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Ryan S., a senior at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, entered college with the idea that heavy drinking was a common pastime. “A lot of people have the perception that it is just something every college kid does,” he notes.
In reality, according to data in the 2011 National College Health Assessment, which surveyed nearly 28,000 students around the country, the real picture is quite different. The survey found that the last time they socialized or “partied,” 31 percent of students didn’t drink at all. Another 42 percent drank four or fewer alcoholic beverages over the course of the night or event. That’s about three-quarters of all students abstaining from alcohol or making responsible, healthy choices about their drinking.
So, if it’s a myth that college life revolves around drinking alcohol, where does the drinking-to-excess stereotype come from?
How Perceptions Develop
Drinking in college has been stereotyped as one giant party flooded with alcohol, fueled by popular movies like Animal House and Old School. Brittany P., a senior at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, said everything she had heard about school was about people getting “plastered,” so she was nervous about the drinking on her campus. “In every movie, social situations [are] centered on parties,” she said. “There’s a lot of pressure.”
Dr. Aaron White, program director for underage and college prevention research for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, explains that student expectations of college drinking begin long before their first experiences on campus, and those can translate into “a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
A 2006 study published in the Journal of American College Health, which evaluated data collected on a wide range of campuses about the use of alcohol and student perceptions, concluded that students “generally overestimate” how much alcohol the average college student is actually consuming.
Similarly, it found that many student perceptions are based on memorable situations, not necessarily frequent ones. A movie depicting extreme behavior with alcohol, or one person’s crazy behavior while intoxicated, can stick out in a student’s memory as a false impression of the “normal collegiate environment.” Think about it: when you go to a party, who attracts attention? All of the people hanging out—talking, dancing, and having fun—or the person spilling beer and making a scene?
How Perceptions Affect Behavior
Imagine you’re at a campus event, and people are walking around with those ubiquitous plastic cups. Alcohol is being served. What do you assume is in those cups? Some people might be drinking beer or punch, but many others might have soda or water. Dr. White explains that people will measure their own drinking based on what they think other people are doing.
Psychology Today describes that a false sense of behavior in a social circle or environment (like a campus) can make people feel pressure to do what they perceive as “normal.”
If the expectation or belief is that everyone drinks, and to excess, this can lead to the feeling that in order to relax, meet friends, or make romantic connections, you need to “party hard.”
Our Perceptions Are Often Wrong
Researchers at the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center have studied student drinking, and found that on a typical weekend night on a college campus, two-thirds of students hadn’t had a round of drinks. They also found that during the other five days of the week, about 85 percent of students were perfectly sober.
The campus where the research was conducted did random checks of students’ blood alcohol content (BAC) before and after the study, and after the results were shared, there was a 15 percent drop. Dr. Robert Foss, who led the study, attributed the drop in BAC to a reality check. “A great deal of what humans do is influenced by social norms,” he said.
Dr. White agrees. “Once students are educated about the facts, they scale drinking back.”
Bryan B., a junior at Elmhurst College in Illinois, notes that many freshman students see college as a time to “go nuts.” As an upperclassman, he’s realized how small a role alcohol actually plays at his school. “It’s like, if you want to drink you can drink, but there aren’t very many heavy drinkers,” even though Elmhurst is a wet campus and allows alcohol.
Lots of Options
Dr. White says a healthier drinking culture involves more than just education about social norms, the choice to abstain, or how to drink responsibly. “Education can change a student’s expectations about what’s normal. The rest lies in [his or her] choices.”
Bryan B. says his decision not to drink doesn’t affect him negatively. “I think about who I am as a person, and who I want to be thought of,” he explains. “I don’t want to be remembered as that drunk guy from college.”
Bryan knows that his friends and teammates appreciate him for who he is, not for how much he drinks or how crazy he can act if he does.
Instead of thinking about drinking as an activity in and of itself, try considering it as one part of an event: one that doesn’t have to be present for people to have a great time. There may be music, games, dancing, food, movies, or any number of other creative things to do; what’s important is that people are having fun.
The reality is that the pressure to drink usually comes from within ourselves or from the people right around us, and it’s based on misperceptions of what’s normal and common in our community. The next time you’re heading out for the night, consider those plastic cups.
When we realize the truth, that many people don’t drink at all and most of those who do are responsible, a whole new perspective on what college life is like can open up.
- Find out if your school participates in the National College Health Assessment. If so, what does it say about drinking on your campus?
- Think about how perceptions affect behavior. People tend to do what they think others are doing.
- Talk with your friends about the reality: not everyone drinks, and most drink responsibly.
- Find friends that make healthy decisions and support yours.
- When you take the focus off of drinking, it becomes less important. Plan and attend events where there’s plenty to do other than drink.
Get help or find out more
University of California, San Francisco, Student Health and Counseling
What is healthy drinking?