The LDS Proselytizing Mission as Hazing

By S. Richard Bellrock

S. Richard Bellrock has been teaching and working in areas related to philosophy and psychology since 2000.



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Presumably, you have heard the notion that one of the primary purposes (if not the primary purpose) of the LDS proselytizing mission is to “convert the missionary,” because those who

put in the eighteen or twenty-four months of service are more likely to remain active in the Church.

Indeed, in a Salt Lake Tribune article, Peggy Fletcher Stack cites David Stewart, a physician and amateur statistician, as saying that “there is a strong correlation between missionary service and ongoing church activity, compared to young Mormons who do not serve missions. So the most important number of conversions per proselytizer may be one: the person the missionary sees in the mirror every day.”1

The LDS Church is certainly cognizant of this correlation. The introduction to the missionary manual Preach My Gospel says that while “all of the chapters in Preach My Gospel will help prepare you to fulfill your purpose as a missionary. . . . Most of the chapters are addressed to you.2

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said it right out loud at the Provo Utah Missionary Training Center on 15 January 2013. The purpose of Preach My Gospel is, in his words, first “to convert you, then help you to convert the [individual] investigators.”3

Orthodox Latter-day Saints often interpret this increase in commitment to church activity by the returned missionary to be a positive reflection on the truthfulness of the Church. But I will argue that this increased commitment is independent of the Church’s truth claims. Even if the LDS Church were a complete fraud, the experience of serving a mission would still result in the same increase in dedication. It is precisely the same phenomenon that occurs when soldiers, students, and athletes are “hazed” by their fellow soldiers, upperclassmen, and teammates.4

That assertion may strike you as hyperbolic, especially since hazing has negative connections with heavy drinking, humiliating rituals, and dangerous stunts. But the similarities are many and compelling. LDS missions are perfectly timed and executed to reap all the group-commitment benefits of hazing. The purpose of this article is not to denigrate missions5 but to show how they function as hazing.


Psychosocial Stages

We’ll begin with the timing of missions.

Psychosocial theorists such as Erik Erikson6 and James Marcia7 hold that puberty triggers a “crisis” of personal identity. Rapid growth spurts, changes in appearance, increasingly complex emotions, enhanced self-awareness, heightened sexual drive, new cognitions, and many other factors lead youth to feel as though they have become a different person. Thus, a lot of adolescent energy is spent on resolving this crisis. They try to “find themselves,” often by trying out different personae: the athlete, the poet, the rebel, the romantic, the academic, etc. As they navigate toward their “real” adult self, they individuate—that is, their personal identity comes to depend less on their relationship to their parents and more on their own long-term characteristics, values, and traits.

The beginning of the adolescence stage can be clearly demarcated by the biological changes wrought by puberty, but our sociocultural environment determines its end point, marking the transition to adulthood with cultural milestones—for example, one’s eighteenth birthday, first drink, first full-time job, departure from home, acceptance to post-secondary school, etc.

The adolescent crisis of identity is ideally resolved when, after a period of youthful exploration, we commit to an adult role, achieving sincerity, genuineness, and sense of duty to relationships—what Erickson refers to as fidelity.


Critical Periods

However, this transition can’t just happen at any time. There are brief, genetically determined windows of opportunity during maturation when an organism is maximally sensitive to specific stimuli. As one part of the brain “comes online,” it requires specific stimuli to develop properly.

Konrad Lorenz8 observed that newly hatched greylag geese “imprint” on essentially the first thing they see moving. It seems that there is a critical period for attachment in these animals, lasting 12–36 hours after hatching. If the gosling fails to latch onto a moving object during that period, they are unlikely to do so after the window closes. Furthermore, once they have attached to one moving object, they are unlikely to detach, even if the initial object is not a mother goose—or even if an actual mother goose is introduced at a later time.9

Research has identified windows of opportunity during which certain stimuli are necessary for normal human brain development—necessary because the time frame is inflexible, and once the window is closed, the effect (or lack thereof) is essentially irreversible.

A common element in most reports of hazing is the age at which it occurs—typically in the range of 18–20 years old. It is a “critical period” for committing to an adult role. If one does not commit to an adult version of oneself around this period, one is less likely to be successful at completing developmental tasks and responsibilities later in life. Inevitably, a large part of our emerging adult identity will be informed by surrounding social structures, institutions, and organizations.

As you have no doubt realized by this point, a mission hits this window perfectly. As LDS blogger Geoff Openshaw wrote in 2014, when the LDS Church reduced the missionary age from nineteen to eighteen for males and from twenty-one to nineteen for females, “For young men, the presumed year between high school and a mission (age 18) is a risky one. . . . [An earlier mission] gets those would-be lost 18-year-olds out in the mission field doing something other than playing Call of Duty, experimenting with marijuana, and firing up little factories. . . . [By decreasing the missionary age] just a few more than before will actually get out on a mission and stay involved in the Church.”10



But can a mission be considered a bona fide instance of hazing? After, all, hazing is often concentrated into a “hell night” or a “frosh week.” But it can also occur over a prolonged period. Rites of passage like a post-doc, articling (unpaid service to a law firm by a prospective lawyer), and medical internships can last months or years, and are described by some as a type of hazing.11

I want to clarify that the question I’m considering here is whether the mission as a whole constitutes a form of hazing. It may be true that missionaries pick on the greenie with some practical joke(s) intended as a kind of hazing,12 but those antics are not what is at issue here. We are concerned with the effects of the mission in its entirety.

Since definitions of hazing are quite varied, I extracted some common elements13 from multiple sources into the following (hopefully uncontroversial) list:


  • An initiate desires to join a group.
  • Affiliation in the group is explicitly or implicitly contingent upon participation.
  • Participation of the initiate in the hazing is voluntary; however, the initiate understands that they must be hazed in order to prove their worthiness of group membership.
  • The hazing is rooted in tradition and reinforces the traditional hierarchical structure of group.
  • Hazing is cyclical. Those in power positions were hazed themselves. It follows, they reason, that new members should experience the same process to achieve group status.
  • The initiate performs/endures ritualistic, random, or meaningless physical and/or mental tests/tasks.
  • The tests/tasks are generally considered to be humiliating, intimidating, abusive, hazardous, exhausting, or sexually violating, and could be seen by a reasonable person to risk emotional or physical harm.
  • Hazing may require temporary suspension of the initiate’s individual values, as well as the values of the dominant status member(s) enforcing/requiring the ritual.
  • Hazing may include alcohol; random and meaningless tasks; personal servitude; sleep deprivation; restrictions on personal hygiene; yelling, swearing, and insults; and being forced to wear embarrassing or humiliating attire in public.
  • Hazing usually occurs during a concentrated period of time.
  • Hazing is typically covert and performed away from scrutiny.
  • Hazing is intended to promote loyalty, camaraderie, continuity with past and present participants and members, and an insider/outsider, us-vs.-them mentality.


The typical results of hazing include conformity among new members,14 visceral bonding and pro-group behavior,15 increased identification with and loyalty to the group, and camaraderie.16

The following discussion will necessarily be anecdotal, and descriptions of the mission will be extrapolated primarily from my own missionary experiences and from those of my friends and colleagues. While I understand that protocols and cultures vary from mission to mission and across time, I suspect that the experiences of myself and my friends will still be representative of a typical mission. Some readers will have mission experiences that are less or more hazing-esque than mine. No doubt some readers will have experiences that overlap with the description of hazing more than my experiences do, so returned missionaries reading this are invited to fill in the blanks with their own experiences.


  • An initiate desires to join a group.
  • Affiliation in the group is explicitly or implicitly contingent upon participation.
  • Participation of the initiate in the hazing is voluntary, however the initiate understands that they must be hazed in order to prove their worthiness of group membership.

The pool of potential candidates for local and general leadership in the LDS Church is drawn almost exclusively from returned missionaries. My mission president, who had previously worked in the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City, used the phrase “The Lord’s University,” not in reference to BYU, but to the mission field.

As youth, we see our siblings and friends leave for missions as adolescents and return as adults. Marriageable women in the Church place the qualification “returned missionary” at, or very near, the top of their list of desirable attributes in a potential husband. Young women are counselled to let their young men friends and dates know that they will only marry returned missionaries.

During our formative years, we are immersed in a sociocultural environment that impels us toward missionary service. We sing about it from our earliest days in Primary. Then Sunday school, priesthood meetings, Young Women’s and Young Men’s classes, and seminary are all geared toward ensuring that young people (especially young men) serve missions. Our families presume we will go; our older returned missionary peers paint the mission as glorious; our friends are all preparing and saving for missions; and our romantic partners won’t marry us unless we serve.17 We might honestly believe that making the choice to serve is voluntary (I did); but just as the fish is the last to discover the existence of water, the prospective missionary is probably unaware of the sociocultural forces that make the choice to serve all but inevitable. If one intends to spend their life in the Church, then the only way to make it work is to put in the years of missionary service. So, we “volunteer” to serve.


  • Hazing is rooted in tradition.
  • It reinforces the traditional hierarchical structure of the group.
  • Hazing is cyclical. Those in power positions were hazed themselves. It follows, they reason, that new members should experience the same to achieve group status.

From the earliest days of the Church, Joseph Smith sent out missionaries. Missionary work is integral to the LDS scriptures. On my mission, we were required to memorize D&C 4 while in the MTC, chanting it for visiting dignitaries. There has been a continuous cycle of missionaries from the foundation of the Church until now.

The traditional hierarchical structure of the Church, and specifically the priesthood leadership hierarchy, is reflected in and reinforced by the mission dominance hierarchy in which every individual knows that they are a junior companion, a district leader, an assistant to the president, etc. One’s assigned location, companion, and position in the hierarchy are designated by the Lord himself, we are told. Every new assignment is given with the prelude “The Lord extends a call to you . . .” Everybody knows their place. Obedience to the correct authority is strictly enforced.

The mission is clearly cyclical. Parents who have previously been on missions encourage or pressure their kids to follow in their footsteps. Those who make the mission assignments decide on and enforce the entry requirements, roll out the programs and campaigns, create the rules, promulgate the culture, dictate the desired outcomes, etc. And the great majority of them were missionaries in their younger years. The mission president, who sets standards, applies rules, enforces correct procedures, and collects and tabulates weekly numbers, was in almost all cases a proselyting missionary in his younger days.


  • The initiate performs/endures ritualistic, random, or meaningless physical and/or mental tests/tasks.

Missionaries rise at 6:30 a.m., adhere to a set amount of time for companionship study, and then more for personal study. There is a set time for leaving the apartment and a required amount of time for performing proselytizing activities. Missionaries must return to their apartment at a set time and put the lights out at set time. They can have no unapproved materials of any sort—no books, magazines, newspapers, music, television—nothing except scriptures and the missionary training material. Except for five books, I was not even allowed to read the Church’s own publications.

In my day, if someone showed an interest in the gospel, we were essentially allowed to have six conversations with them. So, for two years we had the same six conversations over and over and over until we could recite them in our sleep. Part of our training and practice was to prevent the investigators from steering the discussions onto a tangent, ensuring that there was little variation in those six conversations.

So many aspects of our daily activity (the actions, the schedule, the conversations), due to their repetitive nature, became so entrenched, so automatic, that they fit the description of being ritualistic, random, or meaningless tasks.


  • Hazing tests/tasks are generally considered to be humiliating, intimidating, hazardous, exhausting, or sexually violating,for example, being forced to wear embarrassing or humiliating attire in public.

The contempt and ridicule that we experienced at the door when we went out knocking meant, to our minds, that we were sorting the wheat from the chaff, but it was contempt and ridicule nonetheless. After all, what message were we trying to deliver? “Hello, your religion is an abomination in the sight of God; the only way to get to heaven is through Mormonism. When you die, God will separate your family members from each other forever unless you all join our church.”18 When people realized that we were saying their religion was a sham, of course they became defensive. But because we were on an errand from the Lord, we took their defensiveness as a sign that that the wicked take the truth to be hard (1 Nephi 2:16).

We were never to be seen without our approved attire. We were openly mocked at the laundromat for doing our laundry in a suit and tie. At times, objects were thrown at us from passing cars. (A Slurpee to the back of the head still sticks in my memory.)

Did we identify such events as humiliating? Possibly, but nobody was willing to admit it. Instead, we wore the humiliating events and circumstances as a badge of honor, a sign that we were standing on the Lord’s side.

Is a mission hazardous? Actual danger was infrequent in the regions I worked. There were one or two times we were threatened or tracted into a dangerous neighborhood. However, I have heard many stories about missionaries being assigned to gang-controlled areas, living in unsanitary apartments, becoming infected with parasites, experiencing malnutrition due to budgetary limitations, or not being permitted to seek adequate medical assistance for physical or mental health problems. Such conditions may not be the norm, but if a returned missionary did not experience something like this for themselves, they know someone who did.

Is a mission sexually violating? At around twenty, an abundance of testosterone brings young men to their peak sex drive. On a mission we are required to muzzle that drive to a degree greater than at any other time in our lives. The day I arrived in my assigned mission field, each missionary in the cohort of five (including two sister missionaries) was taken behind the closed doors of the mission president’s office so he could ask us if we engage in, as he euphemistically put it, “self-abuse.” During each of the frequent “worthiness” interviews for the next two years, he asked us about our private sexual habits. Though we were grown adults, we had to repeatedly tell another adult whether we “touched ourselves in an intimate way.” I think that qualifies as sexual violation.19

You might think that the private information we revealed would be confidential, as when talking with a lawyer, physician, or professional clergyman. But there is no professional clergy in the LDS Church, so confessions are not held to the same confidentiality standards as in other churches. In fact, our mission president announced from the pulpit that more than fifty percent of the elders and more than twenty-five percent of the sisters practiced “self-abuse.”

Why was the mission president so concerned about it? Sexual sin is second only to murder in LDS tradition.20 Being a sexual sin, “self-abuse” would therefore disqualify missionaries from the companionship of the Holy Ghost. We had been instructed that the Holy Ghost was to guide us in every way. We were to pray to know which area we ought to go to, then pray for the Holy Ghost to reveal the correct street to tract, and then pray to know behind which doors we would discover “the elect.” Consequently, if we were not worthy of the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost, we would not find the elect and they would not go to heaven—all because of our personal moral shortcomings. In my opinion, being told that normal, healthy, private sexual expression robs other people of their chance for salvation qualifies as sexual violation.

Following the meeting during which the mission president announced the “self-abuse” statistics, he gathered the zone leaders and instructed them to use their spiritual gifts to discern who among their fellow missionaries were indulging, call them to repentance, and instruct them to confess to him at their next available opportunity. Imagine, if you will, two 19-year-old boys going door to door. They pause between houses, and in all seriousness, one tells the other that the Spirit has revealed this dirty little secret and tells him he needs to confess his weakness to the prez. Sexually violating? Humiliating? Degrading? I’ll leave that to the reader’s judgment.


  • Hazing tasks could be seen by a reasonable person to risk emotional or physical harm.

The quality of my mission diet suffered significantly due to budget issues, especially when I had to pay my own bus fare for transfers. I wore holes in my shoes before I could afford new ones. I had to buy clothes at charity shops a couple of times and went door to door in -40 degrees. I worked myself to exhaustion for about 18–20 months, until physically (maybe mentally, too) I hit the proverbial wall and coasted for the final few months.

In terms of serious physical peril, I was lucky. We had relatively hygienic apartments, easy access to medical care, and came across little by way of gangs or dangerous neighborhoods. But we all know people, or know of people, who returned with parasites, or who lived in neighborhoods where they risked bodily harm for wearing the wrong colors on the wrong side of the street, or were assaulted, lost too much weight or got food poisoning, suffered significant anxiety or depression or both, lived in unhygienic conditions, were told they could not seek medical care, or felt trapped and intimidated because their passports were in the mission president’s possession. And although I suspect it is rare, there are missionaries returning from the field with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.21

Such conditions are not the norm for missionaries. However, that is not the point, every missionary who enters the field faces the potential for finding themselves in such circumstances.


  • Hazing may require temporary suspension of the initiate’s individual values, and those of the dominant status member(s) enforcing/requiring the ritual.

As a general principle, most people don’t go door to door telling people that their religion cannot get them into heaven. Virtually everything a missionary does is contrary to the norms they adhere to before and after their service. Other than using the bathroom or showering, we are never permitted to be alone. We never listen to unapproved music, read a magazine, watch the odd film or sitcom, catch a game, or keep up with current events. Back in my day, we had no contact with family other than through weekly letters and a phone call twice a year. Virtually anything we valued outside of the mission was considered a violation of the rules.

At a zone conference, one zone leader asked us to consider the difference between obedience and righteousness. I later learned that he had hoped to conclude that obedience was a subset of righteousness and that doing things out of righteousness was better than doing things out of obedience—it is better to try to convert people out of charity and love than it is to try to convert them because you are commanded to. But he never even got the chance to make his proposal. Other than myself, every missionary who spoke up tried to argue that there was no difference between obedience and righteousness, that obedience was a sort of uber-value. In fact, morality as a whole could be reduced to obedience.

I’m obviously paraphrasing their thoughts, but my point is that once on a mission, they had set aside individual values in favor of obedience. In principle, it was obedience to the will of God, but the will of God, we were told, is revealed by leadership of the Church, and our connection to the Church was the mission president. The mission president and the rule book represented the will of God and therefore superseded virtually all values.


  • Hazing may include alcohol.

I guess the inclusion of alcohol is an easy characteristic to eliminate.


  • Hazing may include personal servitude.

As a whole, the mission is an exercise in personal servitude. We self-identify as humble servants of the Lord, though in practice we serve the Church. We act on every suggestion from the Church and the mission president as if it were a direct commandment from God.


  • Hazing may include sleep deprivation.

Not everybody’s suprachiasmatic nucleus (the brain’s “clock” in the hypothalamus) is set exactly the same, and for those whose body clock is different from that of a milk-man, the strict sleep schedule probably causes 25–50% (this is my own estimate based on anecdotal evidence and experience) of missionaries to suffer from long-term sleep deprivation. I certainly did.


  • Hazing may include restrictions on personal hygiene.

Though there were no formal restrictions on personal hygiene, missionaries sometimes lack hot water or access to regular bathing. They may not have hygienic quarters and therefore contend with cockroaches, bed bugs, weevils, and lice.


  • Hazing may include yelling, swearing, and insulting initiates.

There is certainly yelling and swearing directed at missionaries from people whose doors they have just knocked on, or approached on the street, or just randomly passed by. But being exposed to that sort of ridicule was already addressed above. What is more salient is how missionaries experience this from authority figures.

While I cannot recall any examples of actual cursing, we were often roundly berated by the mission president and visiting general authorities. For example, a few times, a visiting general authority told us that it was the will of God that the Church grow in our area, and we were expected to be instruments in the hands of the Lord to bring that growth about. But when the prophesied deluge of baptisms failed to materialize, it was framed as the fault of the missionaries. We did not work sufficiently hard, did not desire it enough, or were insufficiently obedient.

One visiting general authority twisted the knife when he asked us which was more accurate, prophecy or history? His answer was that since prophecy comes from God, and God’s knowledge is perfect, prophecy is always one-hundred percent accurate. Prophecies from the mission president or visiting general authorities are, therefore, one-hundred percent accurate. If our final tally fails to match their prophecy, then the problem was with us, the individual missionaries. When the Church failed to blossom, it was we missionaries that were blamed and berated, and our worthiness (i.e. obedience) called into question.


  • Hazing usually occurs during a concentrated time period.

The timeframe of a proselytizing mission is well defined and concentrated. It starts with a bang when you enter the MTC. And the end point is equally sharply defined—the moment, eighteen or twenty-four months later, when you are released in the stake president’s office.

Although most instances of hazing occur over a single night, or perhaps a week, there are some who describe medical residencies and legal articling as hazing. Like the mission, these can last for years.


  • Hazing is typically covert, away from scrutiny.

With few exceptions, missionaries serve at least one state/province/region away from their home, and often away from their home country—away from direct interaction from family and friends.

We were explicitly instructed to make all our communications home faith promoting. If we were experiencing personal difficulties, companion issues, unsanitary or unsafe living conditions, lack of success, etc., we were directed to either not report these or frame them as learning experiences. Either way, we were to keep our families and friends unaware of our hardships.

Something like this occurred very early in my mission when some of the other elders fixed a photograph of the mission president’s wife to a dartboard and threw darts at it. Being a naïve greenie, I was shocked at this un-Christ-like behavior and mentioned it in a letter home. Trying to do the helpful thing, my mother wrote a letter to the mission president about it. He called me into his office and shocked me again when I realized that he wasn’t upset with the missionaries who had disrespected his wife—in fact, he didn’t even ask who they were. His concern was that I had included something less than faith promoting in my letter home.

Any and all missionary communications are considered potential proselytizing tools. Who knows who might come across a missionary Facebook post? I’m sure guidelines vary from mission to mission, but I’m hard pressed to recall the last non-faith-promoting story contained in a letter home or social media post from a current missionary.


  • Hazing is intended to promote loyalty, camaraderie, continuity with past and present participants and members, and an insider/outsider, us-vs.-them mentality.

An easy example of this is me. When I signed up for Facebook, the first people I looked up—before family, friends, or school buddies—were the missionaries I served with.

Like military veterans, being a member of the returned-missionary class remains a core defining characteristic even decades after the fact. I had a job interview recently where my potential employer had already decided to hire me (though I did not know this), so, after thirty minutes of perfunctory questions, they offered me the job, and then we just visited. Two interviewers were returned missionaries (and both still practicing members), and even though each of us had been off his mission for at least twenty years, the interview quickly descended into a two-hour mission-story fest. This despite the fact that we had all studied similar subjects at university, attended grad school, had held a variety of church assignments, now lived in similar small town communities, had kids, and many other commonalities. It was our returned-missionary status that brought us together, even though they knew that I am an ex-believer.

I have also noticed that if anyone criticizes a returned missionary for going on a mission, another returned missionary will always jump to their defense—even if that defending missionary is an ex-believer. It is the mission experience itself, not belief status, that solidifies this comradeship.


Continuing Effects

Missionaries sacrifice a lot for their missions, and they are promised great rewards in return. While on a mission, rewards are supposed to come in the form of convert baptisms and movement up the mission hierarchy. But what if baptisms and promotions are either not forthcoming or not quite as satisfying as hoped? Further, what if an elder returns from his mission only to find that the single ladies at church are more interested in an MD or MBA than an RM? What if the priesthood leadership responsibilities are time consuming and exhausting and not as glamorous as they appeared from the pews—and mostly reserved for dentists, lawyers, and doctors?

This perceived lack of rewards might lead to a gaping chasm between the effort the missionary put in and the reward they received. But this shortfall usually does not detract from the efficacy of a mission as hazing. In fact, it often strengthens the effect. It all has to do with cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance theory was proposed by Leon Festinger.22 It refers to a feeling, typically unpleasant, that we get when we hold an attitude that conflicts with our other attitudes or behaviors. These unpleasant feelings motivate us to restore harmony, bringing our attitudes and behaviors into consonance.

But it turns out that we typically follow the path of least resistance,23 and it is often easier to change attitudes than it is to change behaviors. If you hold the attitude that smoking is harmful but engage in smoking, what is easier to do—change your attitude toward smoking, or give up smoking? The option that requires less effort is most likely to win out, so you are more likely to change your attitude toward your habit.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Freedman, et al.24 did a study in which they asked subjects to perform a boring task. The subjects experienced cognitive dissonance because they thought the activity was boring (attitude) but performed it anyway (behavior). Some subjects were paid $5 for their efforts, and some were paid $12. Those paid $12 experienced less dissonance because the reward justified their behavior. Those paid $5 experienced more dissonance because they had less of an external motivator and thus felt a desire to minimize their dissonance. As a result, those participants paid the lesser amount changed their attitude and convinced themselves that they enjoyed the behavior. Later, when asked if they would perform the task again, those paid $12 (and therefore not motivated to reduce dissonance) were less inclined to agree than those paid less. Those paid less reported enjoying the boring task more and an increased likelihood of being willing to do that task in the future.

As a result of this “less is more” effect, people who volunteer for an activity might be more committed to it than those who are paid to do the same activity. People in traditionally underpaid jobs (i.e. police officers, schoolteachers, nurses, missionaries) may be more dedicated to their vocation than they would be if they were paid more. Concordantly, those who start getting paid or evaluated for something they previously did for love (sports, arts) can lose their interest in what was previously their passion.

The less you are rewarded, the more likely you are to convince yourself that you enjoy a potentially negative activity. Less is more.

A similar phenomenon is the effort justification effect.25 This occurs when one invests a lot of effort, resources, or time into something, but receives little payout. If, for example, I spend a lot of money on a concert that turns out to be disappointing, I cannot change the amount of money I spent, but I can convince myself that I enjoyed the show. The more we invest in an experience or item, the harder we will work to be satisfied with our investment.

Having gone through a hazing process, an initiate has a psychological need to convince themselves that the hazing was worth it. And cognitive dissonance theory indicates that we will do just that—we will convince ourselves that we value our membership and participation in our club, team, or platoon.

The implications for the mission ought to be obvious. Missionaries pay their own way. Or if they don’t, they are at minimum working for free. Furthermore, missionaries sacrifice comforts, miss time with family, forego employment and educational opportunities, lose out on academic and athletic scholarships, and give up a large chunk of their prime years. The effort justification effect tells us that being reimbursed for their efforts would decrease missionaries’ motivation to justify their behaviors and sacrifices. They would not work so hard to convince themselves that they served out of an internal commitment. If a missionary does not become convinced of their internal commitment, their future participation will suffer.

Having given two years of their life, the returned missionary has a natural psychological need to maintain consonance, and so is motivated to construct an internal justification that is independent of any external reward. If the rewards arrive and are as sweet as hoped, then the missionary/returned missionary is not likely to question whether they are satisfied with his efforts. If the rewards fail to appear or are not so sweet, then they have to . . . need to convince themselves that their missionary work was worth all they put into it. And they will. They will likely come to sincerely believe that they enjoyed a wonderful experience, no matter its actual quality.

The above discussion should sufficiently cover the overlap between the description of a mission and the description of hazing, showing that serving a mission qualifies as an effective instance of hazing. When one takes into account the timing (the critical period for committing to adulthood at the final stages of our adolescent stage), the powerful effects of cognitive dissonance (“less is more”) requiring one to have a positive attitude toward the effort of joining a group, and effort justification, it is hardly surprising that long into adulthood, individuals continue to define themselves according to the college team, sorority, fraternity, battalion, gang . . . or church in which they were hazed.



  1. Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Mormon Conversions Lag Behind Huge Missionary Growth,” Salt Lake Tribune, 2 May 2014,, accessed 3 March 2022.
  2. Introduction to Preach My Gospel (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2019),, accessed 3 March 2022.
  3. Italics added. R. Scott Lloyd, “Elder Holland Tells Missionaries to ‘Invest’ in the Work,” Church News, 24 January 2013,, accessed 2 March 2022.
  4. To be clear, this article is not arguing that the LDS Church is a fraud. This essay takes no position on LDS truth claims.
  5. In the interest of full disclosure, I honorably completed two years, and on balance it was a positive experience. I made some lifelong friends and visited some places that I may never have travelled to otherwise. Before I reached the halfway mark, I had more baptisms than anybody in the mission. I discovered a virtually untapped ability to learn and experienced an inkling that I might have a propensity for teaching. So, in no way should this essay be interpreted as an exercise in sour grapes. However, the key phrase above is “on balance.” The benefits derived from two years as a missionary came despite an abundance of negatives. The positives may have outweighed the negatives, but that does not negate the argument that those negatives might amount to an instance of hazing.
  6. Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York: Norton, 1950). Erik H. Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis (New York: Norton, 1968).
  7. James E. Marcia, “Development and Validation of Egoidentity Status,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology3, no. 5 (1966): 551–558.
  8. Konrad Lorenz, “Der Kumpan in der Umwelt des Vogels. Der Artgenosse als Auslösendes Moment Sozialer Verhaltensweisen,”Journal für Ornithologie, 83 (1935): 137–215, 289–413.
  9. I’m not bringing up Lorenz’s imprinting studies because I want to make the case that hazing in general, or the mission specifically, is an instance of imprinting. I only mention it as an accessible, non-technical illustration of the concept of critical periods in development.
  10. Geoff Openshaw, “The Real Reason for the Mormon Missionary Surge,” This Week in Mormons, 27 April 2014,, accessed 2 March 2022.
  11. Jessica Leigh Hester, “The Misery of a Doctor’s First Days,” The Atlantic, 1 October 2015,, accessed 2 March 2022. “Is a Medical Intern’s ‘Initiation’ Harmful to Your Health?” Knowledge@Wharton, 20 August 2008,, accessed 3 March 2022. Nathaniel P. Morris, “Are Doctors in Training Really No Better than Indentured Servants?” Scientific American, 19 May 2016,, accessed 3 March 2022.
  12. My favorite example comes from a friend who had served in France (in Paris, I think) where the traditional joke on the greenie was to hide all the bathroom tissue in the apartment, place a bucket of water and a wet sponge next to the toilet, and tell the greenie, “This is how it’s done in France.” But that sort of individual hazing is not what this article is about.
  13. Elizabeth J. Allan, “Hazed and Confused: Transforming Hazing Cultures,” NIF Notes, Spring 2004,, accessed 3 March 2022. “Hazing,” Psychology Wiki,, accessed 3 March 2022. “Hazing: The Issue,” Stop Hazing,, accessed 3 March 2022.
  14. Caroline F. Keating, et al., “Going to College and Unpacking Hazing: A Functional Approach to Decrypting Initiation Practices among Undergraduates,” Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice9, no. 2 (2005): 104–126.
  15. Harvey Whitehouse, et al., “The Evolution of Extreme Cooperation via Shared Dysphoric Experiences,” Scientific Reports7 (14 March 2017).
  16. Roy Baumeister & Mark Leary, “The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation,” Psychological Bulletin 117 (1995): 497–529. Jana L. Pershing, “Men and Women’s Experiences with Hazing in a Male-Dominated Elite Military Institution,” Men and Masculinities 8, no. 4 (2006): 470–492. Jennifer J. Waldron & Christopher L. Kowalski, “Crossing the Line: Rites of Passage, Team Aspects, and Ambiguity of Hazing,” Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 80, no. 2 (2009): 291–302.
  17. And then, while we are gone, they marry someone else who has just returned from the field.
  18. “Every baptism of the Catholic Church, and of the Episcopal Church, and of the Baptist Church, or any other church, if God Almighty did not ordain and authorize the man who performed the ordinance even though he performed it in the right way and used the right words, is null and void.” Charles W. Penrose, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86): 25:339.
  19. Why did we answer? Why did we not storm out and book the next flight home? Because that sort of sexually violating interview behind closed doors had been normalized by growing up in the LDS Church, being asked detailed questions of that sort from about the age of eleven.
  20. Alma 39: 3–5. The notion that sexual sin is second only to murder has been officially repeated quite often. See for example: Joseph F. Smith, “The Unpardonable Sin,” Improvement Era, June 1918, 732–38; Harold B. Lee, The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, edited by Clyde J. Williams (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), 215; Spencer W. Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1972), 177; Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness(Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969); The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, edited by Edward L. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 150; Ezra Taft Benson, This Nation Shall Endure (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977), 122.
  21. Kristine J. Doty, et al., “Return with Trauma: Understanding the Experiences of Early Returned Missionaries,” Issues in Religion and Psychotherapy 37, no. 1 (2015): 33–45.
  22. Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson and Co., 1957).
  23. Leon Festinger & James M. Carlsmith, “Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 38 (1959): 203–210.
  24. Jonathan L. Freedman, John A. Cunningham, & Kirsten Krismer, “Inferred Values and the Reverse-incentive Effect in Induced Compliance,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 62, no. 3 (1992): 357–368.
  25. Elliot Aronson & Judson Mills, “The Effect of Severity of Initiation on Liking for a Group,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 59 (1959): 177–181.