Heavy drinking is a popular activity found on college campuses. Many students drink regularly, sometimes engaging in drinking behaviors that result in a hangover the next day, or in participation of risky sexual behaviors.
A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington provides evidence that negative consequences are much less likely to be paired with heavy drinking in the mind of students than positive consequences. Researchers found that students were more likely to focus on perceived positive effects of alcohol when deciding whether to drink heavily than on the negative effects.
The study, led by Diane Logan, a UW clinical psychology graduate student, may help explain why so many people experience negative consequences of drinking but continue to drink heavily again and again. The results showed that students identified more with the positive effects of alcohol, such as boosts of courage and chattiness.
As explained by Kevin King, co-author and UW assistant professor of psychology, many individuals believe that negative effects “won’t happen to me” or, if they have experienced them before, that it was a one-time event and they won’t ever drink that heavily again.
Published online May 30 in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, the study involved nearly 500 college students who participated in an online survey which assessed drinking habits for the previous year. The survey measured 35 different negative consequences of drinking, such as fights, hangovers, missed classes and lost or stole belongings. The survey also assessed positive behaviors, such as the enhancement of conversational abilities, improved sexual encounters and increased energy.
In addition, the survey assessed the students’ beliefs about the likelihood of the consequences occurring again and how positive or negative they were. The students rated the perceived positive effects as more positive and more likely to happen in the future.
Logan explained that the perception seems to be that the positive effects keep getting better and are more likely to happen again than the negative effects.
By contrast, the students’ perceptions of negative consequences seemed to be connected to how many bad experienced they had encountered. Those who had little experience with negative consequences did not consider them to be particularly bad, which the researchers explained as a form of cognitive-dissonance reasoning. After drinking heavily, the participants tended to see it as a one-time event, which they will not repeat.
The researchers believe that the findings may affect the strategies used to reduce heavy episodic drinking on college campuses. While traditionally efforts have focused on the negative consequences of drinking, this study’s results show that knowledge or even experience of negative consequences may not play a significant role in alcohol decisions.