Brainmatters | Newcomers, freshmen and classics


As always, excesses around hazing like those in Groningen are discussed extensively in the media with great anger. Yet these cases should not surprise us anymore. Two of the most famous experiments conducted in psychology - the Stanford prison experiment of Zimbardo and Milgram’s study of obedience and authority – may serve within this context to draw relevant lessons from.

The experiments proved to be traumatic for the participants. Thus, in Stanley Milgram’s experiment the majority of participants turned out to be prepared to administer electric shocks to others. These were so strong that – if they had actually been administered – they would have seriously injured, if not killed, the victim. Participants obeyed the experiment leader - the authority – and did what was needed to ‘teach’ the other person something.

Ten years later Philip Zimbardo randomly divided 24 young ordinary men into a group of prisoners and a group of guards. The role-play should have lasted 14 days, but after 6 days a female visitor was startled by the events she saw taking place there. Prisoners were placed in solitary confinement, abused, or had to go to the bathroom with their head in a bag and their ankles in chains. She sounded the alarm, saying that this could not be permitted. The experiment was stopped before anyone was killed.

Hazing also involves authoritarian role-play

All things considered, hazing involves well-organized role-play, in which the parties are allocated on an almost random basis to otherwise quite comparable individuals. Both groups play their roles and experience the pressure of authority and traditions. According to the current rules for hazing, ‘newcomers’ must be allowed to sleep for at least 6 hours per night and no alcohol must be drunk. Still, the great risk of this type of authoritarian role-play lies in the players themselves and history shows, regrettably, that many are susceptible to this.

Fortunately, things do not go wrong everywhere by any yardstick. We do need to be aware, though, that the risk is greater when this role-play occurs more without being seen by outsiders. In these situations players can occasionally become blind to the suffering endured by others, try (too) stubbornly to fulfil their role ‘well’ and in the process lose sight of their own moral compass. It would be a good thing if we would learn more from our classics - surely it is preferable to learn these kinds of things from a book than to experience them personally.

Yvonne de Kort is professor of Environmental Psychology at Human-Technology Interaction

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