Is hazing part of our evolved psychology?

"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," says Aldo Cimino. (Credit: "foodfight" by Kevin N. Murphy/Flickr, font by Tyler Finck/FontSquirrel)

Hazing may have once been a way to protect members of an established community from the threats of newcomers, a new study suggests.

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

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“Hazing exists in radically different cultures around the world, and the ethnographic record is replete with examples of initiation rites that include hazing,” says Aldo Cimino, a lecturer in the department of anthropology at University of California, Santa Barbara.

“It is a practice that cultures continually rediscover and invest themselves in. The primary goal of my research is to understand why,” says Cimino, whose study is published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

Hazing vs. bullying

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 says.

“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 suggests 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 says. “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.”

Perks for newcomers

Cimino performed a study on a representative sample of the United States, in which participants imagined themselves as members of hypothetical organizations. The organizations that were believed to have 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 says.

“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 continues.

He cautions 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.”

Source: UC Santa Barbara