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The Psychological Manipulation Behind Hazing


Our firm has investigated numerous hazing instances around the country, primarily from Greek organizations on college campuses. We’ve detailed the behaviors that hazing often utilizes, including alcohol abuse, harassment, and violence. With these incidents continuing to take place across the country, one has to wonder why this abusive and coercive behavior is so deeply entrenched in campus organizations.

A study on initiation practices published by the journal of Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice unpacks the psychological phenomena that make hazing both effective and dangerous. We’ve linked to a copy of the hazing article if you’re interested in reading the whole thing, but we summarize the relevant points below.

Hazing & Forming Bonds

In the article, researchers refer to a theory that humans are psychologically wired to form “affiliative bonds” and social groups in response to a threat. This comes from evidence that affiliation and group membership help provide a sense of security—especially under stressful or anxiety-inducing conditions.

They note that where the threat comes from doesn’t matter. All that matters is that people are conditioned to form social bonds when under threat. This is part of what makes hazing effective: physical, emotional, or psychological danger puts pledges in a position where they immediately seek the safety of a group identity, i.e. as a fraternity ‘brother.’

The article theorizes that initiation rites are presented as dangerous to psychologically manipulate pledges into seeking fraternity approval. This creates not only social bonds but also a hierarchy. The fraternity leaders offer security in the form of acceptance into the group. The study found that students who were subjected to hazing felt increased social dependence on the group and its leaders, which is precisely the purpose of hazing.

The Cyclical Nature of Hazing Rites

One of the most critical points made in the study explains why hazing has continued for so long—despite being potentially fatal and emotionally damaging. The study found that leaders and group members subscribed to the belief that any new pledges must be subjected to the same treatment they received. Group members might even be given roles like “pledge master” specifically to maintain the ‘integrity’ of initiation rites.

The intensity of a fraternity member’s own initiation might drive them to make initiation equally intense or demanding for new pledges, especially as a way to establish their superior rank in the hierarchy.

Contrived Danger Becomes Real Danger

While a few hazing rituals may appear mildly risky (e.g., having pledges pull an all-nighter to paint walls), many rituals cross the line from contrived threats to genuine physical danger.

Pledges have been sexually assaulted, forced to imbibe harmful substances, given lethal amounts of alcohol, or tasked with completing dangerous physical challenges while drunk or sleep-deprived.

This study reveals that these physical dangers are not aberrations of hazing culture, but its natural conclusion. If a hazing rite needs to be perceived as dangerous to be effective, then hazing rites will inevitably escalate to genuine danger—and these dangerous activities will inevitably cut lives short.

Just like they did to Chad Meredith, Andrew Coffey, Antonio Tsialas, and countless others.

Our role as hazing attorneys remains the same: we must hold universities, fraternities, and other organizations accountable for hazing that occurs under their supervision. Hazing is a psychologically manipulative and dangerous activity that naturally escalates until someone pays the price. We continue to fight for the victim of hazing to create a safer, more rational environment in which our college students can grow, thrive, and form healthy communities.