In 1959, inspired by hazing rituals, two psychologists wanted to see if having to go through something miserable to get into a group made people like that group more. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that misery did, in fact, help. What was interesting was how they made people miserable.

Eliot Aronson and Judson Mills announced an effect called "effort justification." When people have to make an effort for some reward they value it more than if it were given to them easily. To test this, the researchers decided to model their experiment on fraternity and sorority hazing. In order to get into a group - in this case a discussion group about sex - subjects had to have a kind of "initiation." Either the initiation was unpleasant and embarrassing, or it was relatively light. Those people who went through the more severe initiation enjoyed the discussion group more than the people who had gone through a light initiation.


Most summaries of the experiment are vague on what the "initiation" was, but the original paper makes it clear. Female subjects were asked to join a discussion group about sex, but, before they joined, they had to go through an "embarrassment test." To remove any idea of fellow feeling, the scientists made it clear that the test was a new requirement, and that none of the other people in the group had gone through it.

The embarrassment test involved the subject reading words off a cue card while one of the scientists running the experiment checked her reaction. She was told ahead of time that they would be looking for hesitation and blushing as signs of embarrassment. The "light" initiation included words that were slightly sexual, but are innocuous enough that some aren't even used anymore. The list included, "prostitute," "virgin," and "petting." The severe condition included words characterized by the scientists as obscene, like, "fuck," "cock," and "screw." (They clearly weren't trying hard on that last word.)

Do you think the "embarrassment test" would work today? Or would they have to step it up a little?


[Via The Effect of Severity of Initiation on Liking for a Group.]