Category Archives: situational forces

Sigma Nu History Isn’t Just For Candidates

Many of you have probably noticed that we started posting a Sigma Nu trivia question-of-the-day last week.  So far it’s been a fun way to engage our Facebook fans and Twitter followers about the early days of our storied organization.

A select few of the comments, however, have been disappointing in a subtle way.  Apparently for some, Sigma Nu history is merely a collection of arbitrary information for quizzing candidates.  “…well thats [sic] good trivia to stump candidates with,” read one comment.  Several others echoed a similar sentiment.

I know what you’re thinking: “What’s the big deal?  We expect our candidates to memorize history as a requirement for initiation.  Every chapter teaches history.  Don’t you think history is important??”

Of course history is important.  It explains why we were founded and it helps us understand why Sigma Nu’s mission is still relevant over 140 years later.  But seemingly harmless comments like these only perpetuate the pervasive myth that membership is earned only once during “pledging,” inevitably creating a culture of apathy and entitlement.

It seems harmless at first–a written test here, a verbal quiz there–but this paradigm of pledging is insidious.  Before long, verbal quiz sessions become line ups where deadbeat brothers attempt to gain unearned respect under the guise of “teaching history.”

Oddly, our history is often misused in this way as an arbitrary means to badger new members–the very behavior Sigma Nu was founded against.

Memorizing history is well and good but understanding history is even better.  Instead of barking “WHERE WERE THE FOUNDERS BORN?” why not discuss “Why was Sigma Nu founded and how is this still relevant today?”  Or, “to what extent does our chapter actually practice what the Founders intended?”

Slowly but surely sensible chapters are adopting this not-so-new paradigm for candidate education: Earn your badge every day by living the mission and values of our organization.  They’re not changing because it earns brownie points from the Greek Advisor or because “Nationals” told them to; they’re changing because it works.  Members are realizing that a brotherhood based on fear, harassment and personal servitude isn’t really a brotherhood at all.

Ignore the Outsider’s Advice at Your Peril

Here’s a recent conversation I overheard between a collegiate officer and one of my esteemed colleagues:

Collegian: We can’t just stop recruiting with alcohol.  We wouldn’t be able to compete with the other elite chapters on our campus.  Everyone does it and we have to keep up.

HQ Staff Member: What if I told you there were other chapters recruiting without alcohol that are not only getting by but are excelling more than any other chapter on campus?

Collegian: That may work some places but it could never work here.  It’s different here at _______ University.

HQ Staff Member: What if I told you that we recruited the men to start this very chapter without alcohol?  (And did quite well I might add.)

Collegian: Wait, hold on.  Where are you from?

HQ Staff Member: I grew up and attended school in the ______ region of the country.

Collegian: See, that explains everything.  Things are different here in the ________.  There’s just no way you could understand how things work if you’re not from here.

So goes the conversation, so predictable in its nature, that every Greek Life professional has had many times over with their student leaders.  Here is what the well-intentioned collegian really means:

TRANSLATION:  I don’t care if recruiting with alcohol attracts members who are causing us to fail.  I would rather continue to fail than accept information from an outsider.  I’ve made up my mind and I’m so stubborn and arrogant that no amount of contrary evidence is going to change my decision.

Sometimes it’s natural to be skeptical of outsiders, but eventually we all learn the hard way that automatically dismissing outsider’s advice makes us one step closer to failure.  A brief mention of two historical figures shows that outsiders can teach us more about ourselves than we ever imagined.

Take philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand, author of bestselling novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.  Rand, originally named Alisa Rosenbaum, grew up in communist Russia and eventually emigrated to the United States.  Surely a woman raised in such an authoritarian, collectivist culture could never be qualified to write novels about capitalism and individualism.  Who in their right mind would listen to her?  To the contrary, many would argue that this outsider (putting aside her controversies for this particular example) has taught us more about our way of life than any homegrown American philosopher or economist.

Or what about Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French politico best known for his work Democracy in America.  Born and educated in France, Tocqueville traveled the United States providing an outsider’s perspective on the American way of life.  Widely regarded as one of the most influential political philosophers of his time, Tocqueville is still quoted in speeches by American politicians to this day.

Consider this example that hits closer to home.  Out of all of our excellent College of Chapters facilitators, the majority of whom are initiated Knights, the female facilitators are often the most effective.  Mindy Sopher, Kristin Morgan, Lindsay Grifford, Krystal Clark, and Kayte Sexton Fry–to name a few–are revered by College of Chapters participants by week’s end.  Hardly outsiders, these women understand our organization as well if not better than we do.

Our founding principle of Truth is often confused with honesty, an equally important virtue to be sure.  However, in the context of Sigma Nu’s founding, Truth is more closely associated with seeking sound information to make the most informed decisions possible.  It calls for the willingness to abandon a false paradigm even if it might be psychologically painful.  Seeking the Truth encompasses the process by which we make good decisions, including the consideration of all viewpoints even if it means swallowing our pride and listening to a perceived outsider.

Don’t Drink the Hazing Kool-Aid: Lessons from Jonestown

Jim Jones, Peoples Temple founder

I watched a documentary on Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple last weekend and couldn’t help but relate some of the underlying causes to fraternity life.  No, I’m not suggesting that fraternity life is becoming a socialist utopia turned forced-labor camp; comparing is not equating and few analogies are perfect.  But attempting to understand why 909 people were convinced by a toxic leader to commit mass suicide holds lessons on how groups of good people can make bad decisions.  Here are a few of the parallels:

1.  Total denial of reality

Throughout the documentary members of the Peoples Temple repeatedly claim, “[Jonestown] is heaven on Earth,” or “I’ve never been so happy in my entire life.”  This false sense of reality continued even to the day Jones ordered his followers to inject their children with cyanide-laced kool-aid, just before committing their own suicide.

For some reason student leaders tend to overestimate the current performance of their organization.  I’ve heard too many times, “Everything is going great, couldn’t be better,” from a chapter with lousy grades, low numbers, no campus involvement and multiple hazing investigations.  Identifying and acknowledging a problem is the first step to becoming an excellent chapter.

If personal servitude is the core philosophy of your chapter’s candidate education program but you’ve convinced yourself it’s not hazing (and you tell everyone “we’re a non-hazing chapter”) then you are denying reality.

It’s no coincidence that the All Chapter LEAD Session on Accountability includes “See It” and “Own It” in the four-step model.

2.  The dangers of good intentions

We’ve all heard of the famous road paved with good intentions.  Jim Jones preached about peace, justice, equality and other such virtues during service at the Peoples Temple.  Sounds good, right?  Who wouldn’t be for justice and treating people fairly?  On the surface Jones preached the virtues of the Bible, but it quickly became apparent (evidently not for the church’s members) that he maintained a deeper agenda: absolute control over his followers.

Jones even cajoled members into donating their life savings to the church.  People sold their homes, cashed in their retirement savings, quit their jobs and turned all belongings over to the collective.  In turn, members were provided with food, health care, housing and a community of people for life.

Were members of The Peoples Temple more gullible than the average person?  Did Jim Jones prey upon the poor and undereducated?  Maybe, maybe not.  Either way, the ash heap of history contains countless groups of perfectly sensible people who were duped into bad decisions (or even suicide, in this case) by the allure of good intentions.

Ask any Marshal the goal of his candidate education program and you’re sure to get this answer: “We want the candidates to bond together, learn the history, and prove they’re worthy of initiation.”  Who could argue with that?  We can’t just initiate anyone, right?  Isn’t  a brotherhood supposed to bond?

But what happens when “learning the history” becomes public quizzing sessions of arbitrary yelling?  Or when “proving you’re worthy of initiation” becomes running errands for brothers or completing other arbitrary tasks?  Or when “candidate class bonding” becomes public embarrassment or even worse?  Watch out for the bait-and-switch of good intentions for other hidden agendas.

Hazing is often perpetuated under the guise of good intentions: bonding, building better men and teaching history.  But the new student leader isn’t falling for it any longer.  The emerging student leader recognizes hazing for what is is: a system for deadbeat brothers to gain unearned respect and a source of entertainment for the others.  Deadbeat members should be asked to leave, and those who joined to be entertained should reread their candidate Ritual ceremony.

3. Waiting for disaster to acknowledge the need for change

How many times have we seen a community “come together” in the wake of some tragedy?  Why should it take the preventable death of a student for the Greek life community to put the rivalries aside and support each other?  Why do some chapters only understand the connection between risk reduction guidelines and valid insurance until after tragedy strikes?

Once Jim Jones moved his Peoples Temple from northern California to Jonestown, French Guiana, it should have become clear that something wasn’t right.  But the members continued to deny reality and accepted Jones’ sermons as absolute truths.

Jones became increasingly authoritarian, irrational and hysterical; his sermons shifted from discussions of equality and justice to instilling a constant sense of fear among the members.  The collective utopia started to look more like a forced-labor camp than the promise land.

Other members of The Peoples Temple must have known about the giant stash of cyanide.  Jim Jones even held trial runs of his plans to commit mass suicide.  But no one said anything until it was too late.

Lessons learned?

So what does this extreme example of groupthink and mass delusion have to do with fraternity life?  While we aren’t headed for the mass hysteria that ended in a tragedy like Jonestown, we can recognize that groups of intelligent college men are capable of making bad decisions–albeit on a much smaller scale.

By now you’ve probably realized the origin of the popular phrase, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”  Next time your chapter is coalescing around a bad idea, you be the one to recognize it and do something about it.  Don’t drink the hazing Kool-Aid.

-Nathaniel Clarkson

Why Good People Make Bad Decisions

I’m currently re-reading The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo. I’m still amazed with how relevant the book’s message can be to group culture and specifically fraternity and sorority life. Here are some excerpts from the introduction:

The Lucifer Effect is my attempt to understand the process of transformation at work when good or ordinary people do bad or evil things. We will deal with the fundamental question “What makes people go wrong?” But instead of resorting to a traditional religious dualism of good versus evil, of wholesome nature versus corrupting nurture, we will look at real people engaged in life’s daily tasks, enmeshed in doing their jobs, surviving within an often turbulent crucible of human nature. We will seek to understand the nature of their character transformations when they are faced with powerful situational forces.

When I first read the book, I was initially turned off by what I mistakenly thought was the author’s dismissal of personal responsibility. I falsely thought (before finishing the book) Zimbardo’s conclusion was that humans should not be held responsible for bad or evil behavior because we are only products of our group’s culture. But Zimbardo cleared up this misconception just a few pages into the book:

Throughout this book, I repeat the mantra that attempting to understand the situational and systemic contributions to any individual’s behavior does not excuse the person or absolve him of her from responsibility in engaging in immoral, illegal, or evil deeds.

And Zimbardo explains here how he concludes the book on a positive note, with a discussion of heroes:

We have come to think of our heroes as special, set apart from us ordinary mortals by their daring deeds of lifelong sacrifices. Here we recognize that such special individuals do exist, but that they are the exception among the ranks of heroes, the few who make such sacrifices. They are a special breed who organize their lives around a humanitarian cause, for example. By contrast, most others we recognize as heroes are heroes of the moment, of the situation, who act decisively when the call to service is sounded. So, The Lucifer Effect journey ends on a positive note by celebrating the ordinary hero who lives within each of us.

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How Well Do You Really Know Yourself?

We would all like to think we’re ethical and good at all times but how much do situational forces influence our decision making in the heat of the moment? Dr. Zimbardo addresses this important question in his fascinating book The Lucifer Effect. Here’s another snippet from the introduction:

In the course of our voyage through good and evil, I will ask you to reflect upon three issues: How well do you really know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses? Does your self-knowledge come from reviewing your behavior in familiar situations or from being exposed to totally new settings where your old habits are challenged? In the same vein, how well do you really know the people with whom you interact daily: your family, friends, co-workers, and lover? One thesis of this book is that most of us know ourselves only from our limited experiences in familiar situations that involve rules, laws, policies and pressures that constrain us. We go to school, to work, on vacation, to parties; we pay the bills and the taxes, day in and year out. But what happens when we are exposed to totally new and unfamiliar settings where our habits don’t suffice? You start a new job, go on your first computer-matched date, join a fraternity, get arrested, enlist in the military, join a cult, or volunteer for an experiment. The old you might not work as expected when the ground rules change. (emphasis mine)