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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 15-Mar-15


Sunday 15-March-15

Frat House Psychology

Fraternity houses have been in the news recently, where a video of Oklahoma 'Sigma Alpha Epsilon' frat house students chanting a racist song contributed to the house being closed down (given the furore, the college probably had little other option). History is also littered with injuries and fatalities (and consequent lawsuits) associated with frat house life. So what are frat houses? For many around the world they are an odd phenomenon that appears in American movies from time to time, with Greek-letter names and raucous students. In America, they are a staple of college life.

A classic way that street gangs induct new members is that the inductee has to pass various trials, from being beaten up to committing serious crimes. Frat houses are not dissimilar when they use hazing as a rite of passage and when initiates are required to, or gain status by, engaging in hazardous pranks and breaking of rules. This rule-breaking has a powerful effect of bonding the student into the fraternity, making them 'one of us'. It also closes the door behind them as there is now an implicit threat that if they leave or betray their brothers, their crimes may be exposed and they will suffer the consequences. Stepping outside the law and getting away with it can also feel very liberating. You feel different to others, more powerful, and closer to other rule-breakers (like your frat house friends).

The person is then locked in further with stories of heroes and villains, with the clear implication of what happens to each. Living together and continued risky actions only serve to bond people together. Secret rituals and other 'knowledge' add to the mystique, as do pins, coats of arms and the two/three letter Greek signifiers (often themselves shrouded in significance, such as being the first letters of a motto). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, fraternal societies go back to the ancient Greeks and have appeared ever since in groups that range from the crusaders to the freemasons.

Getting into a frat house is not easy and may not be cheap. You have first to be accepted and then you have to pay, both of which act as filters to ensure the right type of people join up. At that age you are unlikely to be independently wealthy, so this also tests for well-off, supportive families. You are also readier to take risks just to gain admiration. Interestingly, membership often correlates with lower ability and grades, perhaps due to a greater focus on fun than serious study. Where there are many frat houses in a college, there will also be a hierarchy, with the richer congregating at the higher end of a wannabe hierarchy.

Being a member of a fraternity is a lifetime's commitment. It's an old-boys club, not just a college club. The commitment to one another will reach across careers and may indeed define one's own career, as such close relationships and deep obligations means that fraternity members will go well out of their way to help each other in life and business, counteracting any academic limitations. And it works. Fraternity men make up 85 percent of U.S. Supreme Court justices since 1910, 63 percent of all U.S. presidential cabinet members since 1900, and, historically, 76 percent of U.S. senators and 85 percent of Fortune 500 executives.

It's human to help your friends, of course. And you will naturally end up with rich friends who will do their best to ensure you get a good leg-up in life, joining their elite society through the well-paid jobs that they push your way. It also, of course, sets you up for corrupt practices, from unethical support to turning a blind eye on illegality. But then you had to break the rules to join, so what's a little more?

All this does not mean that fraternity people are all bad, and many may go on to do great things. Yet it also sets an environment where bad things can happen and be seen as the norm. Where such questionable acts as significant tax avoidance and doing anything to help frat friends is seen as common and necessary. Where feeling superior and beyond the law can lead some to illegal action that does not seem illegal. Where being one of the elite feels like your rightful place and that having an elite is never questioned.

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