It’s the age-old excuse: “Everyone was doing it.” Whether it’s buying into trends, becoming the apathetic bystander or participating in weekend shenanigans, science has been proving that when surrounded by other individuals, people may act in ways contrary to their normal behavior.
As social beings, we are easily “corrupted” by others’ likes, dislikes, prejudices and stereotypes. According to clinical psychologist Marc Oster, college students are especially susceptible to the consequences of group mentality.
“The impact on any young person who is still developing in their sense of themselves and how they relate to others can be significant,” Oster says. “They fail to learn to think critically and for themselves. They learn, as both our contemporary political and advertising climate shows, that truth or fact is what you say it is – regardless of the evidence.”
Enter Greek life. “We tend to choose to belong to groups where people seem similar to us,” says Marie Welborn, a clinical psychologist. “And since we as humans have a need for affiliation, we often are willing to conform rather than risk rejection.” Simply put, social groups like sororities and fraternities can stifle individuality.
And hazing? According to Welborn, if it means going along with the group norm, people will often do whatever they are asked in order to enhance status within the group. Even if it means going against some of their values.
Thus students are more willing to participate in uncomfortable activities in order to fit in and “bond” with other members. Many members even find hazing fun and a “good way to get to know the other guys.” In fact, psychological research has proven that the more difficult it is to gain entry into a group (that is, the worse the hazing), the more a person will enjoy and value the group after joining.
But psychologists are not only interested in why students would be willing to participate in hazing activities, but also why students are willing to haze younger or newer members. Some psychologists turn to research indicating there is a diffusion of responsibility in a group, which allows no single member to take the blame.
“We look to the others in the group to guide our behavior and if ‘everyone seems to be doing it, then it must be okay.’ Then we don’t feel responsible,” Welborn says.
Many states have passed legislation prohibiting hazing and Northwestern University has strict rules in this arena. According to Northwestern, hazing is very broad, from “forced consumption of alcohol,” to “treasure hunts outside the confines of the University.” If a violation is made, fraternities and sororities can expect strict school punishments and potentially state punishments as well.
Individually, people may not naturally fall into certain behaviors, thoughts and opinions, but in a group setting, all three can be altered. “If the group norm or behavior is cruel, then the members are cruel or become outcasts and maybe even targets of the cruelty,” Oster says.
But, the impacts of group mentality can also be positive. While college is considered a prime environment for group conformity, it can offer beneficial results for students.
“Group norms and structure are very helpful in settings or situations where people learn to grow and evolve as social units,” Oster says.
“It’s when people who are incapable of independent thought… can take the healthy structure of such groups and expand it into ‘law,’” Oster says, “a situation where there is only one right way and there is no tolerance for anyone or anything different from themselves. Then it becomes a problem.”