Not all college drinkers have the same underlying motives for participating in alcohol consumption. In a study published in 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, a team of British researchers investigated the various emotional motives for alcohol use among college and university students. These researchers found that specific motivations tend to lead to specific outcomes for college drinkers between the ages of 18 and 25.
Current figures show that about 80 percent of U.S. college and university students consume alcohol. Since the drinking age across the country is 21, many of these students qualify as underage drinkers. Despite the widespread social acceptance of alcohol consumption on college campuses, the practice comes with a range of known, severely harmful outcomes. For example, well over half a million college students get hurt in alcohol-related accidents each year. Even larger numbers of students become victims or participants in fights or other altercations that fit the definition for physical assault. Not counting suicides or homicides, alcohol also plays a role in more than 1,800 deaths among college students every year. In addition, student drinkers frequently experience classroom-related problems that reduce their academic standing.
Most recreational users of alcohol would probably say that they drink to have a good time or to participate in social activities with their friends and peers. However, while these responses may be accurate as far as they go, people commonly have more deeply rooted motives for starting to use alcohol or continuing to use alcohol regularly over time. Researchers refer to some of these motives as “positive” reasons for drinking. In this context, positive does not mean something that is beneficial or good; rather, it refers to the belief that using alcohol will bring beneficial or pleasurable results.
Other people have “negative” reasons for getting involved in alcohol use. Again, in this context, negative does not strictly refer to something that’s bad or harmful; instead it refers to the belief that alcohol use will increase the ability to avoid unwanted or unpleasant situations or emotional states. In addition, some people start drinking or continue to drink because they have unusually high levels of impulsive behavior, feel a compelling urge to use alcohol or have a tendency to seek out (often risky) experiences that stimulate their senses.
In the study published in Addictive Behaviors, researchers from the University of Nottingham used an online survey of 400 college students between the ages of 18 and 25 to investigate the emotional motivations underlying alcohol consumption. This survey included a questionnaire, called the Drinking Motives Questionnaire, designed to address the question of motive; a second questionnaire—called the Urgency, Premeditation, Perseverance and Sensation Seeking Scale—designed to identify impulsive patterns of behavior; and a third questionnaire, called the Student Alcohol Questionnaire, designed to identify how often and how much a student drinks, as well as any experiences with alcohol-related harm.
The researchers found that the overwhelming majority of the study participants (94.5 percent) consumed alcohol once or more every 30 days. After analyzing the results of the student survey, they concluded that different motivations for drinking are associated with different patterns of alcohol use and different alcohol-related outcomes. For example, students motivated to drink by a sense of urgency tend to use alcohol as part of an attempt to cope with “negative” emotional states; these individuals typically drink in social situations and consume liquor or wine instead of beer. On the other hand, students motivated by a drive for sensational experiences tend to drink large amounts of any kind of alcohol, either by themselves or in social situations. Students who use alcohol to enhance “positive” emotional states tend to purposefully consume significant amounts of wine or liquor.
The authors of the study published in Addictive Behaviors note that their findings, gathered from students at British colleges and universities, basically mirror the findings gathered previously from students attending colleges and universities in the U.S. They believe that school administrators and public health officials can use knowledge of the motivations for consuming alcohol to identify students likely to develop serious problems with alcohol use and alcohol-related harm.