazing is not only banned in most states, very serious cases can actually be prosecuted as a felony in Florida and California now. In fact, in the case of hazing deaths like Robert Champion, perpetrators can be charged with murder, leaving would-be hazers to determine whether the practice is worth going to prison.