Origins of Group Teasing


I was sitting at my desk at Epstein's going through my emails when a customer came in, leaned up on the counter and noticed an old carbide lantern sitting on the table behind me. He pointed to it. "Can I see that?" He smiled as I handed it to him and recounted some harrowing stories of working in a lead and silver mine in Mexico. He told me about the how the mines were constructed, how guys that hated each other on the surface would immediately bond and get along once they were down below, how they would eat a big communal lunch that would be cooked on a giant electric grill, and how, "packed like cigarettes" they would ride the elevator down into the mine.

He also told me about all the different ways they would tease the new guys, poking them on the elevator, knocking their hats off, wiping grease on their crotch that was impossible to get off. As I was listening I started thinking about how familiar this dynamic was to me. I talk to a lot of construction workers and this kind of teasing is part of the job, especially if you're new. A common joke is that you don't want to show up on the job with a brand new hard hat because it marks you as a "newbie", so often guys will take their hats and intentionally scuff them up in the parking lot, just so they'll avoid being teased.

All of this made me wonder how universal of a dynamic this was, how many cultures this "teasing the new guy" behavior has been documented in, and what purpose, if any, it ultimately serves. My first thought was that historically in order to be initiated into a group you had to pass a test, which in tribal societies involved either genital mutilation and/or some kind of display of endurance such as spending days alone in the woods.  The idea was that in order to join the group you had to prioritize the meaning of the group over your own physical pain. You willingly subjected yourself to things like circumcision in order to prove your commitment. Essentially, "talk is cheap". Anyone can say their committed, and so what's required is actual proof by undergoing the one thing that is universally unpleasant for human beings to experience, physical pain.

A diagram he drew me of how the mine shafts were constructed.

A diagram he drew me of how the mine shafts were constructed.

This practice in modern societies has then been transferred from the domain of physical pain to that of meaningful pain. We no longer send our children out into the unknown to fend for themselves or inflict severe scarification on their bodies to test their resolve. Now, in order to be accepted, we must endure a brief period of explicit castigation, where it's made clear we're an outsider. If we can "take it" then eventually we're accepted, our status rises and we become a part of the group. This kind of behavior can be seen in high schools, military and sports organizations, fraternities, on construction crews and in many social circles. It's something I've experienced in my own life, and a dynamic I would imagine most people are familiar with.

If this is a universal group dynamic then the question is, "What purpose does it serve?" and further "Is there an evolutionary benefit for each individual in the group for this mode of selection?" To answer the first question I would say that what's being selected for is essentially "a sense of humor about oneself" or "humility" which may or may not translate to someone who is a better cooperator and who is less likely to try and impose their authoritarian will on the group. Someone who can't handle the slight of being teased let's everyone else know important information about them. Essentially, "Watch out for that guy. His sense of self can't be momentarily subverted to the will of the group even for a short amount of time."

Working in a mine is a high stakes job where your life is dependent upon the people you're surrounded with and so I would imagine that the context of "high stakes" is where you would find more extreme versions of this kind of harsh initiative behavior as opposed to the lower stakes environment of a book club. The pay off for this strategy would have to be better survival rates for most of the individuals that adopt it, and thus even though it causes initial pain to every individual in the beginning, the benefits of having a system which instills stronger bonds and a sense of dependability between people is worth it in the long run. 

I don't have any evidence for this of course. All of this is based of an anecdotal conversation I had today, but nevertheless, it would be interesting to find research that looked at cross cultural comparisons of initiation rituals, and then identify the more effective strategies that certain cultures have developed at excluding non-cooperative individuals from in-group status especially in high stakes environments.

Jori SackinComment