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The Effects of Hazing on Students' Self-esteem

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Despite being illegal in many states due to the history of hospitalizations and death, hazing continues to be a common form of initiation throughout fraternities, sports teams and other clubs and groups (MacLachlan, 2007). Hazing has existed in many forms for hundreds of years from having memorizing rituals to completing different tasks. In the modern-day, hazing has developed into a cruel form of physical and mental torture including forced binge drinking and life-risking behaviors, perpetuated by the long-standing idea that one’s place in a group needs to be earned (Lewis, 1991). These clubs and groups that participate in modern hazing are common and are perceived as important in many peoples’ lives, especially when they are young or in college, although the in-group benefits such as acceptance and inclusion may be outweighed by the disadvantages and negative experiences (Cokley, Miller, Cunningham, Motoike, King & Awad, 2001). Younger people overlook the negative drawbacks of hazing to ascertain a supposed “in-group status” as well as a sense of belonging and support. They are willing to subject themselves to trauma and assault, which are common causes of mental issues such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety, to gain a community (Cokley, et al., 2001). These two things seem to be the opposite of each other in terms of the results so what are the effects of hazing on self-esteem?

Literature Review

The most well know form of hazing, what dominates American media, is that of college fraternities. Fraternities are groups of collegiate men who go through a recruitment process in which newer potential members are invited to join by older members in the fraternity. The recruitment process is heavily based on looks, personality and legacy, which is when older members of your family were already in the organization (Mercuro, Merritt, & Fiumefreddo, 2014). They are commonly marketed as a way to feel included with one’s peers and as a guaranteed social sphere, so they attract many students who are away from home for the first time and are seeking a supportive environment. These students are looking to increase their self-esteem in an environment that they are unfamiliar with and uncomfortable in (Mercuro, et al., 2014). Fraternity hazing has included but is not limited to forcing new members to engage in alcohol abuse, physical abuse, verbal abuse, sleep deprivation and public humiliation (Cokley et al., 2001). These activities, as well as a general attitude amongst fraternities, prioritize masculinity and their fraternity’s standards for male behavior. Furthermore, fraternity men who had been subjected to these activities showed lower levels of self-esteem than fraternity men who had not been hazed as well as non-fraternity affiliated students. This means that even if one of the reasons that college-aged men join fraternities is to increase self-esteem and that college-aged men with higher self-esteem did not feel the need to join a fraternity, those that joined a fraternity and were hazed still had lower self-esteem than those who joined and were not, showing that subjecting oneself to hazing to gain the boost in self-esteem from being in a fraternity is not necessary (Mercuro et al., 2014). It was also found that members of fraternity organizations that held a more positive view of Greek life as a whole were more perceptible to hazing practices and saw them as more of a necessary part of their initiation. Meaning that new members saw hazing as something they had to participate in to access the benefits of being a part of a group and also saw it as a way to please older “brothers”, gaining more acceptance which they believed would increase self-esteem, which it did not (Mercuro et al., 2014).

While most literature focuses on the fraternal aspect of hazing due to its more physical nature with visible repercussions, college sororities also have a long history of hazing that are instead more focused on breaking down new members psychologically (Shaw & Morgan, 1990). This leads to many women in sororities not even realizing that their initiation practices are hazing and many advisors turn a blind eye to such practices as they seem trivial in comparison to fraternities. This makes it harder to measure the levels of hazing between sororities and compare the difference between hazed and not hazed, such as the way Mercuro, et al. did with fraternity men in 2014 (Shaw et al., 1990). When comparing sorority women and fraternity men, sorority women also have high rates of alcohol use but unlike fraternity men, they have higher rates of disordered eating compared to non-sorority members. This is due to effects on self-esteem caused more by body dysmorphia than the PTSD and assault trauma that fraternity men face, but an effect on self-esteem nonetheless (Kase, Rivera, & Hunt, 2016). Contrastingly, it was found that sorority members felt that being in a sorority gave them relationships that helped them deal with stress and a sense of belonging, attributes that are associated with higher psychological adjustment. So while we see a difference in the self-esteem of fraternity men that are hazed and nonaffiliated men that were not hazed, sorority women self-report a higher sense of belonging than those not in a sorority, indicating that gaining acceptance through an in-group status did increase self-esteem, unlike with fraternity men (Woodward, Rosenfeld, & May, 1996). It was also found that sorority members have higher levels of self-esteem than both fraternity and non-Greek life affiliated students (Mercuro et al., 2014). This may be because the psychological hazing that sorority women participate in does not perpetuate ideas that are not found in general society and mainstream media, which also set an expectation for women to be thin and promote body dissatisfaction. This means that both nonaffiliated women and sorority women will face judgment based on how they look and act but at least the sorority women have a community in place to look for support from that will build self-esteem (Fernandez & Pritchard 2012). The physical hazing associated with fraternities, on the other hand, is not commonplace and there are even laws in place that specifically target these forms of hazing, so they add a stressor into a man’s life that wasn’t there before and will negatively affect his self-esteem (Lewis, 1991).

Hazing practices, while most commonly associated with Greek life, are also associated with other groups based off of an in-group dynamic such as sports teams, who require a sense of comradery and dedication that set them apart from the rest of the community. Rookie athletes have been known to be subjected to hazing practices such as being taped to goal posts, hit with sports equipment and publicly humiliated, e.g. having to wear a diaper or clothes with crude writing on it. These activities are all excused by coaches and other authority figures as attempts to teach discipline and attitude adjustment and are not seen as hazing or popularized by the media as such, despite fitting the definition of hazing (Raalte, Cornelius, Lindere & Brewer, 2007). These hazing practices are believed to represent a participants’ dedication and loyalty, despite more appropriate team bonding activities being found to result in greater cohesion between team members (Parks & DeLorenzo, 2018). Similar to fraternities, student-athletes look for acceptance, group benefits and protection from harm from non-group members, but hazing amongst players has been found to decrease the athlete who was hazed’s interest and dedication to the team, resulting in isolation and low self-esteem, effectively the opposite of the hazing’s intentions (Diamond, Callahan, Chain, & Solomon, 2016).


Hazing practices across all groups show a negative effect on self-esteem regardless of how large that effect truly is. While the main intent of hazing is to build group bonding, trust, and inclusion, all of the literature has shown that hazing has a negative effect. The negative sides to hazing whether psychological or physical contrast the intent of the activities in the first place. Instead of lifting people through a supportive community and an in-group status, the self-esteem of participants is hindered by isolation, self-image issues, alcohol abuse and PTSD caused by hazing. One aspect that none of the aforementioned literature of this paper include is the effects of hazing on self-esteem long term as most of the studies were conducted on college-aged students or young adults who were for the most part still a member of the group that allowed their hazing. What would increase an understanding of the effect of hazing on self-esteem would be to see how these practices still affect people in their 40’s, 50’s 60’s, etc. to see how long-lasting of an impact hazing has because these studies were all limited to people under the age of 25, which is still very young. Another way of expanding the research on hazing would be to see if these hazing practices, e.g. body shaming other women or forced drinking, happened outside of organized groups like fraternities or sports teams and if they had similar effects. This would question whether people haze to feel a sense of exclusivity from the rest of society or if it is human nature to try and create a sense of accomplishment and earned respect.   

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