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Research Questions

  1. Is the 1997 Department of Defense definition of hazing still relevant, or should it be refined to better track hazing incidents across the armed forces?
  2. What practices should be used to prevent and respond to incidents of hazing?
  3. Is a comprehensive hazing incident database feasible? If so, what key data elements would it need?

Initiation activities have long been part of U.S. military culture as a way to mark significant transitions, status changes, and group membership. However, along with these activities have often come acts of hazing, in which individuals were subjected to abusive and harmful treatment that went beyond sanctioned ceremonies. In recent years, extreme cases of alleged hazing have led to the high-profile deaths of several service members, resulting in renewed interest from the public and Congress in seeing these hazing rituals eliminated from military culture. The Department of Defense (DoD) asked RAND to examine and provide recommendations on current hazing policy and practices across the services. To do so, the researchers examined current DoD and service-specific policy, practices, and data collection related to hazing; reviewed the scientific literature and interviewed leading experts in the field; and reviewed existing DoD incident tracking databases. This report addresses ways to improve the armed forces' definition of hazing, the effects of and motivations for hazing, how the armed forces can prevent and respond to hazing, and how the armed forces can improve the tracking of hazing incidents.

Key Findings

The Department of Defense (DoD) Definition of Hazing Can Be Improved

  • The definition should include qualities that distinguish hazing from other types of abuse and mistreatment.
  • It should clarify the role of authority figures and the individual's responsibility.
  • It should consider the addition of more objective terms in describing harm, such as "psychological injury" or "extreme mental stress" and provide current examples.

The Effects of and Motivations for Hazing Need to be Addressed

  • Among other things, proponents of hazing argue that acts of hazing or harsh initiation rituals contribute to increased liking of, commitment to, and cohesion within the group.
  • However, evidence for these different effects is mixed, and research and reports demonstrate that hazing can lead to physical and psychological injuries among hazees.

DoD Does Not Currently Have a Clear Understanding of the Scope of the Hazing Problem

  • Once the department has a clear definition of hazing and is able to uniformly track hazing incidents and better assess scope, it can then better determine whether to invest in a DoD-wide database system or whether service-level tracking remains sufficient.
  • Elements DoD should consider tracking include victim and perpetrator characteristics, location, circumstances, types of behavior, and incident severity.
  • Confidential or anonymous surveys should be used to supplement reported incident databases to give a more-comprehensive assessment of hazing across the services.


  • At the organizational level, efforts to address hazing should include providing a clear definition that distinguishes hazing from other forms of abuse and mistreatment, communicating antihazing policies and consequences, holding leaders accountable, ensuring that there are options for anonymous reporting, and implementing comprehensive assessment of hazing through standardized tracking of reported incidents and anonymous surveys.
  • At the individual level, efforts should include a training sequence that increases knowledge, influences attitudes and perceptions, and changes or develops behaviors and skills and teaching leaders to identify and address hazing.

This research was sponsored by the Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and was conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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