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Meaningful Initiation


I have mixed feelings about the phenomenon of “initiation.” I’d be very interested to hear about other people’s experiences, intuitions, and studies related to this very common social phenomenon.


Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas on January 29, 2018



Appropriate Initiation


Persistent social groups typically require people who want to join the group to pass an initiation ceremony, rite, or test. Some of these “initiations” include meaningful tests of skill, knowledge, or loyalty. Such initiations prevent people who are deemed unworthy or not ready from joining the group. This has several additional effects. People who pass the initiation, especially if it is severe, value the group more. The initiation also tends to prevent people who do not really value the group enough (or even seek to subvert it) from joining. In addition, people who have no interest in joining the group may also value it more highly if they know it is difficult to join. Initiations may be severe by virtue of having the test of skill itself be difficult, or by requiring endurance, pain, or embarrassment on the part of the would-be joiner.


Groups function better under a wide variety of circumstances if there is a high degree of internal mutual trust. If people work together over a long period of time, trust will develop if warranted. However, often even a newcomer to a group can cause chaos and mistrust due to lack of experience, competence, or in some cases, intentionally. Groups therefore need some way to ensure that everyone in the group is minimally competent, values the group and works for the group’s benefit, not just their individual benefit. It’s important for the group work that everyone value the group and trust each other.


Complex problems and large problems can often only be solved by groups. For the group to work well together to solve ill-defined or wicked problems, they need to have a common way of communicating, have knowledge of what each other knows, and have a high degree of trust. At the other extreme, consider slaves chained to their oars, slaves picking cotton, or even volunteers, each of whom scans a very small pre-assigned segment of the night sky. In these cases, someone outside the group is typically “in charge” and the cooperation and coordination required among the members of the group is determined, not by the group, but by an overseer. As the problem space becomes more complex however, it becomes more and more necessary for the group to be able to re-prioritize, re-arrange how they work together, and even for fundamental values and goals to evolve. In these latter contexts, it is very important for the group members to share common experiences and trust each other.

In some cases, the normal progression of education, joining a sports league or becoming a full-fledged member of a profession has an initiation aspect even if its accidental. For instance, becoming a tennis professional will require submitting to the requests of coaches and doing a lot of repetition of the fundamentals. It may also require many hours of working out for flexibility, strength, balance, and cardio fitness. In addition, as the person gains skill, their opponents and the venues will tend to produce more and more stressful situations that must be mastered in order to progress to the next level. Similarly, to become a medical doctor requires hundreds of hours of study as well as practical, hands on experiences which will typically require higher and higher levels of skill and stress. Sometimes there are actual specific ritual initiations in addition, but sometimes the structure of the profession itself serves an initiative function.



  • If someone works harder, or suffers more pain or embarrassment to be accepted into a group, they will tend to value the group more (though this findings has not always been replicated).
  • For groups to work well together, they need common ways to communicate.
  • Common experiences tend to increase mutual trust.
  • For many groups, it is vital that the members of the group are selected so as to have adequate speed, strength, vision, courage, training, skill, or other characteristics.
  • Groups which are perceived to be very difficult to join may be viewed as being higher prestige than those which are easy to join.
  • Groups with higher prestige may enjoy more benefits from the larger society such as special laws, exceptions to general regulations, or a better pool of candidates.
  • Some people may use the excuse of an initiation in order to satisfy their own need to inflict cruelty on others regardless of the impact of that cruelty on the individual being initiated or on the effectiveness and cohesion of the group.


Before someone is allowed to join a group, they have to “prove themselves” by undergoing an initiation. This insures they have some minimal qualifications. It also increases the strength of loyalty, social capital, and trust within the group. It may also increase the “cachet” of the group among others.


As Royal Dutch Petroleum was nearing its hundredth year of existence, they commissioned Aries de Gues to find out whether corporations ever existed as long as a century and if so, what were the characteristics. He found that indeed, there were companies that old and they had four common characteristics. One was a high degree of mutual trust. A second was “strong boundaries.” This latter characteristic meant that it was difficult to join such companies and people tended to stay for a long time. Both these characteristics are logically related to having meaningful initiations. (The other two are not strongly related to this Pattern; Tolerance for Exploration at the Edges and Financial Conservatism).


See link for examples of religious initiations: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_initiation_rites

Many so-called “primitive” cultures had initiations and rites of passage. Here are a few references.





Resulting Context:

Presumably and hopefully, the resulting context is a self-sustaining group over time whose members trust each other, communicate well, and highly value their group membership.


Initiations are supposed to have these benefits: 1) The initiation screens out anyone who is incapable or not sufficiently interested to undergo bad things in order to join the group. 2) The initiation causes members of the group to value the group more highly. 3) The initiation provides a common experience that all group members can share. 4) The initiation may make the group seem more “selective” to people outside.

Related Patterns: 

Special Roles; Strong Boundaries; Levels of Trust; Bell, Book, and Candle; Apprenticeships; Official Sanctions of Competency.

Known Uses:

College fraternities and sororities, clubs, sports teams, commercial groups in many settings, military groups, religious groups, and professional societies among others, all require tests and/or initiations before one becomes a full-fledged member. In some cases, such as a Ph.D. dissertation and defense, the “initiation” is mainly a test and an educational experience, but there is often an “endurance” aspect as well. While college fraternity initiations may include tests of knowledge of the participants; e.g., about the fraternity, it’s origins and members; it seems mainly to require the pledge to endure humiliation, discomfort, endurance and sometimes physical danger.

Known Misuses:

(Note: This is not a standard section in the Patterns of a Pattern Language. In this case, I think it’s important. While I do think this overall Pattern can be a useful one, it is particularly prone to misuse as well. I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts and experiences of initiations and what could be done to insure that this is a positive pattern.)

College fraternities in particular are known for so-called “hazing” that sometimes results in deaths. The most common cause of death is from drinking too much alcohol in too short a period of time.

Although part of what internships for medicine do is teaching and testing the ability of doctors to handle pressure, the schedules and attitudes often seem to include an element of cruelty and possibly even danger to the health and well-being of both interns and patients. Many professionals in other fields as well have experienced abuse of one sort or another from superiors during or associated with such tests.

In the movie, A Few Good Men, a commander orders a “Code Red” on a recruit who has repeatedly fallen short in various physical tests. The recruit dies. It turns out that his inability to perform some of the physical requirements of Marine training were because of an undiagnosed heart problem. This is at least arguably an example (albeit fictional) of initiation gone horribly wrong. Even though the fallen soldier was “in” the Marines, he was still in basic training which consists of a combination of skills training, conditioning, and repeated “initiation rituals.”


When I was a Boy Scout, my “initiation” consisted of supposedly being branded by a hot poker. Three of us were to be initiated during a week-end long camp outing. The kids who were already in the troop were in the main common room and we three were told to wait our turn in another, smaller room. The main room had a roaring fire and fireplace tools including a poker. I volunteered to go first. I was blindfolded and led into the main room where I had to lay down on a bench next to the fire. My shirt was pulled up and after a few minutes, when my torso felt hot from the fire, an ice cube was laid on my stomach. As you can easily verify for yourself, if you sense both hot and cold at the same time, it produces a burning sensation. I was instructed to scream bloody murder for the benefit of the guys still in the other room. As best I can recall at the time, I had been fairly well convinced that I was not actually going to be branded. (But either way, I thought it better to go first). For one thing, I had been swimming with all these guys and never noticed any kind of a scar that would be consistent with being branded with a hot poker. The second guy went through a similar procedure and was also told to scream bloody murder. After his “branding” the troop members took a towel and put ketchup on it to simulate blood. They took this in to show the third and last one of tonight’s “initiates.” The two of us who had already been initiated still moaned mournfully as though in pain, as per our instructions. When the boys went to blindfold and bring the last initiate in however, he completely freaked out. He not only refused; he fought as though his life depended on it, punching, kicking, biting, and otherwise wreaking mayhem on the older and larger boys who were trying to subdue him for the initiation. Realizing how extreme was his fear, they tried to intimate that he was not really going to be branded but this last boy was far too wound up to pay attention to what was being “intimated.” The troop eventually gave up on his initiation. That boy was seriously traumatized. I can’t really say whether he ever believed us that no-one really meant him physical damage, but he never looked any of us in the eye again or spoke much during the remainder of the camping trip. He never asked for another go at an initiation and, to the best of my recollection, everyone else in the troop felt very bad. Rather than increase social cohesion in the group, this misadventure backfired completely. Whatever the reason, this particular troop soon disbanded. This example serves as a cautionary tale about “initiations” because none of the people involved foresaw this particular outcome or were operating out of conscious cruelty.

Early in high school, I got a volunteer job as a “Y leader” at the local YMCA. I basically taught and supervised younger kids in basketball and various fitness tests. My manager was a young man probably in college. He said I would have to pass a “test” first which consisted, basically, of doing a chore for him; I was supposed to go to a nearby department store and pick up a shade that he had bought and paid for. I went to the department store but no-one in the drapery department had the least knowledge of this guy and the shade he had supposedly bought. I had to return empty handed and figured I had failed my “test.” He explained, however, that he hadn’t bought window shades but lamp shades. Back to the store I trudged and returned with his lamp shades. It all struck me as weird and irrelevant to my job as a Y-leader. But there was more to come.

In order to be fully admitted into this little “club” of the Y-leaders we had to go through an initiation. We had several weeks to memorize every athletic record of that local Y, as well as their times or weights or distances. There was also additional material about the procedures and the hierarchy of the YMCA and so on. Then, we came to the initiation night. I think there were four of us who were initiates. We initiates took turns and had to answer questions given by this same manager mentioned above. While doing this, we stared into a very bright light. He was behind the light so that I could only see a slight shadow of the outline of his head. He and the rest of the Y leaders called us “worms” during this little ritual. On the other hand, the initiates were supposed to begin and end each of our utterances with “sir.” Well, I hadn’t really cared much about the material and quickly got three wrong. Now, I was given a choice: I could either delay being initiated and try again next month, or I could take 40 whacks with a wooden paddle. I opted for the 40 whacks. I had been paddled before with wooden paddles, but never more than a few times.

As I soon discovered, there was another crucial difference. My other paddling had been by teachers. Although they certainly wanted to make the paddling punishment hurt, they also certainly wanted to avoid a lawsuit. Although back then, lawsuits were not so plentiful as raindrops, there were some. In any case, I don’t think any of them actually wanted to physically injure us. This paddling was done by all the boys who were already Y leaders. This paddling was done by my peers. They were not adults but young teen-aged boys. As they took their turns, a few went easy on me and most hit fairly hard — around “teacher” velocity. Two brothers, however, had some kind of sadistic streak. They took several steps forward during the “wind-up” and swung the paddle with both hands like a baseball bat. Anyway, I “passed” the initiation. My backside was black and blue however, not just on my buttocks, which I would have been capable of hiding, but also on the back of my thighs. Two of my co-initiates also received 40 whacks. The last guy had taken the task very seriously and knew an incredible amount of trivia about a bunch of local athletes. But as he answered question after question, the manager simply made the questions more and more obscure, venturing well outside the scope of what we had been told we needed to learn. I realized that the point of the whole exercise was not to have us learn anything but to get to have us paddled. At last, the last boy got three wrong, but to my surprise, when it came to the question, he said he would study again for next month.

Eventually, my parents found out (because the bruising was visible, not just on my buttocks but all the way down the back of my legs) and complained to the Y about this whole initiation. Again, this “initiation” seems to have backfired in every sense. One has to wonder whether overly powerful initiation rituals are also part of why sexual abuse and child abuse often go unreported when it occurs in certain tightly knit groups. Initiation is a tool that needs to be used appropriately, carefully, and protected from the misuse of those who are really interested in inflicting cruelty to others merely under the ruse of carrying out an “initiation.” Need initiations be “secret”? They often are and this increases the tendency for them to be subject to perversion from being what is potentially good for the group into a private exercise in cruelty.


A sperm cell, whether human animal or flowering plant, must be healthy enough to traverse some distance before getting to an egg. It then has to penetrate the cell wall of the egg. While we do not expect the sperm to therefore “value” the joining with the egg, this process does perform a kind of screening function.

In some team competitions, there are a series of “rounds” before the final round. One could think of these earlier rounds as a kind of trial that has some aspects of initiation. Only the best teams continue on in further into the tournament. In addition, it probably also has the effect of increasing social capital within the team.

Apprenticeship programs often require new apprentices to perform the most menial tasks. This process of gradually assigning more responsibility as the initiate gains more skill is necessary for safe and productive work, but it also may partly serve an initiation function as well.



Aronson, E., & Mills, J. (1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59(2), 177-181.



De Gues, Arie. (1997), The Living Company. London: Nicholas Brealy.

Gerard, H. & Matthewson, G. (1966),  The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group: a replication, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2(3), 278-287.

Walsh, A. (1990). Becoming an American and liking it as a function of social distance and severity of initiation. Sociological Inquiry, 60(2), 177-189.