Survey: Perceptions Influence Alcohol Use

Posted on Friday, September 30, 2005

The Hoya
Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

By Ji-Hye Park

Friday, September 30, 2005

A recent nationwide study of college students shows that misperceptions about peer drinking are a major indicator of personal alcohol consumption on campuses and that prevention programs providing students with correct information can reduce high-risk drinking.

The study, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, included research on more than 76,000 students at 130 colleges and universities. It found that most students tend to overestimate how much their peers drink and, as a result of these misperceptions, increase their own alcohol consumption.

"These perceptions are consistent and dramatic," Wes Perkins, a co-author of the study and professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, said. "Over 70 percent of students, no matter what type of school they attend and where they are, grossly overestimate how much other students drink on their campus."

Perkins said that gender, fraternity affiliation and other factors do not contribute to individual drinking as much as students' misunderstandings about the behavior of their peers.

Michael Haines, another co-author of the study and the executive director of the National Social Norms Resource Center at Northern Illinois University, emphasized the need for students to learn that normal attitudes and behavior towards alcohol are much healthier than they realize.

"People don't know that most of time most students drink moderately. If they know the truth then they too drink moderately," Haines said.

The survey also indicated that exposure to alcohol education that corrects misperceptions about drinking on college campuses reduces alcohol-related problems.

"Looking at all schools in the study, about half of students have seen some type of prevention materials," Perkins said. "At about 10 percent of schools their prevention information was associated with more accurate estimates of their peer norm." He added that at those schools, students showed fewer of the negative consequences associated with high-risk drinking, such as fighting and blacking out.

Patrick Kilcarr, the director of the Center for Personal Development at Georgetown, said that the university's prevention programs seek to provide students with correct statistics and stress the importance of presenting students with actual drinking norms on campus.

"Information is power and students who feel pressured to drink to feel accepted … can gain comfort in knowing that the majority of our students at Georgetown University, while drinkers, are not drinking excessively and to the point of experiencing negative fallout from their drinking," Kilcarr said.

Some Georgetown students agreed that it is important to educate students on the realities of college drinking.

"We need to get rid of the 'I am getting plastered' or 'drink to get drunk' attitude," Fitzgerard Restituyo (SFS '07) said.

But Restituyo also said that peer pressure seems to play a stronger role in affecting drinking behavior than misperception does.

"I have gone to kegs where the 'most popular' guy is the one that does the minute stand or the groups that play 'flip the cup' and other beer games. Students see this and they want to be a part of it," he said.

Others feel that it is ultimately personal decisions that play the largest part in one's drinking behavior.

"I do not feel that a student's perception of how much his or her peers consume alcohol has a strong influence on how much they themselves drink, as this surveys suggests," Erica Gagliardi (MSB '07) said. "Personally, I know my choice to drink is based on my own desire to do so and not because of what I think other people are doing."



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