One morning, nine young men arrived in the bare basement of a university building, hustled from their homes with little warning into unfamiliar cars. They knew that they were in for a surprise that week, but they didn’t know what, when or where. Their hosts confiscated their belongings and made them wear women’s pantyhose on their heads. Although they could walk out at any time, they willingly subjected themselves to hours of humiliation and degradation with no obvious reward.
Sounds familiar? If you graduate from Yale College, it is reasonable likely you experienced something like this, whether for a senior society, a competitive team, a clandestine club or a debate group.
But this scenario isn’t from Yale, it’s from the Stanford prison experiment, one with such disastrous results that the university disbanded the experiment after just six days. In August 1971, Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, decided to see how humans would behave when arbitrarily divided up into prisoners and wardens. They all consented to be a part of this experiment, and with absolutely no information other than their assigned identity, the prisoners hated the guards and the guards hated the prisoners — or at least behaved as such.
Senior societies, the Yale Political Union, a capella groups — exclusive organizations like these cause enormous in-group/out-group tensions in which people arbitrarily dislike or like swathes of other people because they are told to do so by people 12 months older than they are. Students are expected to idolize their group’s alumni, unblinkingly support their peers, vilify opponent organizations and find friendship in association rather than meaningful connection. If we dissolved all extracurriculars right now, who is confident that everyone they call a friend now would still be there tomorrow? This is the Stanford prison experiment coming to life year after year at Yale. As a student at the School of Medicine, I find it frightening when people I know to be kind and inclusive get caught in a wave of groupthink and hatred without really understanding what they are doing.
Exclusivity is okay when it’s only a tiny portion of campus: If the Big Three were the only societies that existed, most social circles would remain whole. But when a large number of Yalies self-select into social circles that care heavily about getting tapped, tap night undoubtedly fragments friendships. If you aren’t tapped, you are in the minority, and see each of your friends disappear not only two nights a week, but also voluntarily spend time with their “new friends.” Just because someone chose these “new friends” with an air of manufactured exclusivity, they get priority on their ever-filling GCals of seniors, to the detriment of pre-existing groups. Simply put, when an “exclusive” group includes the majority of people, it is not exclusivity, it is bullying.
Everywhere else, people like other people who participate in the same hobbies and interests. In the societies of my previous university, “induction” consisted of being invited with a week’s notice to an afternoon tea where, after some small talk, we signed a sheet and were on our way. Not this tedious and weary hazing masquerading as tradition. Leaders forget to mention that these traditions mostly started in the last two decades, and use history as an excuse to inconvenience.
I myself came to Yale from a school where most extracurriculars included both graduate and undergraduate members. When I arrived, I decided that a fun debate at a party in the YPU might be just the thing to relieve the tedium of school.
What I found instead was the thickest cluster of potential Title IX violations, induction rituals where students were stripped of all belongings and sent on a “death” march, self-important frippery bathed in candlelight and literal tribunals held in a basement in the dead of night over unsubstantiated trivialities. Many of these actions were carried out by people I held a high opinion of. Yet in a group scenario, they carried out their assigned roles. Cutting ties with the group meant my texts went oft unanswered, and malicious gossip made its way around shared circles. No one person can be held to account for this behavior, but the theory of role congruity predicts that groups polarize out of a desire to conform social roles.
None of this is a condemnation of the existence of exclusive groups, but rather a condemnation of individuals who allow their groups to dictate how they value other people. Some societies — the Yale Society for the Exploration of Campus Secrets and the Elizabethan Club, for instance — promote healthy, constructive peer engagement through a shared love of exploration, conversation, music or art. Many others, however, are a group of generally good people using the façade of a shared activity to engage in behavior harmful to the integrity and sense of community of Yale. Shockingly, no one is really scared by midnight summons and candlelit figures wearing robes and hats anymore. It’s high time students started to value emotional relationships and shared interests built over four years with true friends over artificially imposed social roles.
Kirthi Bellamkonda is a student in the Yale School of Medicine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .