What Fraternity Hazing & Chinese Prison Camps Can Teach Us About Raising Children

This post is an unedited excerpt from Robert Cialdini’s fifth edition (2009) of  “Influence.” We’re using it to run a comment competition based on the question immediately following the excerpt.  Test your knowledge of state-of-the art research on parenting methods while having some fun discussing and sharing with the Life-Parent community.

“It appears that the commitments most effective in changing a person’s self-image and future behavior are those that are active, public, and effortful. However, there is another property of effective commitment more important than the other three combined. To understand what it is, we first need to solve a pair of puzzles in the actions of Communist interrogators and college fraternity brothers.

The first puzzle comes from the refusal of fraternity chapters to allow public-service activities to be part of their initiation ceremonies. Recall Walker’s survey (1967), which reported that community projects, though frequent, were nearly always separated from the membership-induction program. Why? If an effortful commitment is what fraternities are after in their initiation rites, surely they could structure enough distasteful and strenuous civic activities for their pledges; there is plenty of exertion and unpleasantness to be found in the world of old-age-home repairs, mental-health-center yard work, and hospital bedpan duty. Besides, community-spirited endeavors of this sort would do much to improve the highly unfavorable public and media image of fraternity Hell Week rites; a survey (Phalen, 1951) showed that for every positive newspaper story concerning Hell Week, there were five negative stories. If only for public-relations reasons, then, fraternities should want to incorporate community-service efforts into their initiation practices. But they don’t.

To examine the second puzzle, we need to return to the Chinese prison camps of Korea and the political essay contests held for American captives. The Chinese wanted as many Americans as possible to enter these contests so that, in the process, they might write comments favorable to the Communist view. If, however, the idea was to attract large numbers of entrants, why were the prizes so small? A few extra cigarettes or a little fresh fruit were often all that a contest winner could expect. In the setting, even these prizes were valuable, but, still, there were much larger rewards—warm clothing, special mail privileges, increased freedom of movement in camp—that the Chinese could have used to increase the number of essay writers. Yet they specifically chose to employ the smaller rather than the larger, more motivating rewards.

Although the settings are quite different, the surveyed fraternities refused to allow civic activities into their initiation ceremonies for the same reason that the Chinese withheld large prizes in favor of less powerful inducements: They wanted the participants to own what they had done. No excuses, no ways out were allowed. A pledge who suffered through an arduous hazing could not be given the chance to believe he did so for charitable purposes. A prisoner who salted his political essay with anti-American comments could not be permitted to shrug it off as motivated by a big reward. No, the fraternity chapters and Chinese Communists were playing for keeps. It was not enough to wring commitments out of their men; those men had to be made to take inner responsibility for their actions.

Given the Chinese Communist government’s affinity for the political essay contest as a commitment device, it should come as no surprise that a wave of such contests appeared in the aftermath of the 1989 massacre in Tiannanmen Square, where pro-democracy protesters were gunned down by government soldiers. In Beijing alone, nine state-run newspapers and television stations sponsored essay competitions on the “quelling of the counterrevolutionary rebellion.” Still acting in accord with its long-standing and insightful de-emphasis of rewards for public commitments, the Beijing government left the contest prizes unspecified.

Social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressure. A large reward is one such external pressure. It may get us to perform certain actions, but it won’t get us to accept inner responsibility for the acts. Consequently, we won’t feel committed to them. The same is true of a strong threat; it may motivate immediate compliance, but it is unlikely to produce long-term commitment.

In fact, large material rewards may even reduce or “undermine” our inner responsibility for an act, causing a subsequent reluctance to perform it when the reward is no longer present (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Higgins, Lee, Kwon, & Trope, 1995; Lepper & Greene, 1978).

Cialdini, Robert B. (2009-08-20). Influence: Science and Practice, ePub (5th Edition) (Kindle Locations 1952-1986). Pearson HE, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

The implications of this article for resisting attempts by others to influence us, are huge.  But the article can serve us well in other ways. For one, if your’e in business, we’re talking here about techniques that the world’ most successful sales personnel use.  More importantly, the implications for parents are mind-boggling.  Let’s see who can give us the best response to the following question:

What does Cialdini’s work tell us about the best way to build character, successful belief-systems and habits in our children? What does it overwhelmingly suggest about the culturally accepted ways in which Caribbean parents have traditionally instilled discipline?”

How Safe Are The Children At School From Your Child?


What are the odds of a bully or his parent not being aware he’s one?

A small group of experts believe that bullying is just a point on the “aggression” scale, and that all human beings can be placed somewhere on that scale.

In other words, all of us are capable of being a bully. In fact, we all behaved like one at some point in our lives.

That doesn’t justify the extreme actions of a bully. It also doesn’t take us off the hook as a society. We still have to do something. In all honesty, when you look at it carefully, it means we have to do a lot more than what is normally recommended by those who just see it as a school problem.

I believe those experts are onto something.  The extreme bully is different from the rest of us only by the degree of his or her aggressive tendencies. We MUST see ourselves in their behavior in order to approach the problem in a way that has the best chance of really controlling it.  Doing so also avails us of the most powerful tool we have against the bully…and that’s compassion and deep understanding. I think that’s the view worthy of what I call a “Life-Parent.”

Weekend Bully-Victim

I can remember being one of the “lightweights” everyone only noticed inside a classroom. Even there, I can remember the meanest guy in class hitting and harassing me whenever the teacher wasn’t looking.  I can remember how alone I felt. It seemed as if everyone thought he was really cool, and what he was doing obviously made me the laughing stock.  It took a while for someone to come to my defense, but that’s another story.

A year later, they placed a new student named Joe in my class. Joe was bigger than the bully, but really quiet, and didn’t react quickly to anything.  In fact, I never saw him react at all.  Guess who started picking on him in school?

No. It was me.


I met Joe one Saturday morning in town. This is what I had been waiting for.  Now I was going to make my mark and have something to boast about come Monday. I put my dukes up and hit him. He had this surprised look on his face, but he balled his fists and took his stance.

I knew I was faster. I darted in and before he could move, hit him in the stomach. Whap! Then I danced back out. I did this three times in a row before Joe could take the puzzled look off his face.  I was winning!

Joe must have figured out that whatever my problem was, my skinny frame couldn’t do him much harm with all my speed. The fourth time I came in Joe leveled me with a right to the jaw and my world went dark.

And that’s how my bullying career lasted for four days.  Books and good grades at least made my teachers and family happy. Can’t please everybody. So I stopped caring too much what classmates thought of my fighting prowess out of pure necessity.   That was the path my life took.

But you see, Joe wasn’t that dumb a choice for a victim. I just had the good fortune (or not-so-good, depending on how you look at it) of weighing less than 4o pounds at the age of eight. I had the good fortune of having an army of brothers who certainly weren’t “light-weights.” Finally, I also had the good fortune of being exceptional in school at things that grown-ups care about.  That’s a lot of good-fortune.

But its not the likely path for most boys that age in similar situations.

The Bully-Problem

Having a shout

So the truth is that, all things considered, if strong steps are not taken at home and elsewhere, pretty much all children get aggressive to some degree. Some are just born with a more aggressive temperament that calls for more guidance from us.  What we have to do is identify exactly what those strong steps are. What are the things that minimize aggression in each and every child? What do we have to do as a community to empower families to do those things? It’s that simple.

But simple doesn’t mean easy!

Whenever a problem this large is in the public eye, a great number of quick-fixes, expert opinions, and knee-jerk reactions  will pop up. Everyone seems to have an answer.

It’s a good thing to have so many eyes looking for solutions. However, the very fact that there are so many different views on the subject tells us something about the difficulty of real long-lasting success.  Ask Counselors and other folks working directly with the problem in schools about evidence-based programs against bullying, and you’ll quickly find out there aren’t that many that actually work long-term. In modern societies, laws and the rights of the child dictate that even the bully has a right to an education, so knowing the bully’s identity doesn’t necessarily give you the means to put a stop to his behavior. What if the guidance is not in place at home and we’re dealing with a naturally aggressive youth?

What’s NOT helping?

The bully has a whole lot working on his/her behalf.  There’s the all-powerful “no-snitch” rule that comes from thuggish street-life subcultures.  There’s online anonymity, compulsory education regulations, negative peer-pressure, paralyzing fear on the school grounds, and availability of “victim-types.”

And we’re not even touching all the social/economic variables that make things difficult for parents to be supportive the way most of them wish to. We hear all the success stories about poor and single-parents making a difference… that sort of thing…but they don’t tell you that for every one who does, there are 4 more whose kids become part of the dismal statistics in some places where they build more jails than schools.

That’s the reality.

Last, but certainly not least, there’s ignorance–community ignorance. When entire communities don’t really understand the complexity of the problem, all the bully has to do is bide his time while it’s in the public eye.

For the vast majority of schools, every time they think they have the problem licked, in less than a year it comes roaring back.  School managers therefore find themselves having to maintain a high degree of alertness among their teachers and staff.  No one wants to admit that this is extremely difficult, and bound to wane at different periods of any given school year. Lest we forget, this is school we’re dealing with – not law-enforcement. Show me a school-culture that is highly vigilant all year round, and I’ll show you a school not paying enough attention to academic performance.  In the firestorm of publicity, it becomes politically incorrect to admit the truth.  We’re all pretty much just doing the best we can, but only for a few months at a time.

You see, the culture of schools is such that if they take pride in academic outcomes for their students, focus necessarily has to turn to academic performance. It is very easy to say that’s not good enough, and that schools have to do both.

Well actually, they do do both, but even the very best schools can’t maintain both at very high levels throughout the school year without major help.  That just the nature of the beast.  The “bully-problem” goes off the radar for a few months, and the next thing you know, it starts to happen more frequently as teachers are pushing towards educational goals. Getting staff and teachers to switch focus again actually results in lower motivation and school morale as teachers get burnt-out.

There are three variables we have to always keep in view. Unfortunately they don’t all get the attention they need.  The first one gets most of the attention from the Press.  They approach the problem as primarily a school problem because that’s where the violence actually occurs.

The Press touches on the second variable almost in passing. This one has to do with the level of violence being tolerated or even promoted in the home. We’ll be dealing with this in a separate blog-post. It’s actually where we need to be putting  most of our efforts, but we keep complaining about what schools are not doing.

The third variable is almost always ignored.  The more aggression that is acceptable in the wider society, the harder schools have to work to maintain peace. If your school is situated in an economically depressed district, you’ll have more problems – period. The school will therefore need more of those outside resources I referred to earlier. All the quick-fixes you read about or see on TV do help, but they need to be coordinated and sustained. And that requires more than what schools have to throw at the problem without that outside help.

What works?

Thomas Shahan (and a Salticid) on NBC's The Today Show!

To lick the bully problem, we have to first understand that if the problem is rampant, its only a symptom of a deeper problem. That deeper problem has to do with a culture of violence that has to be replaced by a shift in how our cultures teach children problem-solving, conflict resolution, and what I’ll call “low-level violence.”  Again, this will take yet another post, which we will be dealing with on our sister-site, “Teach Life-Skills.

Suffice to say here, it takes:

  1. a three-pronged approach directed at homes, at schools, and at the wider community
  2. coordinated, continuous effort
  3. all of society’s institutions lending a hand
  4. publicity and community education
  5. financial and political commitment at the highest decision-making levels

Give Strong Guidance

There’s a lot of good things written all over the internet about what you can do in the fight against bullying in schools.  Take heed of them. But we should get more knowledgeable and serious about getting on top of the problem in a way that works beyond just a few months.  Along with all of those things, we therefore need a shift in our thinking about what rampant bullying in our schools is actually telling us.  Out children are not only being neglected when it comes to giving them guidance at home and school. We are actively teaching them some of the same values we are trying to stomp out.. values that feed the natural tendency for many children to be aggressive in the absence of  self-esteem and essential life-skills.

Strong guidance doesn’t include one-way lecturing or preaching. We’re talking about parenting and leadership skills.  Its about leading them to come up with the answer themselves, leading them to start applying the solutions, then reinforcing  them relentlessly.

So the long and short of it is that the “bully” problem isn’t a matter of tackling a certain group of students or youth in our societies. It’s about parenting in ways that speak to our the better side of humanity’s nature, and about giving up methods that model hitting and “might-is-right” values.  It’s about soliciting the collaboration of the entire society in promoting empathy and compassion in all of us.

There are many ways to contribute to the cause. We should all be interested in learning more, and getting involved.  You can start by using one of the share-buttons below to spread this post. Then, if you haven’t done so already, you can download and read our free E-book to learn about the type of approaches we advocate for the home.  With your assistance, We’ll be developing avenues for making your communities more aware, while making a lot more information and training available.

Do you agree that we can all fight against bullying in smarter ways that work long-term? I’d really appreciate your opinion in the comment-box below.

A Parent’s Most Powerful Weapon Against Drugs And Risky Behavior

youths drinking and drivingEighty-seven degrees in the heart of winter

What is it that makes you live on an island paradise under the Caribbean sun, yet never go to the beach for three years?  That’s the question I was pondering yesterday looking out at the shimmering sea under clean blue skies with no clouds.

I can give you a dozen easy answers to the question, but I won’t.  They’re already sounding trite inside my head.  I can tell you for certain what made me appreciate the beach all the more, once I arrived there though.« Continue »

Why Some Children Don’t Work In School (Pt. 10)

Of Youth, Parenting, Teachers, and Education

Where the buck stops in Education

Where the buck stops in Education

Over the years working with youth-workers from many institutions, and educators in many schools, several themes kept coming up.

Listening to the principal of the middle school out in the Caribbean islands talk about educational challenges is remarkable in its resemblance to a chat with the manager of the juvenile offenders program in Belize, Central America, or the Director of an urban high school in Brooklyn, NY.

Where’s the bottleneck?« Continue »

Why Some Children Don’t Work In School (Pt. 9)

student with emotional distressRita looked up at the two adults staring at Mommy. Mommy’s jaw dropped too.

Emptiness.  It meant nothing. They were people she knew walking around in some corner of her life. None of them seemed to care that  her family was falling apart, not even her mother.  All they cared about was stupid school-grades.

The principal was shaking her forehead even though it rested on the heel of her palm.« Continue »