Hazing – Our Destructive Way To Form Bonds

Hazing – the imposition of strenuous, often humiliating, tasks as part of a program of rigorous physical training and initiation. 

We know it’s often destructive yet it continues to occur, why? Most recently a Penn State student died from #hazing and the family reached a settlement with the fraternity. It won’t bring their son back. The family has established a strong relationship with the president of the university, Eric Barron, and he vows “to end hazing for good.” That’s great to hear but unfortunately, I am less than optimistic. Here’s why…

Awareness and a commitment of students to stop hazing is a great idea, in theory, but the Need to Belong is a far greater emotionally driven need than a person’s conscious brain making a decision and attempting to guide behavior. As smart as humans are we are still driven far more by our emotions than our intellectual [mental] capabilities. We may not want to admit it but it’s still the truth. Some 70-90% of our actions and behaviors are driven by our subconscious and emotional brain. How many destructive behaviors do people continue to do even though they know, for certain, it is not good for you? Smoking is a great example.

So, what is the driving need that leads to hazing? I would argue the Need to Belong is the primary driver. It’s not about “peer pressure” in the overt sense. It’s more about a person’s basic emotional need and sadly, if this need is not met early in life (i.e. by age 6 when most of the brain has developed), then a person will continue to try and compensate, often in destructive ways. Hazing is just the latest exemplary behavior that has ended catastrophically.

Within a fraternity, there is a deep sense of connection and belonging between its brothers. The ritualistic hazing is an activity and a way to strengthen or solidify a bond between people.

Too often hazing is a physical means to try and establish an emotional connection.

People can bond strongly by sharing an activity and the more extreme the activity the greater the bond, oftentimes. However, in the case of hazing, the activity is often extremely risky or destructive, in nature. In the Penn State example, deadly.

It seems like bravado, strength and fortitude that, when shared, brings people closer together but these means of connection can be extremely harmful. In the case of hazing, at least one death per year since 1960. And what about the long-term emotional trauma a pledge may experience and hold on to for life? That emotional trauma could be why hazing continues, as a release and a way to “do unto others as they have done to you”.

I believe the desire to belong is the true driving motivator. A human’s Need to Belong and connect is basic to our existence and it is how humans thrive. Humans have a much greater chance of surviving as a tribe than alone hence hunting parties of days past and campus Greek Life today. Belonging is a deeply emotional, subconscious and primal need of humans yet overlooked, these days, as weakness.

Love, connection and belonging is not a weakness but a strength.

All humans seek love. How often do we even ask grade-schoolers if they have a crush on a classmate? When we feel loved it gives us incredible strength, power and motivation to achieve beyond what we ever thought was possible. Some even say, “Love conquers all.” and yet it has also been the source of wars… but I digress.

The point is, in order to truly solve the hazing issue in colleges or on the playground, we need to do a better job nurturing our kids, boys AND girls, and their emotional needs. If a child isn’t feeling the love and connection THEY need from their parents, at a young age, they’ll be chasing that connection or trying to compensate (e.g. food, alcohol, drugs) for not having it, possibly for the rest of their life.

I’m not here trying to blame parents but to recognize that we do what we are taught. If we grow up never feeling loved then we will struggle to know how to love others. A good example of love NOT working is the 50% US divorce rate yet we continue to try and experience the love we need time and again… humans need love, romantic and otherwise.

College students, fraternity and sorority pledges, are often seeking to belong, to find their tribe, to feel love and connection from like-minded and similar people or people they admire, and who share similar values and beliefs. This emotional desire (because it isn’t physical or mental) is so strong we go to extremes to achieve it. Unfortunately, we continue to try and create this emotional connection with a physical solution, in this case, drinking alcohol to excess.

If we do not nurture the emotional health of our children then they will grow up forever trying to find it in other ways or struggle without it (think depression and anxiety which is strongly correlated to connection in the research).

If we continue to view emotions and feelings as a weakness rather than a strength (think insight, intuition, knowing you matter to others) then we will continue to struggle with our behaviors as attempts to compensate.

Hazing is an attempt to create an emotional bond and connection often through an extreme and destructive physical activity. If we can learn to connect by sharing who we are, what we think and how we feel then there will no longer be a need to haze in order to create a bond and belong.

Peace. Love. Connect.

– Kevin

PS. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic and if anything in this post resonates with you or could help someone else, please consider sharing it. You could save a life.


Kevin Strauss
Kevin Strauss
Kevin believes people yearn to feel closer to others. Not to everyone but to the people who matter most to them. He believes we long to be heard and valued because then we know we matter and that makes us happy. Happy people do good things and are less destructive to themselves and others. The closer and happier we are the better our world will be. Kevin is the Founder and CEO of Uchi, an app dedicated to helping people connect authentically with those who matter most to them by making conversations easier. Kevin’s career began as an "industry disruptive" Biomedical Engineer with a gift for identifying a problem’s root cause. His efforts have resulted in 75+ US patents and many peer-reviewed publications spanning several industries including spinal implants, psychology and behavior modification. It was nearly 20 years ago when Kevin wandered down a rabbit-hole, sparked by “human conflict”, that transformed him into an emotional health, connection, and human behavior expert. Now, Kevin and his team are bringing the Uchi app to the world’s stage to help people experience deeper and more meaningful relationships; something that matters to us all but often falls through the cracks. In addition, he continues to enjoy sharing this knowledge through workshops and speaking engagements. Kevin enjoys balancing his human connection work with expedition backpacking, ballroom dancing and as an 18-year, injury-free, Ironman Triathlete, and Coach.

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  1. Kevin — Your piece really left me thinking, thank you. Your perspective here is from the one being hazed – suffering the hazing so as to belong. But I suspect you could also have written it from the perspective of the one(s) doing the hazing and their emotional motivation. Power? Control?

    But there, too, maybe the power of “belonging” also plays a role. A friend of mine graduated from the US Naval Academy and related various hazing stories. Were those doing the hazing saying in effect, “You want to belong to this club? Well, then, you have to earn it”?

    • Oh Jeff, you are SO right! Thank you for adding the opposite perspective. What a perfect complement! It happens in the military and medical school, at law firms and, I believe, fire houses & police departments as well as many pro sports teams.

      I’d have to think more on it but I believe you’re on the right track re: power & control. Not to mention, “do unto others as they have done to you”. So, if I was abused and treated poorly then now it’s my turn to give rather than receive.

      How much of that “learned” behavior occurs in the home, for children, as they grow up?

  2. Kevin, thank you for writing and sharing your article. I have read nothing but bad things about hazing. In college, I did not try out for any athletic teams nor did I witness or experience hazing. There was talk that all freshman had to go through it. Fortunately, I had no exposure to it. So many of us lack a connection or bond to something so they will allow themselves to fall victim to or be taken in just to feel accepted or loved. Feelings and emotions are hardly a sign of weakness as some may mistakenly feel. To be alive is to have emotions and feelings. Some try to suppress their feelings and emotions which is not healthy. Sooner or later these will come out and it stands to reason when they do it will not be productive.