“You conform, for fear of being excluded from the group”

“You conform, for fear of being excluded from the group”

Interview with social psychologist Karlijn Massar about hazing

12-10-2022 · Background

Hazing won’t disappear, neither will extremes. “Initiation rituals have been a part of all kinds of cultures for centuries,” says Karlijn Massar, associate professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience. Moreover, everything that happens can be explained from the perspective of social psychology: the fact that prospective members continually go one step further, even when it becomes humiliating. And the senior students who pull the strings? “They have the power. Running the risk that things can easily escalate.” 

Halfway through the last century, the Polish-American social psychologist Solomon Asch showed how we respond to group pressure. A number of test subjects had to say out loud which of the three lines (A, B, C) was the same length as the X line that they were shown. The answer was patently obvious, but because others, who were in on the conspiracy, gave a wrong answer, the unsuspecting test subject went along with them. This was even though he knew that it was incorrect. “You conform, for fear of being excluded from the group,” Massar explains. “Because everybody else does it, you do it too, that is very logical. For young adults, from 17 to 25 years of age, ‘belonging’ is the most important thing.”


Massar also mentions another pattern of behaviour that explains why prospective members keep going during a hazing, even when it is not all that nice anymore: the escalation of commitment. “Initially, something minor is asked of you, you do it. This is followed by something bigger, and after that something else. It becomes more and more difficult to say ‘no’.” According to Massar, the newcomers are shown carrots time and again. “The further along you get in that process, the more you become convinced that it will be worth it.”

At Circumflex, prospective members are called ‘zeros’. They are spoken to as ‘zero 26’ or ‘zero 84’. Nick Sanders, who was chairman of the association in 2016, said at the time in an article in Observant about hazing and the UM code of conduct, that he doesn’t find the naming of ‘zeros’ “not demeaning.” Massar: “By reducing people to a ‘zero number’ you are giving them a label, it becomes easier to treat them as a ‘thing’. Besides, it strengthens the us-them idea. You saw that in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where American soldiers treated Iraqi prisoners in a degrading way. We saw photographs of prisoners with hoods over their heads. That is also a way to dehumanise people.”

Big secret

Anyone who finds themselves tired and hungry on a cold September evening, outside in a line-up and is being shouted at, like the student who spoke to Observant, surely must think: ‘What kind of bad film have I ended up in?’  Massar: “The way you feel treated at that moment, does not correspond with your standards and values, with your attitude and you notice that, you see yourself undergoing it. We call that cognitive dissonance. But you don’t adapt your behaviour, because of group pressure and commitment, so the only thing you can adapt, are your standards and values.”

Afterwards, it is ‘normal’ to keep everything about hazing ‘internal’. That’s why so few students are willing to talk about it. Massar: “It is not done. Many associations have a strict hierarchy and clear rules. Members know what rules they have to adhere to. Moreover, they usually justify what has happened, ‘I am a member now, I did everything to get this far and it was worth it’. In doing so, you make what happened small, like ‘it wasn’t so bad’. That is a psychological process too. Ultimately, everyone in such an association seeks to justify what has happened.”

Improvement plan

Tragos was punished by Maastricht University after misconduct during hazing at the beginning of September. They will only get their association status back when they have come up with a decent improvement plan. This is to prevent students from overstepping their boundaries during hazing, the Executive Board is hoping.
Whether the improvement plan will work? Massar doesn’t hold much hope. “Senior students who go too far during an introduction, will not label their behaviour as abuse of power or unacceptable. They are a ‘subsociety’ with their own standards and values, so it makes no difference to them what the ‘real’ society thinks about it. Besides, we have seen initiation rituals for centuries, in all cultures. Especially for boys who want to prove their virility on their way to adulthood. There are indigenous tribes in North America where young men go off and live in isolation and starve for weeks. With the Matis Indians, they need to undergo horrible trials. Those rites are difficult to give up. The same applies to associations with traditions that have been going on for years.”

Student association KoKo is known for the fact that it is less hierarchal than Tragos and Circumflex. They also have no hazing. “They have a different way of creating involvement and bonding. There are year groups, with their own clothing and names. These are also subgroups that distinguish themselves from the others within KoKo. Group pressure also plays a role there. It will be just as difficult to leave KoKo as it is to leave Circumflex after the introduction period.”

Author: Wendy Degens

Illustration: Simone Golob

Tags: hazing,introduction period, social psychology, group pressure,commitment,tragos,circumflex,koko

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