What Hazing and Marketing Have in Common

Portrait of a smiling young businessman with gun.The phenomenon of bullying is dark and often traumatic, especially for those who experienced it. It is out there, present and reaching out with its greedy hands for all its potential victims. There are many web pages devoted to bullying, on which psychologists and trauma experts try to explain the psychology of a bully or provide their victims with psychological shields against them. Even so, this topic remains carefully avoided in every-day conversations being still on a top 10 list of stress reasons.

Why is it so shady a topic then? Because very often bullies grow into mentally stable, respectful members of our society, and who knows maybe your current interlocutor is one of them, and one does not want to poke a beast. Besides, it is kind of lame to admit that you were bullied as a child, isn’t it? We are, after all a bunch of out-grown children trying to play the game of adulthood, but possessively holding on to our past traumas that are believed to have shaped us the way we are.

One of the most common examples of bullying is hazing, which occurs in almost every social group formed as an in-group with distinctive purpose (military units, firemen, policemen,  etc.) or governed by distinctive set of rules (fraternities, sub-cultural groups, etc.). Perceived pejoratively, mostly due to many documented cases of extreme hazing that resulted in unnecessary deaths of its participants, it is undoubtedly one of the most interesting sociological phenomena that incorporates many psychological tools used on a daily basis by marketers, door-to-door salesmen and many religious groups which mission is to gain new church members by spreading their beliefs worldwide (Krishna religion, Jehovah witnesses, etc.).

Fraternities often offer their brothers or sisters-to-be the opportunity to live for a couple of days among the brotherhood/sisterhood just to “check it out.” Sounds innocent, but in fact it is a very common influence technique mostly practiced by traveling salesmen or car salons. By being allowed to use something or to live somewhere for a trial period, a bond is created.  This bond is a proverbial foot-in-a-door that creates a crack in a person’s mind, which later on can be easily widened and exploited.

The crack happens when your subconsciousness has already taken the decision and now your brain will do anything to stay loyal to it.  Why would it do such a thing? Just because it wants to be consistent with the rest of your body.

Every human being is driven by consistency. Despite Emerson’s well-known words that “consistency is a hobgoblin of little minds,” this trait of human character actually serves to protect our brain from too many stimuli by appealing to its ability of forming logical connections. Not bad at all, right?

It only starts to be bad, when it is used by people who know the right buttons to be pushed in order to exploit this ability for their advantage.

The more you use something the more attached you become. One day of using a hover with aggressively advertised super powers or driving a car that is clearly too big for your needs will probably make you forget about your initial opinion. Doubt will change its place with certainty. You will start to see things that diminish your original reservations. You yourself will become the biggest enemy of your logic.

And the same simple rule stands behind this sinister business of hazing. The harsher the hazing the bigger commitment to the group is created. The brain tries to justify the effort, and a person starts to see a particular social unit as unique, worthwhile and attractive. This psychological phenomenon is so deeply rooted in our subconsciousness that people tend to perceive groups without any initiation rites as boring, invaluable and unsatisfactory, what was shown by the research conducted by Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills in 1959.

They conducted a series of interviews with people who had just been admitted to some college groups. The researchers give an example of a woman who chose a sex discussion group, and based her choice entirely on the fact that she had to endure severely embarrassing initiation rites. She called this group far more interesting whereas the other ones that did not haze their participant “worthless.”

How to get rid of hazing while even participants vote for it? Subconscious or not, those are their choices after all…

William Styron, a writer and a former marine looks back at his own agonies of initiation rites as a collective of activities that made him “resilient, (…) braver and better.” He also claims that without hazing it would be impossible to achieve the same level of trust and camaraderie that exists among the marines. They all are aware of the fact that they all went through a “training nightmare” and this rough experience unites the in-group at the same time secluding it from the rest of the world by its uniqueness.

As much as many people hate hazing and are against it, I do not see it uprooted from our society any time soon, since it works almost on the verge of our subconscious selves, taking control of us if we want it or not, regardless of the side we are on: hazing or being hazed.

Yes, there have been many cases of deaths, and that’s how generally nowadays people associate hazing with. Unfortunately, in every social group there would be a case of a mentally distorted brute acting out his/her aggression. So maybe the ideal preventive measure would be to try to root out those unhealthy cases of aggressors, instead of a tradition which fighting off is, I am afraid, like Don Quixote’s duels with windmills – futile in its enormity.





Robert B. Cialdini, PhD., ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Collins Business (2007), pp. 57-103


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