Overcoming the Evil of Hazing

At the beginning of the week, 24 college students descended into a basement that for them became the bowels of Hell. They were dehumanized, humiliated, and ultimately broken. The process began with the stripping of their clothes, their identities, and their privacy. It ended after six days with their dignity, humanity, and well-being having been taken away. In between, the students were awoken repeatedly throughout the nights, were forced to simulate sexual acts with others, and had bathroom and eating privileges restricted.

The words above could have described a fraternity-related Hell Week experience. But in fact, they are describing the landmark Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. Prior to the experiment, Philip Zimbardo and associates meticulously screened a group of students at Stanford University. On all emotional and psychological measures, the students scored between the 40th and 60th percentiles; they were average people. They were randomly assigned to be either guards or prisoners. The experiment was scheduled for 14 days, but in less than a week, the guards had become so intensely sadistic and the prisoners so strikingly submissive, that the experiment was halted for the sake of the safety and well-being of everyone involved. So, what caused a group of average, ordinary students to internalize and radicalize their roles in such a brief period of time? And how does the Stanford Prison Experiment inform our work against hazing?

Zimbardo argued in his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil that powerful social forces can alter the behavior of ordinary people (Zimbardo, 2007). In his own experiment, good people suddenly became perpetrators of evil as guards or pathologically passive victims as prisoners as a result of the powerful situational forces acting on them. As human beings, we tend to believe in the “essential, unchanging goodness of people,” (Zimbardo, 2007, p. 211). That is, there is a seemingly impermeable boundary between Good and Evil. Bad things are done by bad people. Good things by good people. The Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated that situations matter, and that the line between Good and Evil is more pliable that we may realize. It is possible for social settings to exert a significant impact on the behavior and mental functioning of individuals and groups.

Zimbardo (2007) is careful to point out that individuals are not absolved of their actions, but in affecting positive changes in human behavior it is important to understand the effects of situational, social, and systemic forces. Some of these forces include:

  • Authority – The ability of roles and rules to control behavior and culture by delineating not only what is rewarded and punished, but also who is responsible for distributing those rewards and punishments
  • Deindividuation – In which the perpetrator becomes anonymous, reducing accountability, responsibility, and self-monitoring
  • Dehumanization – In which the victim’s humanity is minimized, setting the stage for treatment of the victim as less than an equal human being
  • Sleep deprivation and time perspective – In addition to the disruption of the sleep cycle by abbreviated or intermittent opportunities for sleep, menial and tedious activities encourage perpetrators and victims to immerse themselves in the present situation and restrict their ability to see beyond the current role
  • Social approval – In which individual needs for acceptance and respect combine with pressure from others to be a “team player” to conform to emerging group norms or risk the fear of being left outside

Particularly in our work with institutions or organizations with cultures of hazing, it is easy to find examples of parallel forces and systems.

At the Interdisciplinary Institute for Hazing Intervention in June, the conversations about changing the culture of hazing in organizations revolved around the Higher Education Center’s A Comprehensive Approach to Hazing Prevention in Higher Education Settings (Langford, 2008). Specifically, the Higher Education Center endorsed a set of principles for hazing prevention because of the unique cultures of different institutions. These principles for guiding hazing prevention strategies are: prevention-focused, comprehensive, planned and evaluated, strategic and targeted, research-based, multicomponent, coordinated and synergistic, multisectoral and collaborative, and supported by infrastructure, institutional commitment, and systems. Specifically, two of the Higher Education Center’s key recommendations include:

  • Identifying and addressing multiple contributing factors; and
  • Including prevention, early intervention, and response components.

By addressing an array of contributing factors, including individual, peer and group-level, institutional, community, and societal factors, we can deal with the convergence of these factors that create a culture of hazing. On each of these five levels, from an intrapersonal level to a societal level, we can tackle issues such as authority, deindividuation, dehumanization, time perspective, and social approval. Likewise, strategies should include prevention, early intervention, and response elements. So, in addition to responding to an incident or injury, initiatives must include efforts for intervening early in hazing behaviors and for stopping hazing behaviors altogether. Prevention efforts can create safer environments and target underlying causes, and early intervention efforts can empower students to speak up about “little h’s” before they become “big H’s”.

Changing a destructive culture can be extremely challenging. In fact, although such destructive cultures can force people to become bystanders to Evil, altering circumstances can bring out the inner heroes in ordinary people. For that reason, Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo (2006) invoked readers to cultivate heroism in response to the Evil transformations they had witnessed in the Stanford Prison Experiment, Abu Ghraib, Nazi Germany, etc. In prevention and early intervention, the pivot point is winning over bystanders from inaction to action.

In the Stanford Prison Experiment, the guards who were perceived positively by the prisoners never complained or intervened to stop the “bad guards”. In short, they succumbed to the Evil of inaction. But, by failing to attempt an intervention, they were complicit in the “bad guards’” behavior. Instead of the bystander falling victim to the Evil of inaction (“the bystander effect”), the bystander can be empowered for Heroism.

Franco and Zimbardo (2006) identified five practical steps for empowering individuals toward Heroism. The first step is to encourage a critical evaluation of each and every situation. Franco and Zimbardo (2006) refer to this as the “discontinuity detector,” which is an awareness of things that are out of place or do not make sense in a situation. By doing so, individuals can separate themselves from a dangerous or inappropriate group norm. They can begin asking questions of themselves, such as “Why am I doing this?,” “What does this say about me, about my friends, and about the group?,” and “How does this fit with my personal values and the group’s values?”

Secondly, the authors also encourage us to embrace interpersonal conflict, while developing the strength to hold onto personal principles and values. When individuals become cognizant of activities or behaviors that are “discontinuous” with personal or group values, they can challenge others to align their behaviors with their own personal values, group values, community values, and human values.

The third component is an awareness of the extended time-horizon, in addition to being engaged in the current situation. By doing so, a person can imagine alternative future scenarios and maintain connections to past lessons and values, which broadens the available information in decision-making beyond the present situation. For example, an individual can call on memories of difficult past situations or lessons he or she has learned from parents and mentors, or he or she can imagine how family, friends, mentors, teachers, employers, and others may react if those others found out how the individual had betrayed a set of personal values by mistreating others or participating in such behaviors. In short, the individual resists compartmentalizing dangerous and inappropriate behaviors and is aware of deeply held attitudes, beliefs, and values.

The next step is to normalize action and resist rationalization. Challenge norms that inhibit and prevent independent thinking and action. Do not go along to get along. Do not let the ends (real or imagined) justify the means.

Finally, we can and must help people look beyond immediate negative consequences and obstacles. We must help people transcend the very real challenges and fears they face to achieve the cultural change and positive outcomes they yearn for.

As educators, we must organize across institutions and organizations in challenging a culture of hazing through the Higher Education Center’s model, and champion heroic acts by individuals in order to win the battle against the Evil of hazing.



Franco, Z. & Zimbardo, P. (2006-07, Fall/Winter). The banality of heroism. Greater Good, 30-35.

Langford, L. (2008). A comprehensive approach to hazing prevention in higher education settings. Newton, MA: U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention.

Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York: Random House