Hazing – Why it’s So Hard to get College Fraternities to Stop

The Boston Globe reported on Tuesday that five BU students were found in the basement of a house in Allston occupied by members of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. The students, all men, were taped together, clad only in underwear and covered in condiments like fish sauce, hot sauce and mustard as part of, police believe, a hazing ritual.

This fraternity is not affiliated with Boston University, but, according to the Globe, BU recently suspended the Sigma Delta Tau sorority after underage women were allegedly forced to drink liquor until several required hospitalization. Alpha Epsilon Pi members were also allegedly involved.

Hazing, outlawed in Massachusetts, is by no means confined to BU. Other prestigious institutions continue to wrestle with the problem. Despite the strong anti-hazing stand taken by many institutions this practice just won’t go away.

Why hazing remains so popular

Working at The Allied Group, a higher education marketing firm, I realize that, abuses like hazing aside, fraternities and sororities can play an important role in developing tomorrow’s leaders. Forbes magazine stated, “The social skills that help students gain admittance into the Greek system are the same aptitudes that can later give them a leg-up in corporate climbing. Plus, once they've graduated, they can tap into the network of past fraternity brothers or sisters who litter all tiers of corporate America.” American presidents and many corporate CEOs are fraternity members.

Hazing is the dark site of Greek life, causing cases of physical and emotional injury, even death. So why do fraternities and sororities keep doing it? A classic study by renowned psychology researcher Dr. Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills, PhD reveals the answer.

Research finds the key

Aronson and Mills invited Stanford University students to join a group discussing the psychology of sex. To attend, new members had to submit to an embarrassing initiation procedure. For some it was excruciating; others underwent a milder initiation. Afterward, each student listened to the same recording of a supposed group meeting. It was purposely designed to be as boring as possible, a halting academic discussion of the secondary mating characteristics of birds. It was far from the tantalizing yet insightful exchange promised.

Afterwards, the students rated several aspects of the discussion. The mild initiation group rated it accurately: boring and worthless; the members dull and annoying. But those in the severe initiation group assessed the conversation as interesting and exciting. They regarded group members as “attractive and sharp.”

Clearly, their view of the group and its recorded discussion was strongly altered by the severity of their initiation. When other scientists replicated the experiment using different admission rituals, the result was always the same. As Dr. Aronson and his coauthor put it, “Severe initiations increase a member’s liking for the group.”

This evidence reveals the reason why hazing is so hard to eliminate: it works. The strictest college rules will not stop it. We know a lot of effective marketing communication strategies, but none that will eradicate a practice that binds members so tightly to organizations. You might as well ask the Marines to abolish boot camp!

The only useful anti-hazing strategy is to find other equally effective but less risky ways to test and indoctrinate new pledges. Robert Cialdini, PhD points out that plenty of dirty, distasteful jobs in society need doing. If fraternities volunteered to take them on during Hell Week, it would not only benefit the community but the fraternity’s image as well. Remember, it doesn’t matter what the initiation ritual is – as long as it’s severe, it’s effective.

Could colleges instruct fraternity members about these matters so that the dangers of hazing can be eliminated? Why not?

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