In general, some people are more likely to accept norms and rules than others, which can influence the interaction and potential for conflict within a group. While some people may feel a need for social acceptance that leads them to accept a norm or rule with minimal conformity pressure, others may actively resist because they have a valid disagreement or because they have an aggressive or argumentative personality.Donald G. Ellis and B. Aubrey Fisher, Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), 133. Such personality traits are examples of internal pressures that operate within the individual group member and act as a self-governing mechanism. When group members discipline themselves and monitor their own behavior, groups need not invest in as many external mechanisms to promote conformity. Deviating from the group’s rules and norms that a member internalized during socialization can lead to self-imposed feelings of guilt or shame that can then initiate corrective behaviors and discourage the member from going against the group.
External pressures in the form of group policies, rewards or punishments, or other forces outside of individual group members also exert conformity pressure. In terms of group policies, groups that have an official admission process may have a probation period during which new members’ membership is contingent on them conforming to group expectations. Deviation from expectations during this “trial period” could lead to expulsion from the group. Supervisors, mentors, and other types of group leaders are also agents that can impose external pressures toward conformity. These group members often have the ability to provide positive or negative reinforcement in the form of praise or punishment, which are clear attempts to influence behavior.
Conformity pressure can also stem from external forces when the whole group stands to receive a reward or punishment based on its performance, which ties back to the small group characteristic of interdependence. Although these pressures may seem negative, they also have positive results. Groups that exert an appropriate and ethical amount of conformity pressure typically have higher levels of group cohesion, which as we learned leads to increased satisfaction with group membership, better relationships, and better task performance. Groups with a strong but healthy level of conformity also project a strong group image to those outside the group, which can raise the group’s profile or reputation.Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice, 5th ed. (London: Routledge, 2011), 444. Pressures toward conformity, of course, can go too far, as is evidenced in tragic stories of people driven to suicide because they felt they couldn’t live up to the conformity pressure of their group and people injured or killed enduring hazing rituals that take expectations for group conformity to unethical and criminal extremes.
Hazing: Taking Conformity Pressures to the Extreme
Hazing can be defined as actions expected to be performed by aspiring or new members of a group that are irrelevant to the group’s activities or mission and are humiliating, degrading, abusive, or dangerous.Brian K. Richardson, Zuoming Wang, and Camille A. Hall, “Blowing the Whistle against Greek Hazing: The Theory of Reasoned Action as a Framework for Reporting Intentions,”Communication Studies 63, no. 2 (2012): 173. People who have participated in hazing or have been hazed often note that hazing activities are meant to build group identification and unity. Scholars note that hazing is rationalized because of high conformity pressures and that people who were hazed internalize the group’s practices and are more likely to perpetuate hazing, creating a cycle of abuse.Shelly Campo, Gretchen Poulos, and John W. Sipple, “Prevalence and Profiling: Hazing among College Students and Points of Intervention,” American Journal of Health Behavior 29, no. 2 (2005): 138. Hazing is not new; it has been around in academic and athletic settings since ancient Greece, but it has gotten much attention lately on college campuses as the number of student deaths attributed to hazing behaviors has increased steadily over the past years. In general, it is believed that hazing incidents are underreported, because these activities are done in secret within tightly knit organizations such as fraternities, sororities, and athletic teams that have strong norms of conformity.Brian K. Richardson, Zuoming Wang, and Camille A. Hall, “Blowing the Whistle against Greek Hazing: The Theory of Reasoned Action as a Framework for Reporting Intentions,”Communication Studies 63, no. 2 (2012): 185–220.
The urge to belong is powerful, but where is the line when it comes to the actions people take or what people are willing to endure in order to be accepted? Hazing is meant to have aspiring group members prove their worth or commitment to the group. Examples of hazing include, but aren’t limited to, being “kidnapped, transported, and abandoned”; drinking excessively in games or contests; sleep deprivation; engaging in or simulating sexual acts; being physically abused; being required to remain silent; wearing unusual clothes or costumes; or acting in a subservient manner to more senior group members.Shelly Campo, Gretchen Poulos, and John W. Sipple, “Prevalence and Profiling: Hazing among College Students and Points of Intervention,” American Journal of Health Behavior 29, no. 2 (2005): 137; Aldo Cimino, “The Evolution of Hazing: Motivational Mechanisms and the Abuse of Newcomers,” Journal of Cognition and Culture 11, no. 3–4 (2011): 235. Research has found that people in leadership roles, who are more likely to have strong group identification, are also more likely to engage in hazing activities.Shelly Campo, Gretchen Poulos, and John W. Sipple, “Prevalence and Profiling: Hazing among College Students and Points of Intervention,” American Journal of Health Behavior 29, no. 2 (2005): 144. The same research also found that group members who have supportive friends outside of the organization are more likely to remove themselves from a hazing situation, which points to the fact that people who endure hazing may be doing so out of a strong drive to find the acceptance and belonging they do not have elsewhere.
- What is your definition of hazing? When does something cross the line from a rite of passage or tradition to hazing?
- What are some internal and external pressures that might lead to hazing activities?
- Do some research on hazing incidents on college campuses. What concepts from this chapter do you think could be used in antihazing education campaigns to prevent incidents like the ones you researched?