College students are expert learners. Their professional lives depend on reaping wisdom from textbooks and lectures, as well as their own mistakes. Knowledge acquisition transcends the classroom. Throughout their freshman year students acquire a myriad of useful tidbits such as never to leave their laptops unattended in the library, go on a pizza diet, or nap before an important exam. Which is why it is surprising that recent research has shown that negative alcohol-related consequences generally do not lead to a reduction in binge drinking.
Why do college students-who are categorically quite smart-continue the same self-destructive levels of drinking even after experiencing negative consequences? Alcohol dependency surely plays a role in some cases, but the fact is, the majority of students are not alcoholics. Recent studies have identified some of the factors that contribute to the repeated drinking debacles of college students. A surprising culprit? Their closest friends.
Finding #1: Many consequences that are considered negative by the majority of adults are actually considered neutral or positive by college students.
When psychologists or campus prevention administrators do research on negative consequences related to alcohol, we assume that the kinds of outcomes that may seem negative to us are also undesirable for college students. However, new evidence shows that many of these so-called negatives are not actually all that bad to the undergraduates themselves. Mallet and colleagues recently investigated this issue by asking college students' opinions about a spectrum of consequences typically regarded as negative. Contrary to expectations, they found that several of the so-called "negatives" were actually regarded as just inevitable side-effects of partying, or even positives, by most college students. Among the most surprising of their findings were that hangovers were regarded as positive or neutral by more than half of the sample, and that social embarrassment was regarded as neutral by almost as many.
While initially it may seem counterintuitive that hangovers could be considered positive, a further consideration of college students' lived experiences of these events sheds some light onto why this is so. Unlike working professionals, college students have a locus of control over their schedules. The heaviest drinkers may deliberately choose to avoid morning classes, allowing hangover recovery time. Hangovers may also function as public evidence of a fun, wild night (the Monday morning "Hangover Chic" look of sweatpants and Ugg boots was a staple even at my alternatively fashioned liberal arts school). Finally, at a deeper level, hangovers may also serve a social bonding function. College students may see hangovers as a key to in-group membership, a common experience that authenticates any drunken connections formed the previous night.
Saying or doing embarrassing things is another consequence that was surprisingly rated positive or neutral by many students. The college years are a time in which peers are especially central to a person's identity, so it would seem that embarrassing oneself in front of friends should be a significantly upsetting consequence. Although it's possible that some sadistic individuals enjoy or don't mind humiliation (re: reality TV stars), it's more likely that most college students actually only suffer mild, fleeting embarrassment because friends don't hold each other accountable for drunken escapades.
Sociologist Dr. Vander Ven conducted over 400 interviews with college students in order to understand why they view these negative drinking outcomes become construed as positive experiences. It seems that part of the reason why repeat offenders continue to drink heavily and make bad decisions is because of the powerful positive reinforcement that occurs when co-drinking friends help each other during "drinking crises". Both taking care of others, as well as being taken care of, can be experienced as identity-strengthening as well as friendship-strengthening rituals.
Finding #2: College students consistently rate positive consequences as more influential than negative consequences.
Anyone who has enjoyed a happy hour will not be surprised to learn that good things can come from drinking. What's surprising is how under acknowledged these are when it comes to educating youth about alcohol use, and how over acknowledged the positive outcomes are among students themselves. Recent research has shown that when college students are determining whether or not to drink excessively, a history of a high level of positive consequences is more impactful than a high level of negative consequences. Specifically, students who experience high levels of positive or negative consequences believe that good things are more likely to occur in future drinking episodes, but experiencing many negative consequences does not lead students to believe they're more likely to experience bad things in the future.
The authors mention several phenomena, such as cognitive dissonance reduction and positive memory bias, that may play a role in this logical fallacy. However, the role of students' friends in perpetuating these cognitive distortions and biases remains understudied. A small number of focus group researchers have begun to document a common phenomena in which students wake up feeling regret or anxiety about drunken behavior, but over brunch at the dining hall with friends, come to reframe the experience as a crazy, hilarious misadventure.
I have observed in the ‘brunch effect' ritual countless times throughout my undergraduate career. The script begins with a mortified girl sitting with her friends, describing how she ended up crying, declaring love, or turning a stranger into her therapist after a night out drinking. To alleviate her thinly-veiled embarrassment and shame, her friends reassure her that no one will even remember the incident. By the end of the conversation she is laughing about how "crazy" the night was and focusing on the fun she had earlier. Her friends want to make her feel better, because they care about her, and also because 'fixing' her problem feels good. The cost of this is that they help her bury the truth: her alcohol use is maladaptive, and will most likely continue to damage her reputation and hinder chances to build new social connections.
A pessimistic interpretation of these findings is that students' friends serve as enablers. Not only do friends encourage each other to drink, but they encourage each other to disregard (or even boast about) the problems that result from drinking.
A positive construal, however, is that college student friendships may provide an important opportunity for implementing drinking-related harm reduction interventions. If college students could be motivated to hold their friends accountable for excessive drinking and acting badly, they could alter the way their social group views negative consequences. It seems that students would be most willing to hold their friends accountable for the kinds of negative consequences that impact them personally. For instance, having their own night ruined because their friend became too intoxicated, or being embarrassed by a friend's drunken behavior. The goal of these interventions would not be to turn friends against each other, but to instead open up a space for them to feel comfortable discussing negative consequences seriously, and help students learn the difference between empathy and enablement.
Logan, D.E., Vaughn, H.T., Luk, J.W., & King, K.M. (2011). Rose-colored beer goggles: The relation between experiencing alcohol consequences and perceived likelihood and valence. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.
Mallett, K. A., Bachrach, R.L., & Turrisi, R. (2008). Are all negative consequences truly negative? Assessing variations among college students perceptions of alcohol related consequences. Addictive Behaviors.
Vander Ven, T.(2011) Getting wasted: Why college students drink too much and party too hard. New York University Press, New York.