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The current Public Service Announcement video by the university does not outline Penn’s anti-hazing regulations, its hazing report, nor methods of alerting hazing incidents to the university. Credit: Max Mester

As a first-year student in August 2018, I — along with the rest of the Class of 2022 — watched a video that has since perplexed me for almost three years. It was a Penn-produced public service announcement (PSA) that is prefaced with the words, “This is an anti-hazing film. All scenes are fictional and portrayed by actors.” The video depicts students engaging in increasingly extreme acts of hazing, including peer pressured performance, binge drinking, and tormenting a male “pledge” in a cage by dousing cold water on him.

After watching the video, I felt queasy and uncomfortable. The film clearly seeks to shock and frighten incoming Penn students into behaving responsibly, but there is something “off” about the video’s messaging tactic. Viewers are left nauseated and repulsed by what college students are capable of doing, but the film fails to communicate the ways in which students can actually address hazing in their fraternities, sororities, and clubs. The PSA does not outline Penn’s anti-hazing regulations, its hazing report, nor methods of alerting hazing incidents to the university. It does not even mention that hazing is a criminal offense in Pennsylvania. There must be a better way to introduce and discuss hazing prevention in the Penn community.  

Back in April, I virtually attended a Goldstone Forum talk by psychologist Robert Cialdini on social norms-based messaging. In his talk, he cited his 2006 petrified wood study, in which he investigated the best method of preventing the theft of wood from a national forest.

Cialdini and his colleagues found that a “do not take wood” sign with an image of a single thief was more effective in deterring theft than a sign with three thieves pictured. The lone thief sign marginalized the negative behavior (stealing the wood) while the three thieves sign normalized the behavior. The sign with three thieves encouraged some visitors to think, “Oh, everyone steals the wood, so why can’t I?”

Cialdini described that PSA communicators can miss their target message because they highlight the harmful descriptive norm (showing a variety of hazing scenarios) instead of framing a desirable norm (showing Penn is a welcoming community).

In short, Penn’s current anti-hazing PSA normalizes hazing. The film falls into the trap of solely describing a harmful social norm. So, how can Penn’s anti-hazing video introduce hazing in a way that doesn’t inadvertently normalize it? Here are three suggestions backed by Professor Cialdini’s research:

First, the video needs to create a positive descriptive norm to set the scene. A descriptive norm describes what people actually do in a social situation, such as applauding at the end of a performance. In a new hazing prevention video, a director would want to start the film with images of Penn students engaging in healthy social interaction. This framing would communicate an inclusive status quo.

Second, the film should marginalize the negative behavior to a single person, similar to the single thief sign from Cialdini’s petrified wood study. As a re-enactment, the video can show a lone perpetrator hazing another student. By isolating the hazing to one wrongdoer, it makes hazing look less socially desirable than if the video showed a group of wrongdoers.

Finally, the new video should record testimonials of upperclassmen student leaders describing why they disapprove of hazing. When I first arrived on campus, upperclassmen had a significant influence on my perception of the Penn community, so why not harness that power of persuasion for a good cause? Student leaders have the opportunity to create a new social norm that hazing is an unacceptable social ritual and should be reported whenever it arises. Together, these tactics would make a more persuasive “anti-hazing film.”

Hazing is partly enabled by our innate need to belong within a community that accepts us, which we may go to great lengths to fulfill. However, people should not have to bond over hazing. Someone may disagree with me and say that they “went through hazing, so it is only fair that others experience it too.” I would respond that their pain is valid, yet it is unfair to lash that pain out on others. Instead, this person can rise above their predecessors’ conduct. They can choose to lead with kindness.

This fall, we have a unique opportunity to set a new social agenda for Penn’s on-campus experience, as half of the undergraduate student population will be starting their first in-person semester. It is time for us to pivot to a more open-minded, courageous form of leadership. Let us be willing to have challenging conversations about social norms that may no longer suit us.

I would like to encourage all campus leaders — both administrators and students — to ask ourselves: what activities can we do differently this fall? What traditions can we question, adapt or dismantle? How can we create a more kind, inclusive community?

Penn’s current PSA ends with the phrase “Rethink hazing.” I want to revise that to “End hazing.” If we change our cultural messaging and let Penn students lead the way, then we have a better chance of ending hazing in our post-pandemic community.

JADEN CLOOBECK is a College senior from Laguna Beach, California studying psychology. His email address is jaden@sas.upenn.edu.

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