Secret societies like sororities and fraternities thrive on their exclusiveness and how difficult it is to become a part of that society. Initiation rites would often take the form of unreasonable tasks, physical beatings, emotional torture and others but surprisingly more and more people want to be a part of that group. According to Lodewijkx and Syroit (1994) the severity of initiation rites influenced how the members viewed the attractiveness of the group; however, members who reported high affiliation with the group were more likely to favour the group rather than those who did not.
This would mean that the severity of the initiation process would develop companionship among the new recruits and would then lead to more favourable liking towards the group. It would seem obvious that difficult initiation rites would diminish the attractiveness of the group, having to be physically beaten or psychologically tormented might decrease the liking for the group and it has been found that it does (Lodewijkx & Syroit, 1994) , however many still go through the initiation and become members of the group.
This incongruence can be explained by the cognitive dissonance theory. Cognitive dissonance according to Festinger (1956) is when a person finds him/her self behaving in ways that are inconsistent with how he/she thinks or feels. The need to reduce the difference between what one feels and thinks with one’s actions is a primary drive that forces man to be consistent. Now, a recruit who feels pain, frustration and sadness during the initiation rites and still want to be a member of the group is undergoing cognitive dissonance.
In order to reduce the conflict that he is feeling, he could either give up or say that he does not like the group anymore or to rationalize that the initiation was only a test of his willingness to become a member of the group or to change. The severity-attraction relationship (Aronson & Mills, 1959) states that the more severe the initiation rites the more the person is attracted to the group. This would mean that prior knowledge about the group’s initiation rites actually influences the person to seek membership.
The severity of the initiation builds the image of strength, power and social status among the other groups, thus if we look into cognitive dissonance, then the member has already reduced the dissonance by accepting the fact that the difficulty of getting into this group is nothing compared to the benefits one gains when he is accepted to the group. By reducing the dissonance, the recruit comes to terms with the physical and emotional pain of the initiation and the desire to become a part of the group.
Although cognitive dissonance explains why people go through pain and suffering just to become a member of a certain group, it does not explain how commitment, preconceived ideas or exposure to such group can also influence the individual to endure the discomfort of initiation rites. What is evident is that initiation rites symbolize the acceptance and dedication of the individual to a particular group and more often than not this is seen as normative (Van Gennep, 1977)
Aronson, E. & Mills, J.(1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, 177-181 Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Lodewijkx, H. F. M. & Syroit, J. E. M. M. (1997). Severity of initiation revisited: Does severity of initiation increase attractiveness in real groups? European Journal of Social Psychology, 27, 275-300. Van Gennep, A. (1977). The rites of passage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.