More than 80 percent of college students use alcohol, and many of them don’t need much of a special reason to reach for a drink, but sometimes life provides them with one. Across the country, students on many college campuses celebrate special traditions — sometimes passed down for decades — that involve more chances for drinking than the usual weekend partying.
Some special college celebrations are centered around a holiday such as Halloween, while others grew out of a quirky campus ritual. Some become famous for attracting throngs of partiers who pack into open spaces as far as the eye can see. Sometimes these celebrations don’t end well.
In a new study published in February 2015 by the journal Addictive Behaviors, researchers examined two campus traditions that bring an extended level of festivity. The goal was to assess students’ expectation of how much their peers would drink and whether this affected their own drinking choices.
One of the campuses in the study was Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, says lead author Amber Henslee, PhD, who’s an assistant professor of psychology there. The other was Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
The majority of students at the Missouri school are engineering majors, and for more than a century they’ve been putting a special effort into celebrating their adopted patron saint of engineers: St. Patrick. As Dr. Henslee and her co-authors point out in the study, students begin selling commemorative shirts and other memorabilia months ahead of time. The students celebrate St. Patrick’s Day for a week and classes are called off for two days.
At Louisiana State, the party atmosphere ramps up for Mardi Gras for reasons that should be more apparent. Classes at the school are off for 2 ½ days during Mardi Gras week and the calendar around this time is crowded with lots of parades and bushels of beads.
The researchers included 570 undergrads from the colleges in the study. Before these events, the researchers asked them how much they planned to drink as well as how much they expected their fellow students to drink. Afterward they revisited the students to ask them how much they actually drank.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Missouri students expected more drinking around St. Patrick’s Day than Mardi Gras, and the Louisiana students predicted more would occur around Mardi Gras than St. Patrick’s Day. Afterward, students at each campus did indeed drink more during their traditional event compared to their counterparts at the other school.
When the researchers asked the students how much alcohol they thought their classmates would drink, they were checking the students’ normative beliefs. These are the students’ opinions of what they think their peers would regard as normal and expected behavior.
Research has found that peers have a particularly strong influence on college students’ drinking choices. However, researchers have also found that college students often don’t have an accurate perception of how much their peers are really drinking.
They generally think their peers drink more often and more heavily than they really do. Another study found that most students had this sort of misperception across 100 campuses.
If any students in the new study anticipated that all their peers would stay intoxicated throughout the festivities, they were also overestimating. The Missouri participants reported after the fact that they had about 3 ½ drinks per day in the eight days up to and including St. Patrick’s Day, and their Louisiana counterparts reported close to 2 drinks per day around Mardi Gras.
“If we’re looking at 3 ½ drinks in the course of a day or occasion, then that remains under the threshold of what we might define as heavy episodic drinking. Not to condone that level of alcohol use, but I think some students might be surprised that that average number of drinks is not higher,” Henslee says.
According to the authors, this study supports the idea that college administrators — and others who are concerned about campus drinking at these events — might help reduce risky alcohol use by giving the students a better understanding of how much their peers are actually drinking.
Earlier research has found some benefits in providing “normative feedback” to individual students, which gives them a better sense of how their drinking choices compare to that of their peers. This can help students realize when they have incorrect ideas about what others are doing as well as show when their own behaviors are exceeding the norm.
Universities that only have limited resources for these efforts might want to focus on correcting misperceptions in groups that are at especially high risk for alcohol-related problems such as freshmen, athletes and members of fraternities and sororities.