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Why hazing? Anthropologist investigates

Oct. 24, 2013
Courtesy of UC Santa Barbara
and World Science staff

It hap­pens in mil­i­tary un­its, street gangs and even sports teams. In some cul­tures, the rit­u­als mark the tran­si­tion from ad­o­les­cence to adult­hood. And in fratern­i­ties and soror­i­ties, it’s prac­tic­ally a giv­en.

With a long his­to­ry of wide­spread ac­cept­ance, the prac­tice of haz­ing is an en­dur­ing an­thro­po­log­i­cal puz­zle. Why have so many cul­tures in­cor­po­rat­ed it in­to their group be­hav­ior? Al­do Cimino, an an­thro­po­l­o­gist at the Uni­vers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia San­ta Bar­ba­ra, is try­ing to an­swer that ques­tion. His find­ings ap­pear in the on­line edi­tion of the jour­nal Ev­o­lu­tion and Hu­man Be­hav­ior.

“Haz­ing ex­ists in radic­ally dif­fer­ent cul­tures around the world,” said Cimino. “It is a prac­tice that cul­tures con­tin­u­ally re­dis­cov­er and in­vest them­selves in. The pri­ma­ry goal of my re­search is to un­der­stand why.”

One hy­poth­e­sis Cimino is ex­plor­ing in­volves evolved psy­chol­o­gy. “The hu­man mind may be de­signed to re­spond to new group mem­bers in a va­ri­e­ty of ways, and one of those ways may be some­thing oth­er than a hug,” he said. “I’m not claim­ing that haz­ing is in­ev­i­ta­ble in hu­man life, that eve­ry­one will haze, or that noth­ing will re­duce haz­ing. But I am sug­gest­ing that the per­sis­tence of haz­ing across dif­fer­ent so­cial, de­mo­graph­ic and ec­o­log­i­cal en­vi­ron­ments sug­gests that our shared, evolved psy­chol­o­gy may be play­ing a role.”

Haz­ing and bul­ly­ing have a lot in com­mon –– in­di­vid­u­als who pos­sess some kind of pow­er abuse those who don’t –– but what makes haz­ing strange, ac­cord­ing to Cimino, is that it’s di­rect­ed at fu­ture al­lies. “It’s very rare for bul­lies to say, ‘I’m go­ing to bully you for three months, but af­ter that we’re go­ing to be bros,’ but that’s the sort of thing that hap­pens with haz­ing.”

Cimino sug­gested that in some hu­man an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ments, as­pects of haz­ing might have served to pro­tect vet­er­an mem­bers from threats posed by new­com­ers. “It’s al­most as though the pe­ri­od of time around group en­try was deeply prob­lemat­ic,” he said. “This may have been a time dur­ing which coali­tions were ex­ploited by new­com­ers. Our in­tu­itions about how to treat new­com­ers may re­flect this reg­u­lar­ity of the past. Abus­ing new­com­ers –– haz­ing—may have served to tem­po­rarily al­ter their be­hav­ior, as well as se­lect out un­com­mit­ted new­com­ers when mem­bership was non-obligatory.”

Cimino per­formed a study on what he called a rep­re­sent­a­tive sam­ple of the Un­ited States, in which par­ti­ci­pants im­ag­ined them­selves as mem­bers of hy­po­thet­i­c or­gan­iz­a­tions. Or­gan­iz­a­tions that par­ti­ci­pants be­lieved had nu­mer­ous ben­e­fits for new­com­ers (e.g., sta­tus, pro­tection) were al­so those that in­spired more haz­ing. “In my re­search I’ve found that group ben­e­fits that could quickly ac­crue for new­com­ers –– au­to­mat­ic ben­e­fits –– pre­dict peo­ple’s de­sire to haze,” he said.

“This is­n’t the only var­i­a­ble that mat­ters –– there’s some ef­fect of age and sex, for ex­am­ple,” Cimino con­tin­ued.

He cau­tioned that sci­en­tists are a long way from un­der­standing haz­ing com­plete­ly. “Haz­ing is a com­plex phe­nom­e­non that has more than one cause, so it would be a mis­take to be­lieve that I have solved the puz­zle. How­ev­er, every study brings us a lit­tle clos­er to un­der­standing a phe­nom­e­non that seems in­creas­ingly vis­i­ble and im­por­tant,” he said.


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It happens in military units, street gangs and even sports teams. In some cultures, the rituals mark the transition from adolescence to adulthood. And in fraternities and sororities, it’s practically a given. With a long history of seemingly universal acceptance, the practice of hazing is an enduring anthropological puzzle. Why have so many cultures incorporated it into their group behavior? Aldo Cimino, an anthropologist at the University of California Santa Barbara, is trying to answer that question. His findings appear in the online edition of the journal Evolution and Human Behavior. “Hazing exists in radically different cultures around the world, and the ethnographic record is replete with examples of initiation rites that include hazing,” said Cimino. “It is a practice that cultures continually rediscover and invest themselves in. The primary goal of my research is to understand why.” One hypothesis Cimino is exploring involves evolved psychology. “The human mind may be designed to respond to new group members in a variety of ways, and one of those ways may be something other than a hug,” he said. “I’m not claiming that hazing is inevitable in human life, that everyone will haze, or that nothing will reduce hazing. But I am suggesting that the persistence of hazing across different social, demographic and ecological environments suggests that our shared, evolved psychology may be playing a role.” Hazing and bullying have a lot in common –– individuals who possess some kind of power abuse those who don’t –– but what makes hazing strange, according to Cimino, is that it’s directed at future allies. “It’s very rare for bullies to say, ‘I’m going to bully you for three months, but after that we’re going to be bros,’ but that’s the sort of thing that happens with hazing.” Cimino suggested that in some human ancestral environments, aspects of hazing might have served to protect veteran members from threats posed by newcomers. “It’s almost as though the period of time around group entry was deeply problematic,” he said. “This may have been a time during which coalitions were exploited by newcomers. Our intuitions about how to treat newcomers may reflect this regularity of the past. Abusing newcomers –– hazing — may have served to temporarily alter their behavior, as well as select out uncommitted newcomers when membership was non-obligatory.” Cimino performed a study on a representative sample of the United States, in which participants imagined themselves as members of hypothetical organizations. Organizations that participants believed had numerous benefits for newcomers (e.g., status, protection) were also those that inspired more hazing. “In my research I’ve found that group benefits that could quickly accrue for newcomers –– automatic benefits –– predict people’s desire to haze,” he said. “This isn’t the only variable that matters –– there’s some effect of age and sex, for example –– but the effect of automatic benefits suggests that potential vectors of group exploitation alter people’s treatment of newcomers in predictable ways,” Cimino continued. He cautioned that scientists are a long way from understanding hazing completely. “Hazing is a complex phenomenon that has more than one cause, so it would be a mistake to believe that I have solved the puzzle. However, every study brings us a little closer to understanding a phenomenon that seems increasingly visible and important,” he said.