Newswise — Personal attitudes toward excessive alcohol consumption may be a better predictor of excessive drinking among college students than external factors such as peer pressure and desire to conform, according to a Rutgers study.
Historically, research into alcohol intake in undergraduates has focused on “normative” items—such as how others view or encourage drinking—as predictors of individual consumption habits. Angelo M. DiBello, associate professor at the Rutgers Center for the Studies of Alcohol and Substance Use in the Graduate School of Applied and Occupational Psychology, wanted to reverse this narrative to determine whether individual attitudes toward excessive alcohol use might help define—and ultimately mitigate—risk behaviors. .
“Instead of focusing on what other people think about drinking, or what we think other people think, I wanted to directly measure an individual’s attitudes toward heavy alcohol use to see if they predict risky drinking,” DiBello said.
DiBello, lead author of the study published in the journal Alcohol addiction: clinical and experimental researchsurveyed 374 undergraduate students (54 percent of whom were male) who had violated campus alcohol policies and received a brief intervention.
Students were asked to rate their attitudes toward excessive drinking as either unpleasant or pleasant, bad or good, harmful or helpful, foolish or wise and unpleasant or enjoyable. The answers were then averaged and compared to questions about peer drinking, drinking motives (such as socializing or forgetting problems) and whether alcohol consumption was part of their identity.
What the researchers found was that in nearly every model they ran, individual attitudes toward binge drinking — defined in the study as five or more drinks per session for men and four or more drinks for women — were a significant determinant of binge drinking frequency and alcohol-related problems.
Given these findings, DiBello said he plans to target binge drinking by focusing more on individual interventions — such as highlighting the negative consequences of heavy alcohol use — rather than systematic approaches that encourage abstinence or target alcohol availability.
“The main driver of this research is to understand how we can fix undergraduate drinking,” DiBello said. “In a lot of places, drinking is glorified in college culture. It is ubiquitous.”
DiBello said that about 80 percent of students will drink in their lifetime, 53 percent said they had drunk in the past month and 33 percent said they had drunk heavily in the past month. “But if you look at the trends over the past two decades, these stats have largely remained the same,” he said. “We haven’t done much to influence the problem.”
“What my research is trying to show is that we really need to focus less on external factors and more on internal feelings and attitudes toward alcohol,” DiBello said. “Peer pressure, or perceptions of others’ approval, plays a role, but all things being equal, we see that it is not as predictive of college student drinking as previously thought.”